Listen to this track, the closing song on 1980’s landmark Get Happy!! album, recorded quickly after a dreary American tour and with a pile of Northern Soul 45s as a means to achieve his most varied, yet precise, work to date. Yet, there were other forces that helped to make this particular track – scandal!
Picture the scene in a Columbus, Ohio hotel bar, with a well-in-the-bag Costello, along with Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, as well as members of Stephen Stills’ band, including one Bonnie Bramlett. As such, we have something of the old guard in Stills’ party, arguably 60s hippy remnants at somewhat of a descending career arc by 1979. To contrast, Elvis Costello was being hailed as the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and as far away from Woodstock ideals as could be – at least on the surface.
Musicians being the competitive sort, and some being rather belligerent after a few beers, an argument ensued. And boy, did it get ugly. From People magazine’s archives:
“Bramlett, a longtime paladin of rhythm-and-blues whose backup bands once included heavies like Leon Russell, Duane Allman and Rita Coolidge, kept cool until, she says, Costello “called James Brown a jive-ass n*gger.” Next, according to an onlooker, “Bonnie said, ‘All right, you son of a bitch, what do you think of Ray Charles?’ He said, ‘Screw Ray Charles, he’s nothing but a blind n*gger.’ That did it. Bonnie backhanded him, slapped him pretty hard, because she’s a healthy chick.” (asterisks mine).
The result of this was a press conference in New York, with Costello on the carpet in front of a very disgruntled American music press. It also led to American radio banning of Costello’s music, and picketing at his remaining concert appearances. Costello explained to the press that he was drunk at the time, and feeling very much like he wanted the conversation to end. He explained that he was not a racist, but that he wanted to offend his assailants.
As such he very ill-advisedly decided to say the most offensive thing he could manage. At the time, he felt that since they were American musicians, it made sense to denigrate some of the giants in their field with the worst insults possible. “Had they been painters,” Costello said at the time, “I would have insulted Toulouse Lautrec”.
Yet, the whole thing seemed like a pall on the band when they got back to Britain, and subsequently recording Get Happy!! in Holland with the heavy atmosphere created by their experiences in Ohio, and the flak they took afterward. The Ray Davies-esque “Riot Act” seems like Costello’s way to decompress from it, infused with frustration over what had happened, as well as with some fear he felt over the possibility that the incident had derailed his career as a professional musician in America and everywhere else. “A slip of the tongue is going to keep me civilian” indeed.
His angry young man phase was nearly at an end, whether by circumstance or design. And this track showed that even if his judgment as a man was questionable where this incident was concerned, the work he was able to produce as an artist certainly was not. He would take the ambition of this track to the next level in ensuing years, particularly with his Imperial Bedroomalbum that won over critics on both sides of the Atlantic anew, complete with Gershwin comparisons, two years later.