Yeah, sure. An article on Elvis Costello that doesn't concentrate on image, mystique, the very tangible quality of mystery that surrounds the man and his every action? Next assignment will probably be a scholarly dissertation on the socio/psycho/economic impact of the Who's oeuvre on working class youth — and let's forget all that nonsense about equipment smashing, drumstick tossing and windmilling arms.
I mean, everybody who got turned on to Costello fed on the mystery, the myth. It started that first magical year of 1977 with the release of his initial Stiff singles; less than 12 months later he cemented his total world takeover by headlining a tour with Mink DeVille and Rockpile, and by This Year's Model's overwhelming success (with the surname of the unstoppable artist himself replacing the record company's own logo on the label!). A friend of mine hit it dead right when he glanced at the cover of My Aim Is True and proclaimed, "If the guy can play three notes he'll be great."
Costello's nerdy looks follow in one of rock's more enduring traditions from Buddy Holly to Hank B. Marvin through the Dreamers' Freddie. In the heady days of late '77, though, the contrast of sheepish appearance and vociferous music — Costello's were the lyrics of a man scorched in affairs of the heart — combined into a giant question mark. What was this guy all about?
He arrived here amid chilling stories of photographers being attacked, but besides the little black book he also brought the newly-formed (and absolutely riveting) Attractions, and a fistful of unrecorded songs that, as Trouser Press boss Ira Robbins noted at the time, ran circles around the released tunes. As a result, Costello's concussive impact all but snuffed out deepening puzzlement over his enigmatic character. What brought it all together, and firmly secured his place in rock history, was the appearance on Saturday Night Live of December 17, 1977.
Costello and the Attractions were subbing for the fast-disintegrating Sex Pistols, who were unable to appear due to manager Malcolm McLaren's mindless machinations. (One of the Attractions sported a "Thanks, Malc" T-shirt.) Having run through "Watching the Detectives," the band later started to play "Less Than Zero" when Costello halted the proceedings — he explained later that "Zero"'s subject matter was too British for a stateside audience — and led the group into "Radio Radio."
What followed was one of rock's epiphanies: Costello's jerky electric stage presence combined with the force of the unfamiliar number to mesmerize everyone watching. Not exactly everyone, of course; Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, understandably more concerned with camera angles and running time than with presenting timeless rock 'n' roll, gestured frantically for Costello to cut the whole thing short or risk never working again on the network. To all of us out there in TV land (and oblivious to backstage tensions), the episode confirmed that here was this year's musical savior, and a whole lot more. That Costello's talent was joined to an impenetrable aura of secrecy made everything that much more appealing, of course.
And I'm supposed to write a story on the guy and not mention any of this stuff?
No, of course not. However, the emphasis here will be on the man's progress as an artist, and not necessarily on the sometimes outlandish images Costello's non-musical doings have built up — excusing the times the two are inextricably intertwined.
Columbia Records released My My Aim Is True in the US in late 1977; it had already been out in England (on Stiff) for four months. Costello's first few English singles had failed to chart, but "Aim" made it, and the buzz started to go out about him. The LP was gathering interest here, and was said to be the biggest-selling import ever at that time. Its qualities still stand out, despite the wimp status conferred on the backing band (transplanted San Franciscans Clover), In fact, My Aim Is True most resembles the debut waxings of Costello's only peers, Graham Parker and Bruce Springsteen.
All three artists were initially presented as individuals with songs; the idea of rock backing was strictly secondary. Where Aim differs from Howling Wind and Greetings from Asbury Park is in the relative toughness that producer Nick Lowe coaxed from Clover — even though, in the same role on Howling Wind, Lowe couldn't do as much with the musically superior Rumour. Also, Costello's songs seemed to be more developed and precise early on than both Parker and hit-or-miss Springsteen. The latter two had to overcome comparisons with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison; the more distinctive Costello put his songs together with virtually indiscernible roots.
My Aim Is True may have depicted a nerd — one not just bitten by the love bug but really stung — but the album's surprise is the vindictiveness with which the spurned, embittered character plots revenge: "One of these days I'm gonna pay it back." Despite Costello's subsequent lame comments that this revenge/betrayal axis was an invention of the press, there is no other way to interpret lines like "They told me everything was guaranteed / Somebody somewhere must have lied to me."
The disc concentrates on sexual frustration ("Miracle Man", "Mystery Dance") but not exclusively. "Waiting for the End of the World"' features surrealistic imagery, and did elicit a few Dylan comparisons. "I'm Not Angry" in the mold of other songs, stands apart with its violent vocal, ripping guitar and he-doth-protest-too-much insistence on not being angry. This contradiction between what a song was saying and actually communicating would turn up in a lot of Costello's future output.
The two most significant numbers are "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives." "Alison" (released as a 45 here with the addition of string synthesizers) is My Aim Is True's one ballad, eccentric in its tenderness. With it, Costello demonstrated the extent to which he could write songs traditionally (sort of). It also insured him against charges of selling out that greeted many of his new wave contemporaries' later attempts to diversify their sound with softer pieces.
"Watching the Detectives," released after the LP came out in Britain and tacked onto it here, was recorded with the Rumour's rhythm section of Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Stephen Goulding (drums). Its sloppy reggae pulse, crucial Farfisa organ accompaniment and vague yet compelling imagery indicated an obliqueness that runs through Costello's later stuff. The composer has said it was "very important because it was the first song that proved to me I could write in a whole new style."
That new style presented itself rather dramatically on This Year's Model. It's no exaggeration to call Model's release the most forceful and immediate moment of Costello's career — comparable to the effect the Time/Newsweek uproar over Born to Run had on Bruce Springsteen's.
This Year's Model blew away any doubts with a total sound explosion. Graham Parker and Springsteen openly displayed their soul roots with their vinyl breakthroughs, but Costello's work was wholly unique, a complete pop package. Its impact can be traced to Costello and the Attractions' premiering just about the whole thing to unsuspecting audiences on their first American visit, and because it followed the first album's US release so closely. Add the fact that it was the new wave's first record to feature an unassailably sparkling AOR sound, and there you had it: a hit.
Exactly why Costello's second album took America by storm, when more accessible visions by Parker and Springsteen had been criminally ignored, is still a bit of a puzzle. What is easily explained about This Year's Model, though, is its artistic success. Giddy dynamics, the Attractions' stop-and-go kineticism, and the furious rush propelling almost every song are highlighted by Nick Lowe's "pure pop" production. From "No Action"'s whispered opening through the last drum build-up in the anthemic "Radio, Radio," Model comes through with an intensity only hinted at in Costello's first album. The personal feel of most of Aim's lyrics are transformed into more general yet still focused imagery. "Pump It Up," for example, is a condemnation of the Stiff tour's "sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll" excesses; although a personal feeling to Costello, the song's tone shouts out at hypocrisy in general.
The LP is solid throughout, but (for me, anyway) three tunes are ahead of the pack — "You Belong to Me," with its "Last Time" feel, "under his thumb" reference and "19th Nervous Breakdown" bass runs, closes out side one with a bang; a jangly final chorus, triggered by the collision of drums with descending bass, pushes the vocal to a stuttering close. "Lip Service," with its circular bass lines, bounces right along as Costello takes a classic accusatory stance:
- Everybody is going through the motions
- Are you really only going through the motions?
- Lip service is all you'll ever get from me. *
And "Lipstick Vogue" is a showcase for the Attractions' musical abilities, crackling with the dynamic hum of a nuclear reactor.
This Year's Model's strength when compared to second LPs by Costello's contemporaries (the Jam and the Clash, for instance) lay in three areas. The songwriting was clearly superior to anyone else's on the scene. The contrast in sound between his two albums worked to Costello's advantage; he was revving up while others were retreating from their audience's headbanging expectations. Plus he had the Attractions.
The Attractions were not a fly-by-night outfit who saw their instruments for the first time three weeks before entering the recording studio. All three musicians had pasts as quirky as their own individual capacities. Drummer Pete Thomas came from pub rockers Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, a stint with American folkie John Stewart, and an aborted attempt to fit into Wilko Johnson's post-Feelgoods outfit. (Not coincidentally, Chilli Willi's manager was Andrew Jakeman, later Jake Riviera, Costello's guide in his push to the top.) Bassist Bruce Thomas — no relation to Pete — had previously been with Sutherland Brothers and Quiver; despite being turned down initially, he was ushered in on the strength of his credentials. Only keyboard player and Nutty Professor lookalike Steve Nieve (Naive, for a while) had no rock experience, having joined up directly from the Royal College of Music. The group turned out to be one of those incredibly rare examples of professionalism infusing worthy material with a life of its own. No songwriter could have asked for a better band.
On the DeVille/Rockpile tour, Costello and the Attractions played everything at fever pitch. As usual, a heavy dose of new, unrecorded gems kept fans tantalized. Between the excitement of unveiling his latest efforts and the finely-honed renditions of "oldies," Costello's cranked-up show took the breath away. All signs pointed to world domination — but things got bogged down a bit from there.
When Armed Forces came out in February, 1979 there seemed to be no stopping the Costello juggernaut. Yet absolute US capitulation did not follow the album's release, and a subsequent tour exposed a few holes in the King's new outfit.
Media-resistant to begin with, Costello's fling with starchaser Bebe Buell made him seem like one more success-smitten chump. The press' constant guessing about his personal life made him even more antagonistic; no interviews, period, was now the rule. The growing confrontation reached its head in early 1979 with the infamous Ray Charles remark and barroom brawl in Columbus, Ohio. After that, even Costello's show was severely affected. Many people were turned off by stunningly short sets and his openly displayed veneer of — well, some called it arrogance.
All this contributed to a lack of accelerated widespread acceptance, but in retrospect it seems the clincher was Armed Forces itself. Although a logical progression from Model, its wit and production values threw it into the pop column and didn't deliver the rock 'n' roll knockout punch Costello needed. Regardless of the LP's artistic worth, only a stripped-down and harder followup could have guaranteed a home on the turntables of America's record-buying public.
Armed Forces may be too witty for its own good. (Get those poison pens and stamped envelopes out now, Elvis lovers). All the cunning and punning wear a bit thin by the middle of side two, where the "modern," slightly synthesized wash of sound is at its least appealing, Steve Nieve's often remarkably diverse keyboard textures dominate the too-numerous slow songs and indicate how much Model's rhythmic overdrive is curtailed here. Also, while Costello's violent imagery never repelled before (excepting the sadism of "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea"'s "shake her very gently by the throat"), Armed Forces' constant fascistic references to lampshades, little Hitlers and final solutions are overbearing.
On the plus side, Costello's pop sense did deliver "Accidents Will Happen," "Oliver's Army," "Goon Squad" and a tremendous Beatlesque ending to "Party Girl." The Beatles influence might have been a bit stronger than theorized, since videos for "Oliver's Army" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" more than acknowledge debts to A Hard Day's Night and Help! The latter song (replacing "Sunday's Best" on the US version) is the perfect ending to an album full of political and military metaphors. The Brinsley Schwarz tune was written by Nick Lowe before going delightfully cynical; the overwhelming contradictions of Costello's impassioned delivery made "Peace" one of his shining moments. Pete Thomas's thunderous drums and Costello's throatily irresistible "so-o-o-o!" following the guitar solo add up to another shimmering rock triumph.
Last year Costello didn't tour here. A consolation, his LP for 1980 featured 20, count 'em, 20 big ones. Unfortunately, anyone buying the US pressing was treated to tremendously tinny sound, giving the lie to Nick Lowe's back cover promise of aural quality.
On Get Happy!! — not exactly an ominous title — Costello beat the Motown/Stax dance-rock revival to the punch with some very tight little variations on the theme. He even tackles two oldies: the Merseybeats' "I Stand Accused" and the flip to Sam and Dave's soul ballad, "Soothe Me," "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down."
The biggest problem with Get Happy!! is simply the number of new compositions one has to get used to. Many are, because of their brevity, not as developed as they might have been on a six-per-side album. Concentration, however, reveals over a dozen strong tunes — and therein lies the trouble. What's the point of listening intently to an LP clearly meant for dancing, to be played at lease-breaking volume at parties?
No discussion of Costello's recorded work can be complete without at least a nod in the direction of the numerous items listed as flip sides and English album tracks. In the US they are gathered in one place, Taking Liberties; this collection includes three tunes previously unreleased, and skips only a few live recordings in its attempt at thoroughness.
Most of the material deserved its B-side status, but not all. "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," from the British This Year's Model, features the funkiest beat and toughest guitar of Costello's career. "Radio Sweetheart" and the lesser "Stranger in the House" are token displays of country influence; an odder (superficially) appreciation of traditional pop songwriting crops up in a reading of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." (Let's also not forget Costello tackling Burt Bacharach on the Stiffs Live LP.) Whatever the worth of Taking Liberties, it has always been admirable of Costello to issue as much material as he has.
Which brings us to the new record. Trust is one of those albums that proclaims "the artist is back," even if you can't remember where he might have been. Simple and subtle production, with a full sound, works throughout the varied styles that a more mature (?) Costello lays down with his usual confidence. The most obvious factor in the success of this LP are the carefully prepared vocals. Never before on one record has Costello displayed the emotional range he does here. From the quiet tones of "Watch Your Step" and the drama of "Shot with His Own Gun" to the primitive yells required by "Lovers Walk," the voice of an impassioned artist has replaced the sneers of yesteryear.
This isn't to say that Costello has dispensed with his more embittered and violent side. "White Knuckles" begins with nursery rhyme softness but shifts ominously into the calculated brutality of previous Costello epics with lines like "Maybe they weren't loved when they were young / Maybe they should be hung by their tongues"; the chorus goes, "White knuckles on black and blue skin / Didn't mean to hit her, but she kept laughin'."
Trust's prevailing attitude, though, is one of relaxation (but not mellowness). It's hard to conceive of Stiff-era Costello letting another singer share one of his most accessible tunes, as he does with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook on "From a Whisper to a Scream. " And if Get Happy!! exhibited newly-acquired roots for the first time, the jungle rhythms of "Lovers Walk" and rockabilly stance of "Luxembourg" (with suitable "real gone cat" moans) expand Costello's attempts at understanding and using rock's past for his present. There's even an original country tune, "Different Finger," that fits in with the rest of the numbers instead of sticking out, as did "Stranger in the House" in 1978. The ability to accommodate new ingredients without tilting in any one direction demonstrates Costello's newly found trust in his musical instincts.
As always, the album contains some instant classics that, without relying on a formula, could only have sprung from the Costello pen. "Strict Time," with its seductive, stuttering beat emphasized by piano as well as drums, features a hushed chorus reminiscent of earlier masterworks. "New Lace Sleeves"'s rhythm is provided by strummed guitar and cymbal work; the song sneaks insidiously into one's system before fading with Nieve's haunting organ punctuation. And who could resist the lazy guitar solo that yields to a full-throttle keyboard assault in the peppy "Fish and Chip Paper"?
But we haven't gotten to Trust's two killers. Nieve's melodramatic piano dominates "Shot with His Own Gun" and meshes perfectly with what is probably Costello's most straightforward, unaffected singing yet. The playful lyrics haven't disappeared. ("On your marks, men, ready, set / Let's get loaded and forget"), but unlike earlier tender moments there's no longer the feeling that wise guy Costello is laughing in the control booth at the beauty of it all.
That leaves "Clubland." Why this track strikes deeper than Trust's other great pieces is hard to say. Perhaps it's Pete Thomas's masterful drumming, the rhythm slippin' and slidin' between cymbals and skins. Maybe it's the cliched but threatening piano arpeggio that conjures up nightclub ambience. It could even be the snippets of bitter commentary condemning the rock existence: "The crowd is taking 40 winks / Minus 10 percent," or "Thursday to Saturday / Money's gone already."
I'd have to say it's the dramatic insistence with which Costello digs into the chorus one last time. There is a desire — rare for Costello, pop facade builder, or just about anyone else in rock these days — for communication, no matter what the cost. That he's determined to (and can) declare his feelings four years after first appearing kicking and screaming is proof positive of Costello's continuing worth.
The tendency, in stories like this, is to predict future events or directions for the artist. Lester Bangs, replying to the backlash mail that poured in after his laudatory Creem review of Born to Run, said something like "Bruce Springsteen is a gifted musician with much potential." What else can one say about Elvis Costello? His qualities are more than apparent, and his stature grows accordingly; to forecast anything but clear skies for his career would be ridiculous. There you go: "Elvis Costello is a gifted musician... "