Yank ravers Iggy Pop and the MC5 may have been the true architects of punk rock long before the Brits turned it into a social movement, but only Elvis Costello has managed to reinvent himself constantly through the ages. Of this year's line-up at Riot Fest, Costello was the only true Renaissance man. When his debut, My Aim Is True (Stiff/CBS Records), came out in 1976 it introduced him as not only a breath of fresh air but as a savior, along with Bruce Springsteen, of rock and roll itself.
By that time commercial radio was crammed with the likes of John Denver, Olivia Newton-John and the laid-back Eagles; apart from a few flashes of brilliance (David Bowie's "Thin White Duke," Stevie Wonder's dominance, Fleetwood Mac's re-emergence and Elton John's streak of hit singles), the most passionate music was turning into product.
Costello didn't look like a rock star or anyone you could take seriously. Presented in horn-rimmed glasses, tweed jackets, zits and an outgrown crew cut that looked as if it had been maintained with garden shears, he was obnoxiously nerdy decades before nerds became sexy. But the man was a contradiction; not only was Costello a brilliantly cunning linguist but his band, The Attractions (who debuted on the sophomore This Year's Model-Stiff/CBS in 1977), was more than willing and able to attack the music. The sound was like nothing anyone had ever heard; a barrage of nagging Farfisa organ, numbing halting bass lines and Costello's thick vocals piled on top. They may have packed a wallop and offered a sound untypically sophisticated for punk; however, Armed Forces (Stiff/CBS, 1978) was not only his first "finest hour" but exposed the notion that punk was merely a means to an end with him.
From the start, Costello was focused on government ("Senior Service," "Oliver's Army," "Hoover Factory"), censorship ("Radio, Radio") and fascism ("Two Little Hitlers," "Goon Squad") as well as making romance ("Alison," "Hand in Hand," "Stranger In the House," "Party Girl") and sex as blatant a transaction as politics and ideology. By 1979's Get Happy (Stiff/CBS)—a breathless concept album about pursuing that one special woman—it was clear that Costello would have to change his direction. What followed, for better and worse, could only be expected: albums with fuller songs (Get Happy was crammed with 21 songs averaging three minutes apiece); forays into pop and country; unlikely collaborations (Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, The Brodsky Quartet, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint); and even an Oscar nomination for Best Song. "So where did the punker in Costello go?," you would have to wonder as he hosted his own talk show on cable.
Granted, it was a damn good talk show (as he talked and jammed with musical heroes such as Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson and Elton John) but what he actually did with a cloak of subtlety was invade the pop consciousness in the same way as punk rock without losing his bite or "selling out." As expected, his set at Riot Fest was loaded with the early rockers that made him famous (as Riot Fest was hardly the place for pap like "Everyday I Write the Book" or "Veronica"); however, it's not what he played but how he played it.
For starters, "Clubland" had a thumping violent emphasis in its choruses, making the "club" in the title sound less like a place and more like a weapon. "Pump It Up" may have been appropriate and expected at such a celebration but the stinging guitar-picking that propelled "(I Dont Want to go to) Chelsea" was fiery and surgically precise.
Hearing "Radio, Radio" in this post-Bush era—35 years after it was recorded—gave it a dimension far more disturbing than the original. When Costello snarled, "So you had better do as you are told/You'd better listen to your radio...," the connotation went beyond Orwell and censorship, and right to the heart of the Patriot Act. Like the song says, "They think we're really getting out of control." Even more pungent was the sinister venom coiled through "Watching the Detectives," which was extended into a psychedelic goth jam. When Costello cooed, "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake," it seemed entirely appropriate that images of Jeffrey Dahmer popped into my head.
The only difference in these songs between when they were recorded (1976-80) and now, of course, is the realization that the hypocrisy that Costello sang about then are our everyday reality now. Like the horrors in Martin Scorses' film Taxi Driver (1976), there is a whole world of ickiness that the public was blissfully unaware of by choice, which is nothing new except that now we know more than we want to about it.
Later in the evening, when Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz barked "There ARE no good old days" during the band's first song, you had to admit that Costello and the rest of the punkers had it right all the time. We aren't in a new era of shit; we're stuck up to our tits in the same old stuff, but with a different vintage and awareness.