It has been 25 years since the term "rock 'n' roll" became a term accepted by the general public to define a specific style of popular music, and a commercial definition for a marketable product.
Elvis Presley first hit big a quarter century ago; Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was already on a movie soundtrack (Blackboard Jungle) and the youngsters who had dug a bit deeper into the morass of stuff called "pop" found that there were layers of music called "rhythm-and-blues," "rockabilly," "western," "folk," "country," "jazz" and all manner of other forms.
From that now remarkably naive era came the golden, evolutionary, decade of the '60s when "everything seemed to come together." In typical fashion, the '70s saw a refinement and commercialization of pop-rock to the point that the sophistication of recording techniques and the computerization of concert production had all but suffocated the pounding, pulsing body of rock 'n' roll.
We have been in the inevitable next stage of all this rock evolution for a few years, a stage that has peaked in the last few months under the general name of "new-wave," or "punk" (now passe) — a conscious effort that has become an international movement to "get back to basics," as the jock athletic coaches would say.
And, naturally, the sounds that have emerged are at their "new-wave" best when they are the most reactionary — i.e., the most like the old, ca. 1960, sounds.
Last night at the Warfield Theater a leader (maybe the leader) in this movement, Elvis Costello (nee Declan McManus, one-time computer programmer from England) played a 75-minute concert of his current new-wave electric music ideas; he plays guitar, composes the lyrics (there's no need to compose the music) and is the quartet's only singer.
Costello has put on some weight since we first saw him a couple of years ago; he wears pink-tinged shades, a silver-gray suit and close-cropped hair and looks surprisingly like Peter Sellers playing the young Henry Kissinger.
The band (bass, drums, keyboard) romps behind Costello, getting solos few and far between Elvis' non-stop presentation of about two dozen numbers, including four or five encores.
Costello has a reputation for clever and incisive lyrics — reflecting the problems, traumas and threats of modern living. Better read than heard, I'd say — they were indecipherable last night. The sound system was OK, it's just that he mumbles.
His "Accidents Will Happen" was the show's first blockbuster, compelling the whole (capacity) crowd to leap to their feet, run down the aisles, cheer, clap, and otherwise let off new-wave steam. Costello sometimes sounds like his famous namesake, and employs marionette-like, stiff and angular, body motions; he often appears to be moving in a different rhythm than the music he's playing.
There are bits of reggae in his sound, and a few just plain good selections — "Radio, Radio," "You'll Never Be a Man," "Temptation" and (Patsy Cline's) "I Got the Letters."
As a new-waver, Costello is unique in his awareness of gut-level country music.
The concert was enjoyable but frustrating. Rhythmically, Costello varies only in meter — slow, medium, fast, faster; mostly the latter pair. Harmonically, of course, the rock 'n' rollers (old-wave or new) hang determinedly to the tonic-dominant-sub dominant trilogy of blues (or hymn) chords.
With no melody and virtually inaudible lyrics, Costello relies on his crowd's familiarity, via recordings, with his material; once they know what he's doing it becomes a mass-participation program, and lots of rowdy fun.
The concert began with a group called U.K. Squeeze (who have dropped the U.K. recently). They, too, play revivalist rock 'n' roll, with more spirit and energy than Costello but with none of his distinctive image or lyric originality.