Much as it is to be applauded as an alternative to the Debby Boones of this world, there's no escaping the fact that much punk rock — now christened 'New Wave', in its first stage of self-consciousness — is just so much synthetic outrage. Musically-vacuous synthetic outrage at that.
Take The Sex Pistols. Now, whatever else Never Mind The Bollocks may be, it is most definitely not the departure from the sixties rock establishment its supporters would have you believe. In fact, it's downright reactionary in its recycling not only of primal riffs but of the associated attitude — the primitivism that was the hallmark of the earliest recordings by the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds.
The Pistols have not, then, made great musical strides forward.
What they have done is taken the outrageousness associated with early sixties rebels such as the Stones and exaggerated it to the point where you can't take them seriously, any more than you can take Kiss seriously. Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious are cartoon-figures in the same way Gene Simmons, breathing fire and spitting blood, is a cartoon figure.
It took Elvis Costello to convince me that the anger and eccentricity of punk rock could be harnessed into first rate rock and roll.
And Costello is nothing if not eccentric. Quite aside from his assumed name, he exhibits a punkish fascination with image that is somehow endearing rather than threatening. In fact, it's hard to imagine a less sinister figure than our Elvis: glaring out at you from the cover of My Aim Is True from behind horn-rimmed specs, he looks equal parts Buddy Holly and the kid next door.
Don't be deceived.
Within this rather unlikely looking frame, there beats the heart of a classic rock and roller.
In fact, it is only the anger which infuses almost every song on My Aim Is True that ties Costello creatively to the rest of the New Wave. He has claimed that his songs are motivated by "revenge and guilt", and the connection is hard to miss in songs like "Blame It On Cain" or "Pay It Back." In fact, his best work manages to communicate all the rage that the Pistols, for all their ranting, seem only to skirt.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but most of them come down to the fact that Elvis has managed to hold the reins in on the self-indulgence that has marred almost all New Wave rock. If you had to pin it down lyrically, you could probably call it a union of the romantic and the cynical that comes off best in a song like "Alison":
Well it's funny to be seeing you after so long, girl
And with the way you look I understand that you are not impressed
But I heard you let that little friend of mine
Take off your party dress
Not exactly "Anarchy In The U.K.", but what the hell.
Costello's music underscores his obvious anger in much the same way: the man obviously has a masterful understanding of how rock songs should be constructed and arranged. "Less Than Zero," my favorite piece of rock so far this year, comes to mind first in this respect. A "Louie Louie"-like chord progression launches the song, allegedly about Oswald Mosley, a British fascist leader of the 1930's. After each verse, a wonderfully simple and somehow arhythmic drum break kicks you into the chorus, complete with riveting power chords and a hook that stays with you for days.
Costello also has a knack for playing off the innocence associated with the 50's constructions of songs like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Mystery Dance." The middle eight of "I'm Not Angry", for example, contains the following lines, underpinned by a tom-tom riff straight out of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue":
I know what you're doing
I know where you've been
I know where
But I don't care
Cause there's no such thing as an original sin
The last word is punctuated with a snare shot that takes the song into a furious burst of lead guitar. Costello gets his point across more dramatically because he doesn't bludgeon you.
I should add, by the way, that his voice — which has been compared most often to Bruce Springsteen's — is a wholly delightful rock and roll instrument, combining a touch of Springsteen with the croak of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and emerging as Elvis Costello.