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New Wave Band:

Elvis Costello and the Attractions

by New Wave Dave


When I hear the words "New Wave", Elvis Costello's smirking face leaps to mind. Mix roughly equal parts of acerbic social commentator and insanely catchy tunesmith, and you get this British wavemaker with his distinctive clunky black eyeglass frames and his distilled doses of melodic magic.

Bruce Springsteen has said that the start of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was the "snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." That's just how powerfully Elvis's first album, the 1977 release My Aim Is True, opened the world's minds to the existence — and excitement — of New Wave music. Leading off with the blistering "Welcome to the Working Week" (1 minutes and 22 seconds of sneering cynicism set to a driving beat), this album brought a new edge to the content and style of rock 'n' roll. It also featured the brevity common to punk songs, with 12 tunes clocking in at a total of less than 33 minutes. One of the two sub-2-minute singles, "Mystery Dance," is a high-speed dose of deranged, lust-filled techno-rockabilly that defies anyone to stay seated. The most enduring hit from this album was the cool-kids' slow-dance standard, "Alison".

Avoiding any "sophomore slump", Elvis brought the goods again with his second release, This Year's Model. As on his first album, he combined social critique with sex references ("Little triggers, that you pull with your tongue ...."). Mainstream radio's favorite was "Pump It Up," but Elvis gained some fame [infamy?] by performing "Radio, Radio" — which savaged the radio industry — on Saturday Night Live after being told not to. While this disc features plenty of highlights, the sinuous "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" is a personal favorite.

Album number three, Armed Forces, saw his songs getting a bit longer (close to 3 minutes average!) and, to my ear, less captivating. However, the U.S. release of this album introduced his signature tune, an unmistakably Elvis version of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding". (Lowe produced Elvis's first three albums, which surely benefited both of them.)

Next on the agenda: Get Happy!!, a 20-song effort that saw him reverting to the type of short (often sub-2-minute), sharp numbers contained on his first two albums. Not as memorable as some of the earlier tunes, they are highlighted by a New Wave remake of Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down".

Elvis was nothing if not prolific, and he continued to release a steady stream of New Wave nuggets on albums like Trust (a step back up in quality, in my view), Imperial Bedroom (which came after Elvis's country album Almost Blue), and Punch the Clock (featuring a song beloved by authors, "Every Day I Write The Book"). Though he makes very different (sometimes orchestral) music these days, his leading place in the New Wave pantheon is secure.