These two albums, like all New Wave music, have been lost in the swell of rhetoric surrounding punk rock. Attention has been focused on punk appearance and the exploits of those media anti-dandies, the Sex Pistols. Unfortunately, most people reject the music without giving it a good listen. The fact is the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello have produced excellent albums. Although they both carry the tag of New Wave, their music is entirely different.
Politics aside, the Sex Pistols are a variation on Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones. Elvis Costello's music, in sharp contrast, is closest to Bruce Springsteen or Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
In addition to being English, the only thing the Pistols and Costello have in common is a lack of sophistication. Both are reminiscent of an earlier, more primitive kind of rock. The term "New Wave" seems, therefore, to describe a tendency rather than a style. In other words, don't judge a New Waver by her-his label.
Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols is a hot blast of scorn. Take the nastiness of the early Rolling Stones, distill it, and you'll come up with Bollocks. The Pistols' proclaimed intention is anarchy, and their method is primitive hard rock. Johnny Rotten's sneering vocals are supported by Steve Cook's distorted rave-up guitar, Sid Vicious' monotone bass and Paul Cook's driving drums. The result is anger incarnate.
Their life styles and attitudes may be offensive, but seldom has rock been this forceful and energetic. The pace is unrelenting, with blazing tempos on all the songs, and the recorded sound is a wall of distorted mid-range. Cutting through the angry buzz are Rotten's snide put-downs. Listening to Bollocks really puts you through the wringer, but it's worth it.
In comparison, Elvis Costello is a smoothie. The arrangements are complex, but the sound is straight out of the '50s. Most of the material is, too, with healthy doses of boy-girl love songs.
Like Springsteen, Elvis Costello has a knack for recycling hooks and rhythms from the past. Listen to this album and you'll be reminded of such golden greats as the Shangri-Las, Ronny and the Daytonas, and the Lovin' Spoonful.
Costello has an ear for combining catchy musical phrases and lyrics. "Sneaky Feelings" contains this snappy couplet:
Why don't we call it a day and we can both confess
You can force me to use a little tenderness
The masterpiece of the album is "Watching the Detectives." The song uses a reggae rhythm, with some cheap organ and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" guitar to spice it up. In the song a girl is watching a detective show on television. Suddenly, in mid-song, things take a metaphysical twist and the girl becomes part of a detective mystery herself. The effect is sinister, and the menace reaches its peak with the lines:
It took a miracle to get her to stay
It only takes my little finger to blow her away
Both efforts have found critical glory. The two albums were picked among the best of 1977 by the scholarly critics at the Village Voice (top two) and the more populist writers at Rolling Stone (among the top five). And, lest you think these folks are elitist, their other common choice was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.