The story is a part of music geek lore by now: the trip to bustling Camden Town in smoky London, past street merchants and clothing stalls and into “Rock On”, a humble record store which held the elements which would become a part of the new record by Elvis Costello & the Attractions. A bespectacled young man exits, lighter by fifty British pounds sterling, and carrying an armful of vinyl treasures – Motown, Stax, Northern Soul – his black and shiny tickets away from the provincial stylistic suburb of what was then called “New Wave”. The young man had heard a song, “Back of My Hand” by the Jags, and heard himself in the simple lines of the voice and in the instruments. It was a wake-up call, and the beginning of a journey he has yet to finish.
It was the journey away from his own image.The band was strained in every way. They had come off of a less than stellar American tour by the end of 1979. Elvis had said some things he shouldn’t have in an Ohio hotel bar and paid for them in the presence of the baying hounds of the American press. Within the band itself there was tension even upon their return to England, the tentative bonds that held it together tested by the rigors of the road. In many ways, Costello’s trip to Camden was a trip back to his youth, to the records that first moved him, which would ironically move him forward as a songwriter. The result was an album not made by the next Dylan or Springsteen, or any other rock demi-god with America in the palm of his hand as touted in the music papers of the day. This was a record made by a music fan returning home, rejected temporarily by the American airwaves, yet resolved to move his craft forward into the looming and unknown 1980’s. In many ways, the record has no right to be as joyous as it is, and yet the defiance of 1977 had not died there in reference to musical expectations. It has just changed its form with the times. .
Get Happy!! is known as Elvis’ soul record, and yet in many ways, the influence of American soul music had always been a part of his work. “Welcome To The Working Week” from his first album could have been written for the Crystals, or any of Phil Spectre’s charges, although the cynicism and bite reflected in the lyrics may not have been carried as well in those more innocent times. In this tension, the match is perfect, as Costello’s strength has always been the sugared pill. “Oliver’s Army” on his previous record Armed Forces is surely a 60’s girl group melody (complete with additional ABBA flourishes) with the most menacing lyrics ever to grace the form. Yet on Get Happy!!, the ties to soul music are more overtly and enthusiastically displayed.
“Love For Tender” and “High Fidelity” are lost Motown pieces, and the single “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” is a re-imagined cover version of a Sam & Dave b-side. Otis Redding, The Temptations and Booker T & The MGs can all be heard in songs like “Secondary Modern”, from the familiar guitar line of the opening riff to Steve Nieve’s echoey keyboards. Although not pastiches by any stretch, this is an album that pays its debts.
The balance found between a musical past and the creation of something that is characteristic of the artist is achieved, which is quite remarkable considering the state of the band at the time. The whip-smart wordplay in the lines (“Don’t wear your heart upon your sleeve/When your remarks are off the cuff”, “There’s newsprint all over your face/ Well maybe that’s why I can read you like a book”, et al) is still present, as is the familiar bile that Costello had become associated with. “Opportunity” boils over with murderous intent (“ the chairman of the board’ll use a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funereal director) above caramel-smooth organ and guitar, with a sturdy latticework of bass guitar to bolster it. The stylistic shifts on this record do not soften the blow of Costello’s insistent disdain.
In addition to the world of soul, Costello has not abandoned his obvious love for pop music of all traditions and genres. “New Amsterdam” is a Ray Davies flavoured affair, as is the album’s closing track “Riot Act”, which suggests the Kinks hit “Days”, a song which Costello would later cover on his 1995 album Kojak Variety.
“Beaten to the Punch” betrays Costello’s love for With The Beatles, the Attractions sounding like how the Fabs might have sounded like if they had borrowed an organist for one of their Cavern Club lunchtime sets. The Merseybeats’ popularized version of’ “I Stand Accused” gets an amphetamine-fueled workout by Elvis and the Attractions, with the unique energy that only a band reared out of the fertile post-punk boom could deliver.
Ska, imported by decades old immigration from the Caribbean and more widely popularized in Britain by the Two-Tone label finds its way on here too, represented by the tortured and revealing “Human Touch”.
The country music strain in Costello’s music that flavoured earlier releases is also present in the country-torch song “Motel Matches”, which Patsy Cline could well have covered had the song been written twenty years earlier.
Incredibly, despite this homage to his roots, this is still Costello’s record and is not overshadowed by his influences as he might be were he a writer of lesser talent. In the tradition of the best of English songwriters, elements of other cultures, particularly those of the American variety, are taken and made into something vital, individual and whole. .
Costello would go on to make more stylistically brave albums, more daring and image rattling than this one. But this album has a vitality to it that would never be reproduced. The enthusiasm shown on this album is palpable, not simply an evasive maneuver from the new wave tag, or as some sort of amendment for unchecked comments made in a bar across the ocean. It is a record that exemplifies a trait that is rare in the outputs of singer-songwriters: it is a harkening back to an era where two and a half minutes were all that were needed to change someone’s world.
- Imperial Bedroom This is the record that took things to the next level for Costello and his band; more intricate arrangements, a more involved use of the studio (with the help of former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick in the producer’s chair), and a bolder step into new styles too. There was a lot of hype surrounding this release, with a rather dubiously considered marketing tagline (‘Masterpiece?’ read the copy). Luckily, Costello delivers a solid record which is accepted as a career high point with some great tracks including ‘Man Out of Time’, “The Long Honeymoon’, and the gorgeous “Town Cryer”.
- Blood & Chocolate. When the record company put pressure on Costello to return to his roots (read: to remake This Year’s Model), he called in stalwart producer Nick Lowe and set the Attractions to work. The resulting album was a failure in terms of remaking his past, but it became something entirely of its own; darker, angrier, and yet very connected to the writer’s state of mind at the time. Unfortunately, it would be the last time the band would record under the Elvis Costello & The Attractions name until 1996’s All This Useless Beauty (which is also worth exploring for it’s stylistic variety and depth), which would be the last time to date.
- Brutal Youth. In 1994, Elvis Costello was ready to make a rock n’ roll album after what many considered to be a wilderness period for him. It worked. Once again, Nick Lowe was called in – only this time as a bassist – along with the Attractions, who aren’t credited on the sleeve. The record is a straight-ahead rock n’ roll record, with tradmark Costello wordplay, and some of the best songs he’d written in seven years.
Watch Elvis Costello & The Attractions Perform ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’
Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!