How Elvis Costello’s soul searching about face expanded the New Wave lexicon in 1980
The received wisdom of rock criticism over the last 40 years notwith-standing, is Get Happy!! really Elvis Costello’s soul album?
It depends whom you ask. Sure, he covers Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down),” and some of the sonic signatures of ’60s R&B find their way into the riffs and rhythms of certain tracks. He’s even gone on record referring to this as his “Motown album” and carefully tallying the R&B influences directly applied to the arrangements, from Garnett Mimms to The Four Tops.
But not even the most cursory analysis of ‘Get Happy!! can overlook the manic rock of “The Imposter,” the folk-flecked “New Amsterdam,” the bob-and-weave ska of “Human Touch,” the ’60s Mod strut of “Beaten to the Punch,” etc. And even when Costello and The Attractions are clearly channeling Motown grooves on “Love for Tender” or donning their best Booker T. & The M.G.’s drag on “Temptation,” the results don’t really come out as soul music. It simply sounds like Elvis and The Attractions in their prime, which is scarcely something to sneeze at.
VIDEO: Elvis Costello and the Attractions “Temptation”
Part of the reason people like to flog the Elvis-goes-soul narrative when recalling this 1980 album is that the theory is inextricably tied to one of the most unsavory incidents in E.C. history. After a show on his 1979 U.S. tour, Costello got into a drunken fight with Steve Stills and Bonnie Bramlett. Though he was too inebriated at the time to remember it afterwards, he’s alleged to have made outrageously racist remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown. In a subsequent apology, Costello stated that if he did in fact say those things, it was strictly an intoxicated attempt to provoke his combatants to physical violence by saying the most offensive thing he could think of (it worked).
Costello is clearly no Morrissey — the last 40 years have shown the notorious incident to be a drunken anomaly. So let’s not tarry too long in that territory. The real point is that Costello may or may not have been partly attempting to affect public perception by blatantly incorporating African-American influences in his next album (his statements on that question are confusing and conflicting). But there’s no doubt that ’60s R&B has been a key influence throughout his entire career. So even if that odious scandal hadn’t existed, his rejection of his initial arrangements of the ‘Get Happy!!’ tunes as “too New Wave” and his subsequent adjustments to a more soulful slant would have still been completely in character.
But in that sense, the joke is on Elvis. Because in 1980, as far as the public was concerned, he was New Wave personified, whether he liked it or not. So if the 1980 E.C. came with a few new soulful attachments, that was simply the way New Wave was working at that point. And despite their best efforts, of course, Costello and company were not exactly The Funk Brothers or the Hi Records Rhythm Section. They were feral rock ‘n’ roll beasts, not supple soulsters, so even when they tried to turn down an R&B path, it still came out sounding pretty damn New Wave anyhow.
Fortunately, Costello, keyboard mad scientist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) were probably the best British unit to emerge in the New Wave era, and regardless of their relative level of soulfulness here, they had all pistons pumping. Costello’s songwriting too was completely on point. He would come to be known for his prolific nature, and jamming a double album’s worth of songs onto a single LP would certainly support that notion. But the concision inherent in his being able to fit all those songs onto a 48-minute album, not to mention the quality of the material — exempts him from the stereotypical White Album-type cavils about there being only one album’s worth of good tunes.
As a lyricist Costello has seldom been sharper, and even while playing the acerbically witty punster, he nails some emotional truths that hit home in a visceral way. Whether observing, “The Chairman of this boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director” on “Opportunity” or digging down deep and unguardedly observing, “though I look right at home I still feel like an exile” on “New Amsterdam,” he consistently makes an impact even if his penchant for relative obscurity means you’re not always completely sure what the song is “really” about.
AUDIO: Elvis Costello and the Attractions “Opportunity”
In the end, though, ‘Get Happy!!’ is as much about The Attractions as it is about Elvis. In the early days especially, Elvis always seemed happy to keep his guitar contributions as minimal as possible and let the rest of the lads do the heavy lifting. That’s certainly the case here, especially on the tracks where Nieve does double duty on organ and piano. And when the keyboards aren’t carrying the day, Bruce Thomas’s bass is stepping up to the forefront, as it does on tracks like “Opportunity” (apparently the band’s attempt at going for a vintage Al Green feel, for what it’s worth).
Whether the band’s soul inclinations actually resulted in honest-to-God R&B or not (and a sane person would be hard-pressed to say they did), it can’t be denied that there’s an enormous difference between ‘Get Happy!!’ and its 1979 predecessor, Armed Forces. On that album, Elvis seemed determined to go positively rococo (albeit to amazingly powerful effect), with no qualms about throwing the proverbial kitchen sink into the works if necessary. ‘Get Happy!!’, however, is clearly the sound of someone who has stopped, taken a long, hard look around, and changed his course in everything from the personal to the production-oriented.
Elvisologists generally concur that E.C. went through his first five albums (not even counting renowned rarities compilation Taking Liberties) without putting a foot wrong. Your mileage may vary depending on where you stand with his 1981 country covers album, Almost Blue. But even amid the august company of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, ‘Armed Forces,’ and Trust, ‘Get Happy!!’ stands shoulder to shoulder as one of the finest Elvis Costello & The Attractions albums ever to come careening into our ill-prepared ears.