Tag Archives: the 80s

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume V, Letter Costello

trust

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.

 

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Some Things that Sucked about Music in the 80’s

It’s time to make some pronouncements.  I have no authority, and I hate it when people who have no authority make pronouncements, but because I am a musician and can kind of claim to know something about music, and because I lived through, was actually a teenager and a young adult in this particular era, I will make some pronouncements anyway, even though none of this makes me an authority.

Many things about music in the 80’s sucked.  Hair bands, for the most part, sucked. Mainstream pop, almost entirely, sucked.  The more popular of the one-hit wonder new wave bands, for all intents and purposes, sucked.  Overproduced drums and vocals, the snare drum that sounded like a nuclear explosion and the vocal  track drowning in reverb, these things sucked. Most of the videos on MTV, as exciting as they were for awhile, sucked, especially the videos which showcased some of these musicians in their full dumb-assed glory, for example, playing a single note with an index finger on a synthesizer while boogying with themselves, or posing ridiculously with guitars jutting out from between their legs like gigantic phalluses, or this, what my band Here Comes Everybody was guilty of in the 80’s: way over-the-top lip synced performances, complete with real instruments plugged into nothing in a bare studio against a blank backdrop.  Yes, even I, to a certain degree, sucked in the 80’s . Even if the music I made didn’t suck (and it didn’t, by the way, in my humble opinion), my notions of what was hip, cool, or engaging in the visual department certainly did.  I’ll direct your attention to Exhibit A:

This video sucks in so many awful ways.  It appears that the singer in the band, c’est moi, is on speed.  He wasn’t, by the way.  But he was all hot and sweaty because he had done perhaps ten takes before the stupid videographers got their stupid video shit together enough for a complete performance.  His mascara is running.  Musicians in the 80’s wore mascara.  That kind of sucked.  But what especially sucks in this video is the battle the singer in the band, c’est moi, has with a digital blackout bar, the kind usually used to black out eyes or naughty bits.  That was just a dumb idea, but it was, at the time, the fanciest special effect we had at our disposal.  Also a dumb idea is this notion that the musicians pretending to play their instruments should be huddled in a little line behind the spastic lead singer.  Okay, enough about me.  And I really wanted, initially, to write about things that DIDN’T suck about music in the 80’s, but I just couldn’t seem to run out of the things that did.  Let me try to get through the rest quickly.

Bands and artists that were great in the 70’s, particularly Cheap Trick, Elton John, Kiss, Rush, and Journey, sucked in the 80’s, despite a number of mega-hits from many of them.  The word “sucked,” which I’m certain had an earlier origin, was particularly overused in the 80’s, and that has nothing to do with music, but it, nevertheless, sucked. However, there’s a very sharp little defense of the word “sucks” by Seth Stevenson on Slate, and it makes me feel not nearly so guilty for overusing the word in this little blog post.

What didn’t suck about 80’s music?  Not surprisingly, the things that didn’t suck about 80’s music are the same things that don’t suck about some of today’s music. Bands contain real musicians who can really play.  Or, bands contain mediocre musicians whose spirited and unique performances totally make up for the fact that they’re not very good.  Arrangements are unpredictable.  Lyrics contain actual ideas. Some envelopes are pushed.  This is my list of the 80’s greatest pop bands or artists: XTC, The Boomtown Rats, The Talking Heads, Japan, The Fixx, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and several others I’ve temporarily forgotten because I’m getting old.  Some people will say that Bowie sucked in the 80’s, but they’d be wrong about that. And my test to determine whether or not I was deluded as a young man by bad music I believed was good is this: the music of these artists has real staying power for me.  I can listen to any of those records and appreciate their craft beyond and outside the pure nostalgia I might feel for the good ol’ days of my youth. And finally, there were things we thought sucked about 80’s music that, in hindsight, or hind-hearing, don’t turn out after all to suck: Michael Jackson decidedly did not suck in the 80’s, even though I believed he did.  And because I have been recently involved (as Uncle Wes) in the musical Footloose, I  have developed some appreciation for the tunes from this show for which I was absolutely dismissive as a young punk.  Let’s hear it for the boys, indeed. Flashdance, however, will have to go into the suck bin until I get a part in that musical.

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