Monday, September 20, 2021

Album Reviews # 101 Elvis Costello & the Attractions - Get Happy!!


Whenever I think of Elvis Costello, I think about the only time I ever saw him. Some time round about when I was studying for my A Levels, in 1983 or '84, in W.H.Smith's in Richmond, either alone, or possibly with his beau of the time, Cait O'Riordan. He was standing stock still on the shopflor wearing an enormous and slightly ludicrous hat that fairly much screamed, 'look at me, I'm Elvis Costello!'

Frankly I don't blame him. If I was Elvis Costello I'd do something pretty similar. Costello is one of the most prodigious talents these set of islands, or frankly anywhere else have ever produced in terms of Pop and Rock..His body of work, between 1977 and 1986 particularly, is just astonishing. The Dylan comparison frankly is almost inevitable and although Costello is not Dylan, (nobody except Dylan is), he still belongs in the first rank of Rock and Roll. Very few have been overflowing with such utterly realised talent as he had.

Listening to his 1980 record made with compadres the Attractions is as good a way as any of appreciating this. There's frankly too much going on for the conscious mind to process. Twenty tracks, twenty! On a single disc. He simply couldn't be contained.

The album came out shortly after one of the most infamous and certainly the most shameful incidents of Costello's career. His drunken, abusive and vitriolic verbal assault on the Stephen Stills band and particularly Bonnie Bramlett in a hotel bar in Columbus, Ohio the year before. 

Costello's barbs and slurs have been exhaustively documented and frankly are enough to blacklist him from the playlists of any politically decent music lover and probably would have meant the effective end of his music career should it have happened now.

But why would you deny yourself of this? This review is not intended to pass judgement on that moment, although frankly I hope Costello's still ashamed of himself because he should be, but I'd rather focus on the charms and merits of Get Happy!!. Because frankly they're too numerous to document.

This probably isn't Costello's best known or celebrated record. Those came earlier. But it's certainly one of his and the Atractions most remarkable statements. Perhaps their greatest pure pop record, and given that they'd just put out Armed Forces that's some claim.

It's such a good record, sounding something like the rants of a man in a straightjacket in a sealed cell and begs the question, who exactly is mad and who is sane. He's a fighter in the flyweight category, one killer punch away from the heavyweight crown.

Costello had blown his chance, at least momentarily of breaking the States wide open with the Columbus, Ohio incident. He'd had to apologise, publicly, repeatedly and abjectly but it had still effectively killed the immediate momentum that he was building up over there. But Get Happy!! is neither the sound of a man licking his wounds or feeling sorry for himself. Far from it. The record is by turns giddy, punch drunk, exuberant and reflective. It's the sound of a man and a band at the absolute height of their talents and powers.

It's hard to pick out highlights because it's all highlights really. If there's a weak track among the twenty, I'm yet to spot it on my second play of the morning. It's an embarrassment of riches.

The album served up three hit singles. None of them huge ones. New Amsterdam, which strikes me as a bona fide Top Ten hit and one of the best things Costello ever wrote, only made Number 36 in the UK singles charts remarkably. His moment in the sun as a singles artiste were behind him now, not that he was in any kind of commercial decline. Again, far from it. 

The man had plenty of appearances on Top of the Pops ahead of him, but master as he was at the 45 form, he was always worthy of deeper and more concentrated consideration and  Get Happy!! is perhaps the best demand for that he ever put forward. The songs chosen for single release here barely stand out from their company at all. 

Of course Elvis Costello records are first and foremost about Elvis Costello. He has far too much to say and is far too greedy to share the spotlight with anyone. But Get Happy!! is also an opportunity for The Attractions to showcase their talents. Masters of any musical mode that Costello set for them, they have all of the tightness and joy of a Motown or Stax band.

In many ways this is a record I can appreciate more in 2021 than I might have done in 1980 when it came out. I know more about the sources of each track, Soul, Country or Rock. Musically I'm right at home.

Lyrical orientation has always been another kettle of fish altogether as far as me and Elvis are concerned. I've never been a very good crossword puzzle doer and he always specialised in the cryptic version of the form. Often I often really don't understand what he's going on about though I can generally grasp whether he's happy, sad, enraged, bitter or heartbroken. But here it doesn't seem to matter.

In the first year of university, the guy in the room next to me was probably the biggest Elvis Costello fan I've ever met. He was also a very smart bloke. We're still in touch and really I'd urge him to write his own reviews of this and Costello's other finest records because really I can't do the man complete justice.

In the meantime, while we wait for Rod's perspective, here is my first Elvis Costello review. I've realised during the writing of this that I don't listen to Get Happy!! nearly enough. That's easily remedied.

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