Pop Rock Special, Spring 1981

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... Bibliography ...

Pop Rock Special
  • 1981 Spring

US rock magazines


Send Elvis Costello to the top!

Pop Rock Special

Okay, this guy's put on three records so far and each one has been even more terrific than the one before it, and he still ain't a superstar! What gives?

I'm talking about Elvis Costello, the guy who's done more for eyeglasses in rock than anybody since Buddy Holly. He's never written a bad song, he has more energy than any six Framptons any day of the week, and he's got one of the coolest looking bands around. Come home, Elvis, we love you!

Now you take "Alison," for example. Everybody I talk to says, "Oh yeah, isn't that a Linda Ronstadt song?" No it's not a Linda Ronstadt song! Elvis wrote that one. All Linda did was ruin it.

Yes, that's what I said. Elvis was singing to a lost love, this girl that had a really unhappy life since they split up. It's a song about pity, revenge and sorrow. So when a girl sings it to a girl, what does it mean. I'll tell you right now, it don't mean . . . . nothin'.

Not that Linda doesn't have a good voice, or anything, but it really doesn't sound like she listened to what the song is about. A great singer should be able to act as well as sing, when you get right down to it. Am I right, or what?

So Elvis appears on the scene back in 1977 — which really seems like ages ago, doesn't it? — with "Alison," and "Watching the Detectives," and "Mystery Dance"; just all these fabulous songs. And all the magazines go haywire, and everybody talks about the Second Coming and everything, and then the album doesn't sell all that well. Now, you folks out there just aren't doing your job as consumers and we expect you to shape up. His second album did the exact same thing, but everybody agrees that it was one of the best albums of last year. That's the album that introduced the Attractions.

Elvis introduced them to us as Steve, Pete and Bruce. No last names, no information about what instruments they play, nothing. "They know who they are," he said. Well, confidentially, and just between you and me and a couple of thousand other readers (who are probably not even hip enough to read this article), the folks involved are: Steve Naive, keyboards; Bruce Thomas, bass guitar; and Pete Thomas, drums. Okay? Now don't say we never did anything for you. Now go out and impress your friends.

After seeing Elvis and the Attractions in concert, you become convinced that they're the greatest rock and roll band you ever saw. They do a pretty short show, but you feel like your money's been well spent, and how often do you feel that way? They rip through the numbers at double speed — and they were fast to begin with — and with more action than you ever would expect to see at a rock concert. Then they slow the pace down to do one of Elvis's hauntingly beautiful ballads. After that, it's back to the power-rock of the Attractions. Pete Thomas might be the only worthy successor to Keith Moon's crown. He's an incredible drummer.

The third album by Elvis and the A's is called Armed Forces, and it's the best one yet. For the first time the group's name is right up there with Elvis's, so they're not just a star and his back-up band anymore, it's a group. Their sound pours out of the speakers of your record player like molten lava — fast, smooth and hot. It's one of the most listenable, danceable, jump-around-able records you're likely ever to be lucky enough to buy. I dare any of you to play it loud and sit still. If you can do it, you're beyond help. So there.

Okay, now we've got to get down to it, as they say. What is this Elvis dude trying to do? If he wanted hit singles, you can bet he'd have 'em by now, so that must not be what he wants. What does he want?

Elvis grows out of the same tradition as the Sex Pistols and other punk groups — even though he's not punk. And what all of them want, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger, is, "satisfaction." They see problems in the world, well they just want to correct them. Fine, but how do you correct problems through rock 'n' roll? The first step to solving any problem is to let people know there's a problem, right? Well, that's what they're doing. Elvis thinks that people lie too much to the people they love, he thinks they play too many games, he thinks that people should continue to seek what they believe in no matter what problems they may face. What makes Elvis great is his ability to make you think — whether it's true or not — that he himself has been through a lot, and has come through with his ideals intact. He's cynical, bitter, and sometimes cold; yet he's always passionate and romantic as well. Romance isn't just the sort of books you find in supermarkets, it's a whole way of looking at the world — it's a feeling that there is a reason to live, and a reason to push onward. Elvis is a true romantic, and you can't help but believe what he says.

Most of his songs are not happy ones. They're songs about frustration, manipulation, and betrayal. "I said I'm so happy that I could die / She said drop dead and left with another guy!" Elvis rarely wins, but he just keeps trying. On "Watching the Detectives," Elvis tells the story of a guy who wants to see his girl, but all she wants to do is watch the movie on T.V. "She looks so good that he gets down and begs / She's watching the detectives:" Finally he shoots her, "Just like watching the detectives." It's a strange, funny, nasty little song, and it's Elvis at his best.

See, all of this is part of being human. That's something that too many rock stars are afraid to admit. Kiss never takes off their makeup so that they can keep their public and private lives separate, but Elvis seems to be telling you about himself. Which one do you prefer? It's all up to you. Personally, I think that knowing that my heroes are human makes it a lot easier to be comfortable with myself. If my heroes were perfect, it could be depressing. I'm not perfect, and I never will be. Are you? (If you are, tell me your secret!)

But Elvis is completely human, maybe too much so. It seems like the guy never has any luck! Sometimes he manages to strike back. On "Hand in Hand," he sings, "If I'm gonna go down / You're gonna come with me." If he didn't manage to tell people off sometimes, I'd start to worry about him.

The thing to remember is that all these songs are the most exciting rock numbers around. They're never whiny or self-pitying. Elvis is tough, and so is his music. From the Doors-ish keyboards to the non-stop action from the drums, these guys play great music until you think you might overdose. Nowhere is this more clear than on Armed Forces. There's hardly any guitar on the album at all; it just seems like bass, drums and piano. This isn't an empty album, though. Far from it! At times there are so many overdubs, especially on the keyboards, that you'd think you were listening to an orchestra or something! It just gets catchier and catchier. What a great album! I like it, in case you couldn't tell.

The songs on Armed Forces are different than any of the ones he's done before. They're more general, less specific. He's singing about us now, not just about him. "Two little Hitlers fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will," is one of the most powerful lines he's come up with yet, and it's only one of many on this record. One of my total favorites is "Moods for Moderns." "I let you into / Foreign fingers," he laments, while the band snaps their fingers behind him. This girl has just plain walked out on him, but he acts like he planned it! It's a great contrast to "Party Girl," which is about a girl who is too popular and too adventurous to to be tied down to any one person. "I know I shouldn't be raising my hopes so high," he realizes, "Cause I've seen that hungry look in their eyes." Instead of trying to win her over, or let her find him, he walks away. "I could give you anything but time," he laments. It's an extraordinary song, and one that keeps getting more and more emotional every time I play it.

What else can I tell you about these guys to make you run out and wrap your greedy little fingers around every one of his records? Well, how about a little history? His real name is Delbert Patrick McManus, and he's about 25 years old. Older than most of us, but not by much. When you, realize that the members of the Ramones are all 26, Elvis is a youngster indeed. The story of how he landed his recording contract is legendary. He rented a small amplifier, went to the CBS Records convention, stood outside, and played his music. From there on it wasn't very difficult. Elvis may seem like a weirdo, but his music speaks for itself. Pretty good for a guy who used to be a computer operator in a cosmetics company, eh? He's witty, and gives great interviews (which makes people like me real happy). He said that the people he works with are "not the kind of people who were instrumental in stopping me from recording before knowing who they are and I want to remind them that I haven't forgotten them."

His ambition is to become famous, but on his own terms. It's no good to be famous unless he can still get his message across. All being famous means is that a lot more people will hear what he has to say. He wrote a song called "Radio, Radio" all about how terrible the radio is and how they never play anything except the safest, most boring music. Strangely enough, that song got a lot of airplay because it was such an exciting rock 'n' roll number. So Elvis snuck it right by all the boring disk jockeys in Milwaukee. Someday he'll sneak a lot more by them, and maybe there'll come a time when he won't have to sneak them in anymore. Elvis is on his way to the top. It's going to be a slow climb, but he'll get there. Get a record or two. And save Linda Ronstadt for another day.


Pop Rock Special, Spring 1981

Pop Rock Special profiles Elvis Costello.


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