Soho Weekly News, May 11, 1978

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That was the week that waved

Ira Kaplan

Elvis Costello and the Attractions,
Mink DeVille, Nick Lowe and Rockpile
Palladium, New York
Capitol Theater, Passaic

Blondie, Robert Gordon w/ Link Wray
Palladium, New York

Ian Dury and the Blockheads
Bottom Line, New York

For the 1969 Mets, it was the beginning of July. Though still in second place, they took two out of three games from the then-first place Chicago Cubs twice, first in Chicago, then in New York, and proved they weren't going to choke. In August, the Mets passed the Cubs for good, and went on to become World Champions.

For Jimmy Carter, it was the 1976 Florida primary. After surprisingly good showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, he was simply hoping to finish reasonably close to the favorite, George Wallace. Instead, Carter trounced him and the rest is history (history that has seen both Carter and the Mets in a seeming race for oblivion).

For the new wave, it just might have been last week. For five days, starting May 2, six bands left the confines of CBGB's and Max's and formed an assault on the area's "respectable" halls. The best shots were saved for last, as Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Mink DeVille, and Nick Lowe and Rockpile played two sold out shows at the Palladium Saturday night.

Elvis Costello is selling records and tickets so well that there has been some doubt lately whether he should be considered new wave at all; a recent communique from Red Star records refers to him unflatteringly as the "acceptable face of punk." Don't let success spoil your perception, because it certainly isn't hurting Elvis much.

It is precisely the accessibility of the songs on This Year's Model (Columbia) that underscore the difference between Costello and the rest of the world. The anger of a track like "Lip Service" is all the more dramatic because of its '60s Anglo hit-single organ introduction. He has reversed a typical refrain of the period, "Lip service is all I ever get from you," and come up with "Lip service is all you ever get from me." A form that has been previously restricted to love songs and similar emotions is expanded to include rage.

In concert, Costello picked up strength as a performer in the course of the two days. On Friday in Passaic, the infrequent and self-conscious stage moves of the December Bottom Line shows gave way to a more self-assured stance. The microphone was no longer an obstacle, but a tool. Elvis's guitar playing — though still minimal — was effective for occasional emphasis. The songs flew by, faster than on record, one after another, with no space in between. The order was superb, building to a climax of "Lipstick Vogue" segued into "Watching the Detectives," immediately followed by the closer, "Radio Radio."

But that was a mere sound check compared to the following night's show. Opening quietly with an unrecorded song, "Accidents Will Happen," accompanied only by Steve Young's eerie gothic organ, Elvis then launched into "I'm Not Angry," his encore of the night before. Let Eddie and the Hot Rods whine about passive N.Y. audiences after the fact, Elvis was onstage looking for "a fight" as he announced during the intro to "Pump It Up." He was as antagonistic to the audience ("lazy sods") as he is to disc jockeys, and with equal justification.

As for fears that a big hall would corrupt his music, forget it. Elvis and the Attractions set up as close together as they could, the size of the stage be damned. Elitists may have been shocked by the inappropriate yells accompanying "Alison" (especially in Jersey, natch) but the intensity of the performance belied the need for worry. Elvis wants to be more than a cult figure; it's no coincidence that he performed better in front of 3,000 people than he did when there were but 450 watching.

The appearances by Elvis's producer, the Jesus of Cool himself, Nick Lowe, were his first on a N.Y. stage since his days with Brinsley Schwarz. He and Rockpile, featuring Dave Edmunds, played a short rock and roll-accented set that whetted the appetite for the full length show the band delivered at the Bottom Line Monday. As the opening act, Rockpile left the softer songs from Lowe's LP alone and relied on the rockers. The interplay between Lowe on bass and Terry Williams on drums provided an inspired backup to Edmunds' and Billy Bremmer's excellent guitar playing. As might be expected from a band fronted by two record producers, the arrangements were top notch. Time limitations and the knowledge that the audience was not theirs kept Rockpile from reaching the heights of Elvis's sets, but what they did, they did well. I was bouncing up and down in my seat from the beginning, "So It Goes," to the end, "Heart of the City."

Just as Costello's progression between albums illustrates how his vision has remained the same, the difference between Nick Lowe's set and his album demonstrates the similarities in his work as well. Turning the LP's reggae-ish verses of "(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass" into "Willie and the Hand Jive" soundalikes didn't make the song any less pure-pop-for-now-people, the tongue in cheek catchphrase for Lowe's material. When I suggested to him that that term might serve to describe his old Stiff mates as well (not to mention many other new wavers, Blondie for one), he replied:

"Yeah, it does seem to be a pure-pop-for-now-people approach, although I don't know what Ian (Dury) would say about that. It's easy to understand, and it's not an effort to get behind it. It's no work of art; it's trash music. But if you treat it with the attitude that it's trash music, you're much more likely to come up with something lasting."

The Blondie/Robert Gordon concert proves the point. Robert Gordon would do well to take Lowe's thought to heart, though not because he's treating the songs like works of art. Gordon's an exuberant singer who obviously feels reverential about his material. When he donned a guitar for "Wild Wild Women," the parallel to Elvis Presley could've been a bit much. But Gordon's honesty transcends such thoughts of nostalgia.

The problem is that Gordon is treating Fifties artists like Greek sculptures — as seen through his own Fifties antique, Link Wray. Wray looks like a computer program come to life; not a single guitar run or walk around the stage looked spontaneous. His three song mini-set ruined any chance for Gordon to gain momentum. Song after song ended with the last chord held interminably. Maybe Gordon is afraid of taking the spotlight alone, but he shouldn't be. He could be a star; Link Wray is through.

If any group understands that they're playing "trash music," it's Blondie. At the Palladium Debbie Harry was content to bounce around the stage without the slightest pretense of art. The band, now enlarged to six members, was sloppy at times, precise at others, downright amazing shifting from "Look Good in Blue" to "Man Overboard," but always fun. Blondie is a lot like Chinese food: An hour after the concert ends, you want to see them again — or is that Mexican food ...

The unenviable task of playing between Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello fell to Mink DeVille. Mink has evolved into a group that, even when playing most buoyantly, tries not to look like they're actually cutting loose, except for Willy DeVille. This made it even tougher to live up to Lowe and Costello, who had no such image problems. Maybe the Jersey audience's greater appreciation of Willy's theatrics and Louie Erlanger's cool is what inspired the band to play better than they did the following night. I know you're supposed to move with the times, but although I like Mink DeVille now, I love "Change It Comes" from Live at CBGB's, and wish the band members would drop their poses.

Ian Dury's theatrics were more to my taste. His appearance at the Bottom Line was notable among the week's concerts both for the varied influences his band, the Blockheads, have assimilated, and for his accoutrements. Dury comes off like a rock 'n' roll shopping bag lady, pulling toy swords and handkerchiefs out of his bag like so many Elvis Presley scarves. His music draws on everything from the British music halls to punk rock. The Blockheads are as odd-looking as they are eclectic; this could be the house band of De Broca's King of Hearts.

Admittedly, one could get a biased view of the importance of the week's events. New York isn't the United States, even though some of us think it is. Nick Lowe told me of a conversation he had with someone he met last Friday at CBGB's. One fan accused Lowe of being "chickenshit" for changing the name of his LP from Jesus of Cool, in England, to Pure Pop for Now People, in the U.S. (which was done by Columbia, not Lowe). He replied, "Me as an English guy, I probably know more about America and have seen more of America than that guy ever will. He's never been in Norman, Oklahoma, or Bakerville. He hasn't seen the way people live there. He doesn't know the way people get really uptight about things like that. Jesus of Cool — they'd come along and knife me, some of those people."

Today New York, tomorrow Norman, Oklahoma.


Soho Weekly News, May 11-17, 1978

Ira Kaplan reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions and opening acts Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille, Friday, May 5, Capitol Theatre, Passaic, and Saturday, May 6, Palladium, New York.


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Photo by Allan Tannenbaum.
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