Desert Island Discs: “Get Happy!!” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1980)Posted: February 28, 2012
If Elvis Costello and his contemporaries hadn’t arrived on the music scene back in my college days, I probably would have given up on rock’n’roll. Not sure what I would have switched to, though.
Between 1977 and 1979, Costello had released three LPs and a handful of singles. He and the Attractions had taken the US and the world by storm. It seems he could do no wrong, until one drunken night in an LA bar when he loudly and foolishly made unflattering and bigoted comments about Ray Charles and James Brown. Suddenly Costello was famous across the county, but not for the reasons he had hoped.
Costello returned to the UK, and in 1980 released “Get Happy!!” Some reviewers call it his R&B album. Some theorized that he released such an album to make amends for his infamous comments. While there are several songs that are R&B tinged and soul styled, just as many on “Get Happy!!” are flat out rockers, minimalist new wave, ska, country, and a power ballad.
Making amends for inopportune comments? Possible but not likely. Costello apologized to Ray Charles who graciously said not to give it another thought, adding that things said while drunk really ought not to be repeated. And amends probably would not have done much good. Consider Lennon’s comment back in 1966 about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. He acknowledged he said it, said that he was sorry it hurt some peoples’ feelings, and then left it alone. No mea culpas followed, no “The Beatles Sing Hymns” album. Those who still have hung onto Lennon’s comment decades later won’t ever be dissuaded. Wouldn’t have worked for Costello either.
Costello wrote in the liner notes for one of the reissues:
“It might have been tempting to claim that I had some noble motive in basing this record on the music that I had admired and learned from prior to my brush with infamy. But if I was trying to pay respects and make such amends, I doubt if pride would have allowed me to express that thought after I had made my rather contrived explanation… I simply went back to work and relied on instinct, curiosity, and enduring musical passions.”
What “Get Happy!!” is, is one of Costello’s best albums. One that defied the expectations set up by the preceding three albums. The peak of his first burst of creativity, the crest of a wave that started upward in 1977, the first of many oscillations in the career of Declan P. MacManus.
There’s 20 songs on the LP. This is not a big deal in the CD era, even less in the mp3 era, but it raised eyebrows back in the day. Nick Lowe on the record jacket said that he and Costello debated long and hard over squeezing 20 onto a standard LP. The liner notes to another of the reissues describe how precise the vinyl cutting and pressing process had to be. In the audio-geekery of the early ’80s, though, this was tantamount to snipping a cardboard record off of the back of a box of Post Honeycombs and slapping it down on your Denon linear turntable. It just wasn’t done, and Lowe’s note chides those audiophiles who had “never bought a record made before 1967.” Reviewer Tim Brough has this to say:
“Some of Elvis’ songs here do show the frenzy that they were recorded in… (They) were frequently written and recorded in cannon blasts, like the boast of ‘Possession’ being written in five minutes after an afternoon’s infatuation with a cocktail waitress. The band was challenging itself to pound out as much music as possible, as if every idea could be turned into a song. It also meant that EC’s vocal performances were sometimes given all the nuance of a party reveler standing astride the jukebox… It didn’t stop the compositions from frequently striking the bull’s-eye, and to this day I am amazed that the twenty multiple-genre, hook-heavy songs on ‘Get Happy!!’ somehow couldn’t produce one radio single.”
Colin Beckett from stylusmagazine.com opines:
“‘Get Happy!!’ is my favorite Elvis Costello album. Everything I love about him comes together on this recording. The album offers everything- catchy, brilliant pop songs (Costello and The Attractions are in top form), passionate lyrics with strong imagery and clever, biting wordplay… This is the album that demonstrated his maturity as a songwriter and composer. He refused to be pigeonholed as a quirky, limited new-wave flash-in-the-pan.”
Shortly after the album was released Costello was a guest on “The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder.” I was impressed when Snyder asked who his biggest songwriting influence was; I expected him to answer Dylan or Lennon or Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. His answer? Cole Porter. Didn’t care much if it was un-hip.
“New Amsterdam, it’s become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double-Dutch to a real double duchess”
“Almost too good to be true
Who do you? Why do you? What do you do?
While everybody’s hiding under covers
Who’s making lover’s lane safe again for lovers?”
“Trying to be so bad is bad enough
Don’t make me laugh by talking tough
Don’t put your heart out on your sleeve
When your remarks are off the cuff..”
Elvis Costello has been making records for 35 years now. A few are duds, most are enjoyable, a few are stellar. “Get Happy!!” is one of the stellar ones.