In December of 1977 as I sat in my sister's London flat, a strange little guy appeared on BBC's Top of the Pops. He was wearing a suit and thick glasses. He was singing about watching a British television show "The Detectives." He looked rather nasty. I'm not sure why 1 didn't change the channel, but there was something almost magnetic about this former computer programmer. Costello was like liquid energy. Punk Rock was in full swing in London when Mr. Costello came along... everything was Punk — the music, the fashions, the talk — Punk was it. funnily enough, Mr. Costello didn't look like the other punk-rockers — he looked clear cut and respectable. Although his music carried the anger that was the punk trademark, the vulgarity that moved bands like the Six Pistols to the top of in the U.S., was gone. And the vulgarity is, in my opinion, what separates Punk Rock from New Wave. (Perhaps that's why it seems Punk Rock is dying, while New Wave is continually gaining new life.)
While Punk Rock and New Wave was causing a fervor in England, back in the U.S., critics and listeners alike were beginning to warm up to some of the New Wave bands, such as the Talking Heads and Graham Parker and the Rumour. It was around this time that Elvis Costello's first LP, My Aim is True, was released and was soon named "Album of the Year" by Rolling Stone. It contained some excellent songs such as "Alison" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," and it put Costello in the limelight. Less that a year later. Costello had another record out. appropriately entitled This Year's Model. This Year's Model was another fine record which had some typically angry songs (Mr. Costello's trademark became his barbed wit), such as "No Action," "Lip Service," and "Hand In Hand." On "Hand In Hand," Costello sings, "No, don't ask me to apologize - I won't ask you to forgive me / If I'm gonna go down - you're gonna come with me." If lacking in substance, his lyrics are always amusing.
Last year Armed Forces, Costello's third album, hit the airwaves. It was a big seller until Mr. Costello received a great deal of adverse publicity (and rightly so, it seems) over his racist remarks which resulted in a barroom brawl with Southern rocker Bonnie Bramlett. After that incident, record sales began to taper off, but Costello still managed to keep his popularity with his audience — as I witnessed at one of his concerts last April. In spite of his remote and distant attitude, the crowd was picaseu witn his energetic performance. Costello, as of late, has been involved with various musical projects. He recently produced and album by a Ska band, The Specials. Ska is a musical genre, much like reggae, which first appeared in the early 1960's and is making a successful comeback in England. In fact, Costello integrates some of the Ska sound in his latest LP, entitled Get Happy!! Happy? Elvis Costello happy? Well, more or less. Get Happy!! is quite different from any of his previous LPs, mainly because there are so many songs on it — twenty altogether. Most of the tunes are only two minutes long — and only one goes over three minutes. So what can such short songs say, you ask? Plenty. since Costello manages to get more mileage per word that just about anyone else in the music world (i.e.. "It's a well-kept secret / though that I had better swallow it / before they make me spit out the truth."). True, his lyrics aren't exactly the most philosophical or moving — but generally they do have something distinctly appealing. It's as if Costello knows he has the upper hand — and can't help but show off. Some of the finer tracks on the LP include the snappy "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," the slow and soothing "Secondary Modern," and the melodic "The Imposter." Costello tries some interesting vocal harmonies on the tune "King Horse," and the results are rewarding. Get Happy!! is divergent from anything Costello has previously done, and it might take the average Costello fan some getting used to. But it is the different approach that makes this record appealing and interesting. My only complaint about Get Happy!! is that a few of the songs seems a bit too short — just as you're getting into them, they end. But apparently Costello feels the "short and sweet" approach is effective, and most of the time it is.
As always, Nick Lowe (a fine musician in his own right) does an excellent job with production.
With Get Happy!!, Costello proves that he's not wary of experimenting with new musical vistas. In one song, he tells us, "You never gave me the chance that I took." Then again, he didn't really need us to.