The 100 Greatest Albums Of The 80s
11. Get Happy!!
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
"We knocked off a few good grooves on that one, I suppose," said Elvis Costello of Get Happy!! earlier this year. Of course, he understated the case for his fourth album considerably. Get Happy!! — on which Costello and the Attractions race through twenty flawless soul-pop gems in just over forty minutes — is perhaps the smartest, most impassioned party record of the decade. It may also be the most listenable mea culpa in rock history.
In the winter of 1979, while in Columbus, Ohio, on tour in support of Armed Forces, Costello got involved in an ugly argument with Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills's band at a hotel bar. In a misguided effort to offend Bramlett and company, the British New Waver — who had been active in Britain's Rock Against Racism movement — made some racist remarks about black American musicians. The result was a painful and humiliating public-relations disaster for Costello that saw him receive death threats and have his records dropped from radio-station playlists.
While Costello dealt formally with the incident at a press conference in New York City a few days later, he did a much better job of clearing the air with this album, which affirmed his respect and affection for the music of black America. Get Happy!! was his and the Attractions' version of a Motown album and therefore an attempt to disprove some false accusations. "I had the feeling people were reading my mind," Costello told Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus in 1982, "but what could I do, hold up a sign that read, 'I really like black people?'"
For Get Happy!! Costello and the Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — again worked with producer Nick Lowe, though in a new location, Withlord Studios, in Amsterdam. Lowe came up with a low-tech, back-to-mono sound that suited Costello's soul-revival approach. Many songs were pieced together from notes made during the Armed Forces tour. As Tom Carson wrote in a Rolling Stone review, "This is an album that springs straight from the tensions and interruptions of life on the road — all of its scenes seem to take place in motel rooms or between planes or over long-distance phone lines."
The desperate, bitter romantic longing telegraphed in so many of the album's lyrics is offset by a light touch musically. Though Get Happy!! was the product of a difficult, even "demented" (according to Costello) time in his life, there are moments when, lost in the soulful gait of the music, he sounds, well, downright happy.
38. Imperial Bedroom
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
When Columbia records released Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom — the angry young Brit's seventh album in six years — the company took out ads that read, Masterpiece? Without question, Imperial Bedroom is one of Costello's major artistic statements — and arguably the high point in the career of a prolific musician who has consistently delivered impressive work.
Perhaps reacting to the creative limitations of his preceding album, Almost Blue — a disappointing collection of country covers recorded in Nashville with the veteran producer Billy Sherrill — Costello returned to form on Imperial Bedroom. It is a far-ranging gem that finds him moving all over the musical map, from the ominous, jazzy "Shabby Doll" to the Sgt. Pepper-esque pop of "...And in Every Home." Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh wrote, "Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist."
When it comes to Imperial Bedroom, Costello is its harshest — and maybe its only — critic. "In retrospect, I feel some of the songs are just not well written enough," he said in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. "Some of them were attempts to create a little mystery room the listener could go into. And in some cases, the subject matter is maybe too large for the song's own good. 'The Loved Ones' is about the trap of playing to posterity, and it's just too vague a subject for a song. It's too theoretical."
Asked about the Columbia ad, Costello grimaced and said, "There were some ludicrous things claimed on behalf of that record." Some reviewers compared Costello to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Costello would later collaborate with McCartney), as well as Tin Pan Alley immortals like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
"It could be momentarily flattering," Costello said of the praise. "But then you realize that, strange as it may seem, some people don't like Cole Porter, you know? It made me very perverse on that tour. I'd be playing amphitheaters in the Midwest, and I'd do eight ballads in a row, only two of which would be mine. In the end, all those comparisons just made things more difficult."
According to Geoff Emerick — the veteran recording engineer for the Beatles and the producer of Imperial Bedroom — his approach to recording the artfully crafted album was actually quite simple. "We were trying to capture Elvis's spontaneity, because he's a first-take kind of guy," says Emerick. "We wanted to get back to basics." Work at AIR Studios in London proceeded quickly. "Elvis is very fast," Emerick says. "When we did the first session, there was an onslaught of something like eighteen songs, which we cut in fast takes. It took me quite by surprise. From then on, it was a matter of thinking which ones should we record."
The savage guitar and wordless screaming that link three of the songs on the album's first side — "The Long Honeymoon," "Man Out of Time," "Almost Blue" — was something of an afterthought. "That may have been part of a song we didn't use," says Emerick. "We just faded it in and out." Considerable thought, however, went into keyboardist Steve Nieve's inventive orchestrations for many of the album tracks. "Steve didn't want the standard orchestration — first and second violins, cellos and so on — on 'Town Cryer' and some of the other songs. So we used, I think, eighteen violas, which was really unique."
Despite the rave reviews, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles, and the album peaked at Number Thirty in the United States. Still, it is a favorite of many Costello fans, as well as producer Emerick's. "Elvis is a major songwriter," he says. "He just oozes talent. And we captured Elvis then and there. It was easy — I pulled up the fader, and away we went."
Rolling Stone, No. 565, November 16, 1989
Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Albums Of The 80s includes Get Happy!! (11), and Imperial Bedroom (38).
Top 100 Albums Of The 80s
1. London Calling - The Clash
2. Purple Rain - Prince & The Revolution
3. The Joshua Tree - U2
4. Remain In Light - Talking Heads
5. Graceland - Paul Simon
6. Born In The U.S.A. - Bruce Springsteen
7. Thriller - Michael Jackson
8. Murmur - Rem / (Circus Animals - Cold Chisel)
9. Shoot Out The Lights - Richard And Linda Thompson /(Diesel And Dust - Midnight Oil)
10. Tracy Chapman - Tracy Chapman
11. Get Happy - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
12. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us - Public Enemy / (Kick - Inxs)
13. Diesel And Dust - Midnight Oil / (Human Frailty - Hunters & Collectors)
14. So - Peter Gabriel
15. Let It Be - The Replacements / (True Colours - Split Enz)
16. 1999 - Prince / (Post - Paul Kelly)
17. Synchronicity - The Police
18. Dirty Mind - Prince
19. New York - Lou Reed
20. Pretenders - Pretenders
21. Rain Dogs - Tom Waits
22. The Smiths - The Smiths / (Crowded House - Crowded House)
23. Red - Black Uhuru / (The Smiths - The Smiths)
24. Los Angeles - X / (16 Lovers Lane - The Go-Betweens)
25. Tunnel Of Love - Bruce Springsteen
26. Back In Black - AC/DC
27. Appetite For Destruction - Guns 'N' Roses
28. Control - Janet Jackson
29. Double Fantasy - John Lennon & Yoko Ono
30. How Will The Wolf Survive? - Los Lobos
31. Avalon - Roxy Music
32. Uh-Huh - John Cougar Mellencamp
33. Zen Arcade - Husker Du / (Prayers On Fire - The Birthday Party)
34. Tattoo You - The Rolling Stones
35. Kill Em All - Metallica
36. Rapture - Anita Baker / (Eliminator - ZZ Top)
37. Midnight Love - Marvin Gaye
38. Imperial Bedroom - Elvis Costello & The Attractions / (Lovetown - Stephen Cummings)
39. Eliminator - ZZ Top / (Rapture - Anita Baker)
40. War - U2
41. Document - Rem
42. Strong Persuader - The Robert Cray Band
43. Nebraska - Bruce Springsteen
44. Oh Mercy - Bob Dylan
45. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth
46. Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel (Third Solo Album - 1980)
47. Private Dancer - Tina Turner
48. Skylarking - Xtc / (Quasimodo's Dream - The Reels)
49. Crazy Rhythms - The Feelies / (Cats And Dogs - Mental As Anything)
50. Madonna - Madonna
51. Run DMC - Run DMC
52. Making Movies - Dire Straights
53. Bring The Family - John Hiatt / (Born Sandy Devotional - The Triffids)
54. Speaking In Tongues - Talking Heads
55. Centrefield - John Fogerty
56. Closer - Joy Division
57. Empty Glass - Pete Townsend / (The Swing - INXS)
58. The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto - Various Artists
59. Computer Games - George Clinton / (Brave - Kate Ceberano)
60. The Blue Mask - Lou Reed
61. Doc At The Radar Station - Captain Beefheart
62. Pyromania - Def Leppard / (Time And Tide - Split Enz)
63. Entertainment - Gang Of Four
64. Vivid - Living Colour / (The Pleasure Of Your Company... - Models)
65. In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs / (East - Cold Chisel)
66. Fiyo On The Bayou - The Neville Brothers
67. Trouble In Paradise - Randy Newman / (Primitive Man - Icehouse)
68. The Specials - The Specials / (Gossip - Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls)
69. Radio - Ll Cool J
70. Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 - Travelling Wilburys
71. Crowded House - Crowded House / (10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - Midnight Oil)
72. Marshall Crenshaw - Marshall Crenshaw / (The Blurred Crusade - The Church)
73. Building The Perfect Beast - Don Henley
74. Sign O' The Times - Prince
75. She's So Unusual - Cyndi Lauper
76. Second Edition - Public Image Ltd
77. Robbie Robertson - Robbie Robertson
78. Dare - The Human League
79. Guitar Town - Steve Earle / (Tender Prey - Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds)
80. Suzanne Vega - Suzanne Vega
81. 1984 - Van Halen / (East Side Story - Squeeze)
82. East Side Story - Uk Squeeze / (1984 - Van Halen)
83. Let's Dance - David Bowie
84. Faith - George Michael
85. Freedom - Neil Young
86. The River - Bruce Springsteen
87. Steel Wheels - The Rolling Stones
88. Lives In The Balance - Jackson Browne
89. Who's Zooming Who - Aretha Franklin
90. ... Nothing Like The Sun - Sting
91. Lyle Lovett - Lyle Lovett / (Stoneage Romeos - Hoodoo Gurus)
92. Full Moon Fever - Tom Petty
93. The Night I Feel In Love - Luther Vandross / (For The Working Class Man - Jimmy Barnes)
94. Power, Corruption & Lies - New Order
95. Scarecreow - John Cougar Mellencamp
96. Colour By Numbers - Culture Club
97. The Mona Lisa's Sister - Graham Parker / (Lovebuzz - The Humingbirds)
98. Labour Of Love - Ub40
99. What's Up, Dog? - Was (Not Was) / (Max Q)
100. Sun City - Artists United Against Apartheid