They say that "Los Angeles" means city of angels, but I think somebody blew it in translation. What it really means is city of angles, because everyone's got on, or is working on one. Everything there costs more than it's worth; the people act more important than they really are; even the call girls take Visa cards. And, to top it off, you have to get jet lag just to see it all.
So, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that, while I was in the legendary city, there was at least one bargain in town: the debut (well, almost!) of one Elvis Costello, an exceedingly square-looking, English character whose music has such an edge that it could take the nubs off peaches.
Elvis, who has had the name "a long time" made his recording debut not too long ago on a sampler album called A Bunch Of Stiffs, put out by the notorious Stiff Records. An English label whose motto is "If they're dead, we'll sign ‘em," Stiff was one of the first labels to devote itself solely to a few fledgling new wave artists (and not-so-new wave, as Graham Parker and Dave Edmunds have also received support from Stiff,) and the company released "Less Than Zero" to launch Elvis on his way to "fame and fortune." This was soon followed by the release of Elvis' first album, My Aim Is True, which was produced by Nick Lowe, also from the Stiff fold. Shortly thereafter, Columbia picked up Elvis and released that album (plus one additional cut, "Watching The Detectives") in the U.S.
The album is (to say the least) excellent — especially so when you consider it is his first attempt at an album and done on such a low budget. Elvis was — and still is, I imagine — a computer analyst and certainly looks the part. The album was recorded on days that he blew off work, and it sounds all right for a leisure activity. The result is a well-rounded mix of ballads and rockers that evoke, at times, visions of that Dylan guy some of you older readers may remember. Some, however, have even gone so far as to call him the "next Graham Parker," although I prefer to think of him as the "current Elvis Costello" and for that matter, the only Elvis around that is doing much of anything these days.
True, he does sound like Parker, but Parker, too, sounds like others, and it is certainly no crime — especially in rock and roll — to cop a lick here or there. Never mind the fact that Elvis had these songs on tape for over a year. The real meat lies in Elvis' lyrics, which are more cryptic and haunting than anything Parker has produced, and tinged with a dry sort of humor. My Aim Is True recalls the best of what rock and roll used to be; short, tight songs with highly hummable hooks. Take your pick; any one could be a hit. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," for example, is the radio programmer's answer to Blue Nun; it goes great with anything.
Elvis is one of the beginning of a generation (being only 22) that grew up on the last of the great radio sounds. Ten years ago, when many of us were in our formative years, the radio was filled with real rock and roll: The Kinks, Who, Stones, Zombies and, yes, even The Beatles. This seems to be where Elvis found his inspiration; he owes more to these bands than to Muddy Waters, Hank Williams or any other of those "roots" musicians whose names people so love to drop just to show that they know what's happening.
Elvis himself is very hesitant to talk about his past, except to say that he does indeed have one. He does, however, give some insight into his past in his music, and it looks like he's done a considerable amount of looking back, even though he is keeping mum.
"I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused" says he in "Red Shoes," and that's a considerable statement relatable to anyone who has spent time being frustrated before finally coming to grips with the futility of it all. But at least he's not angry anymore, as the song goes. It seems that Elvis tries to rise above all the crap that most people have to wade through on the road to whatever; he's seen it, and it's nothing to get worked up over. After all, as he says, "there's no such thing as an original sin." It's been done.
Another of his idiosyncrasies is his refusal to credit anyone on the album except producer Lowe, and even that is on the label inside. "They don't care; they know who they are," says Elvis, as he continues to shroud himself in mystery.
Costello, now on his final tour of the States, started in San Francisco with two shows at the Whiskey A Go Go, where he exposed himself for the first time to the American recording industry and press for some real critical evaluation.
At first, Elvis presents a meek looking figure on stage with short-cropped hair and large horn-rimmed glasses that could become something of a trademark. From the first few chords of the opening "Welcome To The Working Week," it's clear that these looks are deceiving. Elvis is in charge from moment one as he sings — no, snarls — and then cracks a sly smile just to let you know that he doesn't mind you being there. Costello's music is much colder in person than on record. A semi laid-back number like "Miracle Man" becomes a furious rock and roll song that should send Parker back to schooldays and convert the most ardent Springsteen fan.
A phenomena that has caught me wondering more than once is the large influence of reggae upon the English new wave. In the ghettos of London, some of the only white records being sold are by the Sex Pistols and The Clash have gone so far as to have Jamaican Lee Perry produce their new album. Elvis too, plays the ganja game, with "Watching The Detectives" and a new song, "Living In Paradise," that evoke the heaviest West Indian beats quite successfully. They are, in effect, the first "reggae" tunes I could (1) actually understand without the lyrics in front of me, and (2) relate to on a non-Rasta basis.
Elvis himself is capable of tossing out some pretty good guitar licks and, at times, can make the instrument as expressive as his voice. Pantomime is another of Elvis' tools, using his hands alternately on the guitar and on himself; pointing, scratching and making fists. It's stuff like this that, no matter how hard you try, just can't be put on vinyl. He says it's not rehearsed and that he's never seen himself perform on tape or film. Well, Elvis, you should, because you're missing a vital part of the show. Somebody give this guy a Betamax for Christmas.
My Aim Is True has been out for a while in England. Consequently, Elvis had to develop a new set of songs for his English audience, as well as for his next album. It is on the new tunes that he really shines, and as much as I liked My Aim Is True, the new one is bound to be an absolute killer.
Elvis' set is mixed close to 50:50 with new and old material. The most amusing is "Radio," a formal complaint against that medium which should be filed with the FCC. "I was really expecting some great things in American radio," he says, "but all I hear is the Eagles." The strongest of his new numbers is one called "The Beat," a neurotic sounding rocker that should overtake most of what's on his first album. In the running for a single he should have a hit: his music's a natural for the radio) is "Little Triggers," closest in sound to the ballad "Allison" (his first American single), but more intense as are all his new songs. Another, "Just Another Mouth In Your Lipstick Vogue," should be a candidate for the best title of the year.
The poet-balladeer in rock is quite stylish these days, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of Springsteen and the success of others like Parker, Elliott Murphy and Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy) in the same field. If labels must be used, then Elvis too fits into this category. But, where the others are romanticists, Elvis is more of a realist. According to him, romance in pop music has taken a leave of absence. I would tend to agree. While riding through ("past" might be a better word) the L.A. barrio on the way to the airport, I seriously doubted that anyone there would care whether Bruce Springsteen is charmed by their lifestyle; they would probably just as soon roll him for change. When Eric Burdon and Scott MacKenzie sang about San Francisco, suburban kids split to be flower children; however, I don't see too many people today shedding their middle class heritage to be winos in Harlem. At least, not by their own choice.
The point is that Elvis is not giving us something that he has not experienced himself. Rather, he is taking a step back and telling us what he has seen. Elvis knows the endings to his songs; consequently, so do we. There are no outlaws in his world. According to Elvis we were not burn to run, but born to work. "Welcome to the working week," he sings, "I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you — you gotta do it, so you better get to it." It's a far cry from Johnny Rotten's singing "I'm just a lazy sot," and, ultimately, it's a more realistic stance. Nope, escape it not on the program.
Elvis Costello will make his Cleveland debut very soon. Believe me, this modest-looking guy can make for a great time. Like the aforementioned west coast city, he's got a few angles of his own and I guarantee he'll throw in a couple of curves. And that is worth all the jet lag in the world.