The release this month of the long awaited Sex Pistols' debut LP and a totally unexpected record from a former computer programmer from Liverpool named Elvis Costello seems a fitting way to close out a hectic year for rock. Of all the new blood that has been pumped into the rock world this year (punks, new wavers, whatever) the Pistols and Elvis appear most likely to remain in the system. Their records overcome basic flaws through an unflagging rock spirit and an ability to write songs so listenable that they transcend the rather limiting technical abilities. Not only that; this is the first truly new music to come out of the New Wave with a realistic chance of mass appeal.
The Pistols, victims of some of the harshest press coverage since Richard Nixon, were tabbed as England's top punk band even before they had released an album. (The three Pistols singles that came out before Bollocks — "Anarchy in the UK," "God Save the Queen," and "Pretty Vacant" — are all included on the new album.) If you can forget all the safety pin and fascism stories and judge the music by what comes out the speakers, Bollocks (English slang for the media blitz) offers some of the funnest rock and roll ever recorded.
I say "fun" because in order to really enjoy the Sex Pistols one can't take all the anarchy talk too seriously. Though there are bits and pieces of a punk philosophy here (as on "No Feelings" overtly narcissistic line, "I'm in love with myself and nobody else"), the Pistols have consistently denied being a "political" band. We can assume then that things like the goose-stepping troop sounds that blend into a bass drum beat on "Holidays in the Sun" are for shock effect only. For this reason it seems wise to avoid over-analyzing the lyrical bombshells that lead singer Johnny Rotten drops on us during nearly every song. Anyway, as Johnny shouts on "Pretty Vacant," "There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply." Nuff said.
What is worth discussing is the underlying energy current that moves these songs. The first thing that assaults the listener is Rotten's rather unorthodox delivery. One second he's screaming bloody murder, the next he's teasing, playing dumb or giving a menacing laugh. Words are stretched out ("supply" becomes "sup-ply-ya") and r's are rolled like a boot camp drill sergeant might (Alrrright!). "EMI" finished with a Bronx cheer directed at a former record company, ending side two on a snotty note.
But the Pistols aren't all saliva and debauchery. A so-far unnoticed talent in the group is guitarist Steve Jones. A latter day Keith Richards if there ever was one, Jones moves the songs at a pace just barely under his control. The effect is not unlike having your head pass by a moving chainsaw. Call it power-chording if you like; but underneath all the distortion is a keen ear for song hooks rarely found in high voltage rock.
By no means is Bollocks without its faults however. More than one tune ("Bodies," "New York") sounds like dead-end heavy metal in the Black Sabbath tradition. This sort of filler shows how fine the line between carefree anarchy and pompous rock posing can be. But even when the Sex Pistols appear to be borrowing from the past, the group's energy and Rotten's outrageous pronunciations manage to fizzle any pretentiousness that might overcome the humor.
To keep from getting stale, the boys (bassist Sid Vicious especially) are going to have to learn a few more licks. But fine points like song introductions ("Pretty Vacant"'s staccato guitar intro) and backing vocals (anthem-like on "Anarchy in the UK") are surprisingly polished for a first effort. Repeated listenings make the "sloppy" playing appear meticulously organized.
The teaming of the 22-year-old Costello with the Northern California group Clover (a band that had been going nowhere fast) makes for one of the year's nicest surprises. Just as candid as Johnny Rotten but a bit more on the sentimental side, the near-sighted Costello looks like anything but a rock star. But if this debut is a true indication of his talent (Elvis is listed as writing all the songs) he just might be the next Buddy Holly (whose pose he seems to be striking on the jacket).
The most striking quality of Elvis' album is its sincerity. At the risk of sounding cliche, this is the most genuine album to come along in quite a while. Some of the songs are about losing ("I don't know if you're loving somebody, I only know it isn't mine"). Most are about lost girls ("So you found some other joker who can please you more. I'm not angry"). But every one is sung to the fullest with no remorse. Elvis may be a loser in love but when he straps on his six string it's like Clark Kent jumping into a phone booth.
Like the Sex Pistols, what Elvis does is really not all that new. But trying to be creative in an art form that has been revamped as much as rock is a pretty futile pursuit anyway. What is original is the way he mixes old techniques like call and response lyrics ("Red Shoes"), nonsense syllables ("Less Than Zero") and vocals syncopated to the drums ("Alison") with his own fairly ordinary vocal style. Unlike the Sex Pistols, Elvis' songs work at any speed. Soft ("Alison") or hard ("I'm Not Angry"), anyone of these songs could be a hit if it had enough exposure.
Besides their unusual candidness these two records offer some of the catchiest songs in recent memory. Believe it or not, beneath the Pistols' anarchy front lies a pop rock heart.