On the third day of Christmas... those of us who had managed to retain our sanity while quarreling with Cousin Frank over the sixpence in the plum pud stayed home and watched the BBC's screening of The Godfather and those who had lost their marbles over another pair of socks and another turkey sandwich skidded south of Birmingham for this orgy of Top Thirty Pop indigestion.
I was looking for an escape from the gross celebrations of Christmas but the options were much the same. It all boiled down to a choice of television or television. After all, when you're seated two-thirds of the way down a six-to-seven thousand seater stadium with little but chips, cold burgers and a faceless chart-consuming audience for company — and no opportunity for sinking into alcohol-induced oblivion — what else can those little on-stage creatures be other than bad actors in a modern music video-screen epic?
The Elvis Costello Christmas Show had the dismal privilege of rounding off 1980's series of mega-concert festivals. A series which, with slender exceptions, has proved to be a self-conscious, tacky, greedy and unremarkable string of over-ambitious events. The Elvis Costello Christmas Show was the last miserable bubble of wind in a painfully extended fart. The Elvis Costello Christmas Show should not have happened because such choking events are reserved for rock dinosaurs and rock dinosaurs are the total antithesis to everything Costello (or any of the supporting bands) are supposed to believe in. The Elvis Costello Christmas Show was a dreary, plain and messy sham(e).
Popcorn, tee-shirts and cut-price albums vyed for sales potential as Squeeze battled against all odds to make "Another Nail In My Heart" sound like a spirited hit single instead of a handful of dried peas being shaken around in a tin can. Really, it wouldn't be fair to review them. Their potential is great but, on this dubious occasion where the sound miraculously cleared up for the F-Beat acts while leaving the "fillers-in" on a slightly less safe footing, they sounded horrendous.
Rockpile, in similar vein, were as unmatchably dull as only Rockpile can be. Without any guest appearances to spark up their renditions of "Girls Talk," "Crawling From The Wreckage" or new ones like "Teacher Teacher," they trundled through their badly lit set with the purpose of beavers and the panache of your average grocer. Of course, any Rockpile fan will tell you that the true charm of their favourite band lies in the way that they tackle their field of music with more accomplishment than any other old soldiers — it's a pity that they've yet to discover the entrance to an original field.
I suppose it's inevitable that every festival should have its Fun Band lust as every low-budget variety show must have its regional comedian. Well, this time they allowed us two — Madness and The Selecter — and a wider gap between two similar breeds of music there could not be.
Madness are loved to death by a large percentage of this nation's youth but, as far as I'm concerned, this is not an ideal situation. For starters, few bands treat their audience with such appalling patronisation, shifting from foot-to-foot, grinning benevolently and offering a sanctimonious pat on the head to anyone who moves their feet to that unchanging, (by now) thoroughly tiresome nutty beat.
Madness are the most striking example of a novelty act that's gotten well out-of-hand — next to The Selecter they're as forced and as farcical, as posed and as positioned as any 1920s slapstick stage act — and I imagine their days are numbered. Meanwhile, the Selecter, who took the opportunity to air some songs from their soon-come second album (called Celebrate The Bullet or something similar), appear to be mindfully stepping in a similar direction to their ex-labelmates, the Specials. That is to say, their new material — "Deep Water" and the album's title track — sound very different to "Too Much Pressure," a difference which leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth. Most unlike Madness.
And on to the main act for the evening who (and only God or Elvis knows why) chose to appear one position before the end. Possibly Costello wanted to be home at at a fair hour.
The man is so unpredictable. It warmed my perverse heart to see him toss away his regular show format in order to preview a large slice of his forthcoming album which, it must be said, is more than a whiff reminiscent of a step back to This Year's Model. Where one might be tempted to yawn away the time covered in the same purpose by a less fascinating act, these songs are essentially, touchingly smart. Naturally, Costello didn't think to name them for us but there's enough variation, enough bravery, enough thought behind the evening's work to make for another slicing hit.
There's a lot more orchestral thought behind these creations than is usually exhibited in a new wave context. One gets the impression that Elvis has been taking a few leaves out of his dad's book as far as making a breezy impact goes and this, coupled with the switchback and calypso timing incorporated into a good deal of the rhythm lines, rewards his efforts well.
However, the image (or the stage fright) was, as ever, the constricting barrier. When, later on, UB40 literally stole the evening from right under Costello's nose, it was impossible to deny that he deserved it. The Attractions played coldly and lazily, as if they'd stuffed themselves with easy living and could hardly be bothered to stamp their impression on anything more than another soft encore. They yawned their way through the newer songs — stifling them — and plodded through the remainder of the set which included these-we-have-loved numbers like "Watching The Detectives," "Oliver's Army" and some highly re-arranged renditions of "King Horse." A few flash hand movements, the encouraging warmth of "Teacher"(?) and nothing in the way of Christmas cheer. Ever get the feeling you've been swindled?
It wasn't, therefore, a hope as much as a certainty that UB40 would charm every footstep in the stadium into following their drug-heavy, sensual atmosphere. They were the only band to give 101 percent; they deserved to be the only band to receive it. The effect was devastating. So many thousand people swaying deliciously to a young, simple and unpretentious sound of what will, I'm sure, turn out to be one of the Midlands' biggest exports. A demanding, coaxing spectacle of power. It was almost possible to see Costello turning pale emerald under the lighting rig but what could he do? UB40 just took one little saxophone to blow him away.
Let's face it, one troupe of actors had to get their lines right.