It happened when I was listening to The Beatles; I couldn’t choose which record to listen to. It happened again with The Boomtown Rats, again with Cheap Trick, and now, in my mission to listen to one cd from each artist represented in my collection in alphabetical order, I am faced with choosing a single Elvis Costello album from the 25 that I possess. I found with The Beatles, with The Boomtown Rats, and with Cheap Trick that it could not be done. I’m not even going to try with Elvis, the second most liberally represented artist in my entire collection. That would just be dumb.
As a teenager, discovering that I was nearly alone on a new wave island in suburbia, I gobbled up everything I could find that struck me as inventive, weird, nerdy, out of the mainstream, and I made quite a few important discoveries. The Talking Heads, Blondie, XTC, Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Japan, and Elvis were the harbingers of my adolescence. We had a classic rock station that was making some forays, late at night, into this territory, and of course, we had MTV in its very nascence. I don’t know if I saw Elvis before I heard him. I think I heard “Watching the Detectives” on the radio, and “Radio, Radio,” on the radio. That must have been it. For some reason, though, it didn’t occur to me to buy a Costello record until he was three albums into his career. It was the song “Oliver’s Army,” I think, that really did it for me–so “Armed Forces” was my first purchase–and perhaps, I don’t remember exactly, it could have been the video that finally sold me. After a quick perusal, though, I find the verdict is in. No, it couldn’t have been the video. This thing is terrible. Bad enough to kill a great song. Don’t watch it.
And yet, no, a terrible video cannot kill a great song. I have personal experience with this. “Oliver’s Army” is a great song. As a youngun, I often found myself drawn to tunes the lyrics to which I didn’t understand. I still don’t think I understand this song, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it–its giddiness, its exuberance, its changes, its tongue twisting lyric, and that awesome chorus tag: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here today.” And now that I think of it, remembering less poorly perhaps than before, “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” was my first Elvis love–and I remember distinctly hearing it on the radio radio late at night. So, is it “Armed Forces?” I don’t know! I haven’t even started listening but for the last few days I’ve had nothing but Elvis on the brain. What about that first album? Such a perfect thing–such an odd thing–terrific songwriting–almost a kind of country record, and yet, strange, odd, exuding a personality unlike anything I’d ever encountered, horrible sounding, and yet, here’s a record that saves the very best song for last! Don’t get me wrong, “Alison” is a great song, but “Watching the Detectives” is one of the very greatest songs. Oh, crap, finding it impossible to choose, I begin at the beginning and can’t stop myself until I’m five albums in! Here goes:
“My Aim Is True”: A terrible sounding great album. And it’s only now that I realize (unless I realized before and just forgot about it) that The Attractions had not been formed yet, so none of the greatness of that band is apparent here. No matter. As I’ve said, “Watching the Detectives,” with or without The Attractions line-up, is worth the price of admission. If I remember correctly, this was the third Costello album added to my collection.
“This Year’s Model”: This was my second Elvis record–and holy shit, what a revelation. That first track, “No Action, ” tossed me into spasms of ecstasy. I mean, OMG, the drummer Pete Thomas practically solos through the whole thing. It’s full of kinetic energy; it’s explosive, bombastic, much punkier and more rocking than anything on the debut record, a clear transformation–and it worked a similar transformation on me, albeit, backwards. This is the first album with The Attractions, perhaps the mightiest backup band for a solo artist ever assembled in the world of Michael Jarmer. They were absolutely smoking. Check out the “Ticket To Ride” drumset effect in “This Year’s Girl” and the punk-ass jazz fusion of “Lipstick Vogue.” And then there’s “Radio, Radio,” indelibly etched into our minds as a kind of protest song in that first Elvis appearance on Saturday Night Live. Sophomore slump? Not even close.
“Armed Forces”: Again, my first Elvis record, and my what a record. From the lead vocal solo pick up of “Oh I” to the downbeat “just don’t know where to begin” of “Accidents Will Happen,” to the raucous closure of “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding,” this record absolutely rocked my teenage geeky soul and it continues to rock the soul of this old man. As a kid, I remember being so struck and taken by Elvis’s very particular vocal styling, a kind of nasally Bob Dylan meets Tom Petty, but only English and super smart and way more inventive and musical. And this, along with my parallel discovery of The Boomtown Rats, really brought to my ears and brain for the first time the idea that rock music could really be about something big–even though I didn’t quite understand any of it. It had a weightiness to it, a gravitas. Sonically, I love the way the drums sound on this record and the roller-skate organ continues to kill throughout. This music makes me happy.
“Get Happy”: Here’s a radical idea–let’s put 20 songs on a single 12″ record, 10 songs a side! I think it’s important to mention that even though all these records are now in my cd collection, I bought all these albums when I was a kid on vinyl, the compact disc still six or seven years down the road. By necessity, because of the limitation of the LP format, all the songs on this brilliant record must be super short. There may be only one or two tunes on this entire album that clock in over three minutes. So the record flies by. And there is gem after gem here, too. Most notably, “Five Gears in Reverse,” “Opportunity,” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.” Great songs. Soulful and short. But this record didn’t captivate me quite as much as the previous three, but it was still beloved. This record, though, perhaps more than the previous three, improves with age–possibly, it seems less stuck in time, less tied to an era than its predecessors.
And last, but not least, “Trust.” I might go out on a limb to say that this might be my most favorite Elvis album ever. I’m not going to die by those words, but I know that if I could only take one Costello record with me to the desert island, this would certainly be one of the contenders. I remember vividly that I was listening to this record late one night when my girlfriend knocked on my bedroom window. There’s nothing really sordid to report. She just stood out there and we whispered back and forth for awhile before she snuck off back to her home down the street. That must have made me one happy camper, and as she walked off, I may have boogied by myself in the bedroom to “Clubland,” “Strict Time,” “Luxembourg,” “Watch Your Step,” and the groovy collaboration with Glen Tilbrook from The Squeeze, “From a Whisper to a Scream.” There was something about the lyric and musical variety of this record and it’s lush production that set it over the top for me–not to mention that I was in love. That love and the pursuant heartbreak wouldn’t last more than a year–but this record, this record was built for the long haul. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites. This drum part. The space. The lyrics. That bass line. That cool vocal delivery. Elvis at his early career best, I think. Cheers. Finally I get get back to the conclusion of the letter C.
2 thoughts on “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume V, Letter Costello”
I love Elvis C’s lyrics as much as I do the Attractions tight music backing them up. His wordplay is amazing (New Amsterdam, Green Shirt, Beyond Belief come to mind, but there are so many!)
I wonder, when I go to my favorite lyrics website, why there is relatively little interest in Elvis . . . (songmeanings.com)
I think Elvis, generally speaking, in the wider musical culture of the US in particular, is obscenely underrated. He’s a genius. I can’t think of a single other artist with the breadth and depth of his repertoire.