The roots of Get Happy!!, the fourth and possibly best album by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, lie in the Armed Forces Tour of 1979. Elvis and Co. were immersing themselves in Motown and Stax/Volt singles compilations, listening to them non-stop in their tour van. It was easy to see that Elvis was on the verge of making a soul record.
An incident on the tour might have had a subconscious effect on Costello's music. The Attractions were touring with Stephen Stills and his band, and the four cranky and sharp-tongued Brits took an instant disliking to "these hippies." One night, the two groups were drinking at the same bar when Costello, who was very drunk, decided to do whatever he could to piss off the Stills camp.
A war of words ensued, and Costello unleashed a tirade he would later regret. A member of Stills band said only black musicians could play rhythm and blues with any real justice. In response, Costello uttered the most offensive things he could think of, rattling off a string of racial slurs, insulting greats like Ray Charles and James Brown.
The incident got Costello a punch in the face. Much worse, he was stuck with a controversy that would haunt him for a long time. In 1982, three years after the incident, Rolling Stone put Costello on the cover with the headline "Costello Repents."
Get Happy!! was released in the wake of the Armed Forces Tour. Costello would later say the record might have reflected his deep-rooted need to make amends for his ill-advised outburst.
Almost 20 years after it was released, this hardly matters anymore. Get Happy!! remains as a pinnacle of late '70s/early '80s new wave and belongs on a list of the best records of the decade.
In the end, Get Happy!! almost ripped the Attractions. The record's staggering 20 tracks were recorded quickly with a level of energy that took a lot of the band. "It was all very emotional," Costello would say later. This emotion gives the album a warmth that makes Get Happy!! one of Costello's most accessible records. The band is obviously in love with classic soul grooves. The Supremes echo through electrifying tracks such as "Love For Tender" and "Man Called Uncle;" the Four Tops in "King Horse" and Booker T. and the MGs in "Temptation."
The album is a consistent pleasure, a virtual treasure trove of eloquent pop music. It was yet triumph for Costello, who from 1977 to 1981 was as brilliant at knocking off one great song after another as any pop songwriter in rock history.
Costello, who just collaborated with lounge pop god Burt Bacharach, has written many more great pop songs since. But Get Happy!! remains a special achievement for Costello.