Everything they say and do is gettin' on my nerves
- —Elvis Costello
Most of the time, when rock stars decide to play politics, what's at stake is someone else's future, not their own. No one ever lost airplay, a recording contractor a concert date by coming out in support of whales, dolphins, incarcerated boxers or mealy-mouthed Southern politicians. As John Lennon and Johnny Rotten (among others) have demonstrated, you can even get away with claiming to be the Antichrist, provided that you seem likely to sell records in six- or seven-figure quantities.
Attacking the star-making machinery is more dangerous. Last year, while most punk rockers snuggled in various corporate bosoms, the Clash released a 45 called "Complete Control," lambasting CBS/England for releasing one of the group's other songs, "Remote Control," as a single. CBS has yet to release the Clash LP one of the finest punk albums yet, in the United States, but I am told that this is merely a coincidence. This has restored my belief in the Easter Bunny.
Elvis Costello is another matter. I like him, but how could I help it? He is so much the perfect rock critic hero that he even looks and acts like one of us: scrawny, bespectacled and neurasthenic, doesn't know when to shut up, bone-dull onstage. His new album's best song, "Radio, Radio," comes at you like a drunk with a straight razor. It is also very insulting or, in his own words, bites the very hand that feeds it.
Costello is the most commercially successful punk artist in the United States, probably on merit (certainly not on looks). His music isn't the three chords and a cloud of dust of his peers and colleagues but a melodically approachable melange of Buddy Holly and the Who as well as the Damned and the Clash. However, the new Elvis seems to be taking his success rather lightly. In "Radio, Radio," this most-broadcast punk of all sings :
You either shut up or get cut out
They don't wanna hear about it
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel
This is utterly lovely in its self-destructiveness (and there's worse in other verses). With one song, Costello has managed to insult most of the people on whom his career depends, to wit:
• Radio programmers, who program only what their limited and preconceived notions tell them is progressive, popular or both, depending on the usual demographic hallucinations.
• Record executives, whose job it is to encourage musicians to bring reality into line with demographic hallucinations.
• Musicians themselves, who usually take the bait without much prodding.
Probably none of these will find "Radio, Radio" as enticing as I do, if they bother to pay attention to it at all. Elvis Costello probably doesn't .care, since his real purpose is to remind us that he is the last semicivilized human being among us who still remembers how to hate, publicly and without (much) regard for consequences. In fact, given the proper amount of publicity, it is possible that "Radio, Radio" could destroy Costello's career. Or else, in order to prove that Costello is wrong and that they're a lot more open-minded than seems likely, they'll play the rest of his album almost constantly. One of these may be what Costello had in mind.
The latter is far more likely, of course. In these days of prefabricated rock, when excellence seems to be equated with how closely one can approximate Fleetwood Mac or some other chartmaker, rather than how well one can create an individual identity, it's the rational trick. But the best thing about "Radio, Radio" is that it's irrational: it seems that what Costello hates most of all is the process that has worked successfully for him until now.
The irony is especially delicious because Costello first brought himself to the attention of CBS Records by singing in the street outside the London hotel where the company was holding its annual convention last summer. This year, if everybody pretends that "Radio, Radio" is just another song, instead of the cold truth about the possibility of change in current rock & roll, Elvis Costello can be an honored guest at the convention, a budding starlet received with open arms. If he wants to be.
I predict an empty chair.