Elvis Costello is rock 'n' roll's latest enigma. By taking the name of rock 'n' roll's most famous soldier, people that don't know any better dismiss him as something of a fraud. He looks like a reincarnated Buddy Holly ready to burst into the opening chords of "Peggy Sue." With large horn-rimmed glasses, hair standing straight up, frail build, buckled knees and turned-in toes, Costello looks about as awesome as a wet kitten. The truth is that Elvis Costello is a one-man rock 'n' roll battering ram.
Costello's history reads like a Monty Python comedy routine. He was a 23-year-old computer programmer who quit to tackle the music business. While playing clubs as a one-man act, people began to notice his searing angry rock 'n' roll after they had dismissed the absurdity of his physical appearance. He eventually signed a record contract with Stiff Records, a fledgling independent label specializing in "off-the-wall" acts. Costello now records for Columbia Records.
Elvis' signing to Columbia was the result of a bizarre promotion stunt by his manager Jake Riviera. Realizing there was a record Industry executives' convention in London, Elvis set up a portable amplifier outside of the convention's doors and proceeded to play until he was arrested by the London police for disturbing the peace. Though the police didn't appreciate his talent, the executives from Columbia did.
Elvis' first album, My Aim is True, with such classics as "Alison," "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," "Miracle Man" among others made it into Billboard's Top 30 Album Chart. Rolling Stone, Creem, Village Voice, Bomp, and virtually every other publication dealing with popular music acclaimed the album one of the most auspicious debuts of the year.
This Year's Model, his second album, gives credence to Elvis' claim that his aim is true. The album contains ten songs of memorable hooks and lyrics. He has the knack of putting the right lick in at the right time to grab the listener's attention. All great rock 'n' rollers from Chuck Berry to Keith Richards to Bruce Springsteen have this talent to make their works more than just a sudden jolt of energy.
Elvis Costello is rock 'n' roll's most angry young man. Johnny Rotten hates the institutions that downgrade their existence, but within the Sex Pistols, music remains an air of hope to improve their situations. Costello's cynicism involves a total distrust of the human character and the belief that life's guarantees are basically worthless. Costello has even gone so far as to keep a blacklist of all those people in the music business that have crossed him. He has vowed to get even with all those on the list.
Though people may be offended by his angry posing, one cannot deny his incredible pop stylings and his awesome rock 'n' roll power. With only two albums under his belt, it's a safe assumption to make the claim that Elvis Costello is one of the best writers to emerge in the '70s.
This Year's Model finds Elvis still angry. The album begins with "No Action" a revenge number that cringes with rock 'n' roll fervor:
I don't want to kiss you I don't want to touch
I don't want to see you
'cause I don't miss you too much
I'm not a telephone junkie
I told you we were just good friends
Everytime I phone you
I just want to put you down
There's no action.
"This Year's Girl" is a slicing put-down of the phoniness of such creations as Farrah Fawcett Majors and Cheryl Tiegs. Like the rest of the album, this song is dominated by the infectious sounds of Steve Naive's Farfisa organ.
"The Beat" and "Pump It Up" are two fast and fun dance numbers filled with Costello's own brand of tension-packed vocalizing.
"Little Triggers" is the only ballad on the album Elvis tells his girl that he's sick of her lying and cheating on him In essence, he tells her to "hit the road":
Thinking about all those censored sequences
Worrying about the consequences
Waiting until I come to my senses
Better put it all in present tenses
Little triggers that you pull with your tongue
I don't want to be hung up, strung up,
when you don't call up
The final cut on side one is "You Belong To Me." The song oozes with a pop excitement that made the music of such '60s's bands like the standells and the Music Machine so enthralling. The organ runs are straight 60's pop memorabilia. This song is my personal favorite.
"Hand in Hand" opens the second side. It's a short rocker highlighted by the infectious repetition of the chorus.
"Lip Service" is one of the strongest cuts on the record. Costello's relationships always seem to be filled with deceit and unfaithfulness. On this cut Elvis sets out to he the party that gets the upper hand as he proclaims:
Lip service is all you ever get from me
"Living in Paradise" is in the same vein as "Watching the Detectives" from the first album. It features a memorable pseudo-reggae beat that sets the tone for Costello's cynical lyrics.
"Lipstick Vogue" and "Radio Radio" round out This Year's Model. "Lipstick Vogue" is a straight-ahead, no-holds-barred rocker. "Radio Radio" is the unannounced number Elvis performed on Saturday Night Live. In the song, Costello gives his spiteful angry feelings about the music industry. No one is immune to Costello's seering rhetoric. Radio programmers, record executives, and even musicians fall victim to Elvis' emotional outbursts. The irony of the cut lies in the fact that all those entities attacked distinctly help determine the fate of such an artist as Costello. With this cut, Elvis once more proves that his aim is true. He hasn't yet fallen prey to the business structure that dominates the music industry. "Radio Radio" graphically proves this point:
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
Through all Elvis Costello's hate and distrust of human nature the fact cannot be ignored that he is one of the most original and interesting performers to arise within this decade. With two solid and impeccable albums behind him and a stage presence that matches the excitement and verve of the albums Elvis Costello seems destined to go far. Though it may sound presumptuous, the truth may be that Elvis is still "King."