At the moment that Elvis Costello rushed to the stage of Philadelphia's Hot Club and jumped into "Welcome to the Working Week," his eyeballs relinquished focus and assumed a life of their own. For the rest of the night, they would wander and strain, twist and swivel, at times appearing to be two pupilless, bloodshot white globes. As Costello stoked his boilerroom rage... 100°... 150°... 200°... 250°... those eyeballs, overheated and agitated, threatened to take leave of their sockets.
By the time his band, the Attractions (drums, bass, organ), had segued into "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," Costello's face was transformed from British chalk-white to crimson, redder than the red shoes he was screaming about. As Costello ripped through the caustic lead in "Blame It on Cain," the sweat began pouring off his forehead, to drop in a steady stream from his chin. It was freezing outside; blood was boiling inside. When the second show ended — after about 30 songs of vengeance set to the eternal rock 'n' roll jukebox — I was ecstatic, too numb to express ecstasy, and possessed by two thoughts: Everything really did seem less than Elvis. When does he turn white again?
It's interesting to note that the most potent image in rock today may be that of a 22-year old, British, ex-computer operator — homely, short-haired, spectacled — standing awkwardly, Fender Jazz in hand. That's a long way but only a few years from the West Side Story silhouettes of Broadway Bruce. The ascent of Declan Costello from computer operator at an Elizabeth Arden plant to media sweetheart and Columbia recording artist has been meteoric, although Costello is still far from mass popularity. It began in the best possible way, word-of-mouth following the release of his album, My Aim Is True, by Stiff Records (a small, significant, and imaginative British label). The album became a best-selling import and started receiving significant FM airplay in the States (very little, however, in the DC area). Columbia, with a tradition of landing the big ones, signed Costello, immediately released the album, and began a sizable ad campaign) for example, "Reality Was Never this Good").
Philadelphia was just about the tail-end (New York City remained) of Costello's brief first American tour. The Hot Club, plastered with giant green posters with a yellow Elvis staring out, held a claustrophobic 200. When Costello took the stage he looked every bit the freshly hatched, ugly duckling of rock 'n' roll; he was dressed in a crumpled black suit that had seen neither washer nor iron since the tour began.
The live show was not a reiteration of the album; it was more a vicious counterpoint. Characteristic was the sacrifice of some of the melodic sensibility of the album in favor of a more rhythmically incessant and monolithically angry approach on stage. Notably, Costello did not sing "Radio Sweetheart" or "Alison," two songs that reflect the calm before the storm, the more loving (even nostalgic) side of Elvis' bitter dissections of failed relationships. Gone also were many of the brilliantly simple touches that elevated the album — the transcendental guitar figure opening "Miracle Man"; the screaming guitar note that follows every "blame it on Cain"; the frenetic instrumental break of "Mystery Dance."
Likewise some of the nuances of Costello's vocals were sublimated as he bore down on the mike, shouting the lyrics, insisting on their truth. A beautiful exception occurred during Costello's rockabilly gem, "Mystery Dance." In the song's dramatic stop-and-go intro, Elvis demanded, "don't bury me 'cause I'm not dead...," paused waited and then carefully and forcefully enunciated... "yet." At that point, Costello — with his poor man's Buddy Holly looks, his classic licks, and that beaten Fender — seemed a timeless element of the eternal 50's. That "me" was as much about rock 'n' roll and its mystery as Elvis and his dance. When the song was over, he screamed at the audience, "WAKE UP!" For the moment rockabilly had found itself in the 70's. The hillbilly was transformed to working class British, the hiccups were a scream, and the nervousness had become rage.
Live, Costello was not selling his album so much as himself as a songwriter. I counted eleven new songs (some titles: "Little Triggers," "No Action," "The Beat," "Pump it Up," "Lipstick Vogue," and "Let's Slow Dance"). All of them were the same blend of lyrical snap, barbed wit, and pop accessibility that made his album as cryptic as it was instantly engaging. He introduced a new song, "Radio Radio," that was both a put-down of American radio and a claim that radio was, by rock 'n' roll birthright, his territory. The use of the. organ gave credence to that claim as it brought out AM echoes of the Mysterians, the Strangeloves, and the Kingsmen. Throughout the new material were shreds of rock 'n' roll archetypes like "Gloria," "Hang On Sloopy," and "My Generation."
Throughout the evening, Costello rushed from song to song with almost no pause for breath or talk. He interjected one note of humor in the second show when he told the audience, "This one's for all the people who stood out in the cold waiting for us." The band then broke into the wonderfully choppy intro to "Less Than Zero." Interestingly, it was not the encore — a furious, bulging veins performance of "I'm Not Angry" — that provided the evening's musical climax. Rather it was Costello's TV mystery, "Watching the Detectives," that riveted the audience. There was something spellbinding and creepy about Costello's dramatic phrasing ("you know it took my little fingers to blow you away") and ominous guitar playing that transform this organ-based reggae ditty into a tale of the macabre.
Live, Costello seemed physically possessed and driven by his themes of rejection and revenge and, in that sense, shared more with Johnny Rotten than Southside Johnny. The power of his music owes more, however, to his ability to graft those themes onto classic rock (at its toughest and most economical) and to hold a teetering balance between rage and humor ("Oh I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused"), between contempt and passion. If this ugly duckling is finally paying the world back, he is using the double-edged sword of the satirist and surrealist, not the broad hatchet of the British punks.
The rejection theme that seems endless in Costello's songs ("I know that she has made a fool of him / Like girls have done so many nights before, time and time again") extends to the record industry and the rock press. Costello is openly bitter about his earlier problems getting record companies interested in his songs. He described his experiences in a Melody Maker interview: "I went around for nearly a year before I came to Stiff and it was the same response. 'We can't hear the words.' 'It isn't commercial enough.' 'There aren't any singles.' Idiots... No, it didn't make me bitter. I was already bitter." With his recent success, it is Elvis' turn to reject and he has given the rock press only the barest tidbits on his life, and the sources and meanings of his songs.
With the critics in tow, Columbia behind him, and some of the best songs of the decade, Costello has become the target of the big questions — will he be the next big whatever? how far will he go? how many will he attract? how much will he sell? If new wave has any meaning — if there is a point of reference for the likes of Costello, the Ramones, Graham Parker, the Sex Pistols — it's that those are the terms of the record industry, not the artists and their fans. Any of the above can do what Costello did in the Hot Club — fill a rock club with uncompromising, occasionally brilliant and idiosyncratic rock art and share that experience, up close, with their audience. That is enough; that is everything worth demanding and receiving.