Sitting on the deck, listening to the Klipsch outdoor speakers, under the influence of a pale ale (or two), I often cue up the same artists or types of music — usually from this blog’s wheelhouse, mid-60s to mid-70s — on the iPod.
But occasionally, I get off the plantation. One such recent instance involved Elvis Costello, specifically that artist’s greatest hits collection from the mid-80s, which I have owned for 20 years or so. And that turns out to have been timely, because the man formerly known as Declan McManus was born 62 years ago last week.
That’s after or around the time that rock and roll began, so McManus/Costello was not part of the first wave of rock. But he came to prominence at a time when The Music was back on its heels.
Costello recorded his first album, “My Aim Is True,” in 1977, and it’s important to consider where rock was at at that time. The top 20 albums of 1976 didn’t show The Music exactly pushing the boundaries — yes, there were releases by the Ramones and Modern Lovers, and state-of-the-art recordings by established artists, like Bowie’s “Station to Station.” But there were also less-than-their-best LPs from Dylan, the Eagles, Genesis and Joni Mitchell; a greatest hits package by Creedence Clearwater Revival was in the Top 20, as was an ABBA release.
In a time when the wretched excesses of arena rock acts were inspiring people to think of Spinal Tap, along came people like Costello and Nick Lowe, the New Wavers, punkers and roots rockers. They stripped down The Music to the basics, and made it sound like it had 20 years earlier. I wasn’t nuts about it all — no more than I was taken in my the retro of Sha Na Na at the start of the decade.
Costello, though, appealed to me because of his songwriting. His lyrics came at you thick and fast, like early Springsteen; like Steely Dan, those words made you think. I don’t know how I first picked up on him — by the time he cut his first album, I had moved away from Radio Free Madison, and mostly had to depend on regular FM radio to hear new music.
I heard enough, though, that when the CD wave began to hit the beach, I picked up “The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions.” I was initially disappointed that that 1985 compilation didn’t include “Waiting for the End of the World,” one of the Costello songs I had heard on FM radio and really liked; but I really enjoyed the other cuts, which came from the group’s first eight albums.
The 16 cuts on that greatest hits collection well represent Costello’s songwriting craft in the early days. The songs run the gamut from a mellow ballad like “Allison” (“Well, I see you've got a husband now/Did he leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake?”) to the mile-a-minute social commentary of “Oliver’s Army” (“There was a Checkpoint Charlie/He didn't crack a smile/But it's no laughing party/When you've been on the murder mile/All it takes is one itchy trigger/One more widow, one less white nigger”).
Then there’s “Radio Radio,” which Costello was banned from TV’s “Saturday Night Live” for performing, after its management told him not to play that bit of commercial media criticism (“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand so badly/I want to make them wish they'd never seen me”). And throughout, the wonderful word play, as in “The Only Flame in Town” (“But you blew hot and cold/Turned my heart to a cinder/And with each passing day/You're less tender and more tinder”).
Listening to those songs the other night, I decided I needed to hear more of Costello’s early work. I don’t like buying albums parts of which I already own — one reason not to get greatest hits collections — but I went ahead and purchased his first three LPs from iTunes.
My first listen to those albums today produced mixed results. For one thing, I’m so used to listening to the 1985 compilation that hearing a familiar cut makes me expect that the next song will also be a “greatest hit.”
Instead, it’s a mixed bag. Things like “Waiting for the End of the World,” but also cuts that don’t have the lyrical or musical complexity that I’ve come to expect from Costello. Still, there were new-found gems, particularly on his third album, “Armed Forces”; his second LP with the Attractions, it has a more developed ensemble sound, and several songs that I like almost as well as the “hits” like “Oliver’s Army” and “Accidents Will Happen.”
I also have a 1991 release by the artist, “Mighty Like a Rose,” that I picked up on the cheap but have hardly listened to; need to correct that oversight. But Costello has released 30 studio albums — the most recent in 2013 — including collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint, and has a love for country and western music.
While he’s not a member of the First or Second Generation of rockers, Costello is one of the more creative and inventive of those who followed those waves. I guess there’s still a lot I have to hear from him, but that’s usually the case with The Music: so much of it, and so little time to listen.