This month I am featuring Elvis Costello shows from the 1980’s. So, why Elvis Costello, and why the 1980’s specifically? Well, Elvis (and for my money Costello is the only Elvis that matters) is certainly one of the premier artists, singer-songwriter-performer of our time. He’s been one of the most interesting, influential, articulate, versatile, and prolific musicians over the last 30 years, constantly exploring new areas, themes, and musical styles, breaking down the barriers between different musical genres, collaborating with everyone from rock, pop, country, jazz, and classical, and in recent years has become the elder statesmen and communicator for music and musical styles through his unique music and talk show Spectacle. Yet, he is vastly underappreciated and has never commanded the fame, sales, or respect he deserves. Sure, he doesn’t have a great voice, but he does a lot with what he has. He is a dynamic performer that always gives it everything he’s got, producing year after year of great concerts. I am focusing on the 1980’s, because, that is the time that he really began to diversify and stretch out in many different musical directions, and establish himself as one of the great songwriters. It seems much more attention (in the music blogs) has been given to his early years (1977-1979), but less so for the ‘80’s. Each year in the 80’s Elvis released a new and different album and tour, resulting in a series of unique and exciting live shows. From 1980-1986, Elvis released 7 new albums and toured every year (and from 1977-1986 released 10 albums of new material as well as a tour every year), until he finally took a break in 1987-88.
Elvis burst on the music scene in 1977, with a brash neo-punk ferocity that garnered a lot of attention and acclaim. Although dubbed one of the ‘new wave’ of rockers, it was clear even then that this odd, bespectacled man was much more than some angry young punk with a penchant for clever wordplay. His first 3 albums (1977-79) firmly established him as a new voice and force in rock music, with a distinctive musical style. In preparing the songs for his 4th album, however, Elvis was not satisfied with the sameness of the arrangements and wanted to try something different. So, after most of the songs were already written Elvis and his band, The Attractions decided to play the songs in the style of specific groups and songs from the 1960’s Motown/Stax pop soul sound. Thus, in 1980, Elvis released Get Happy!, an infectious concoction of Costello songs done in a Motown style. In 1981, Elvis released 2 new albums, 1st the straightforward Trust, and then Elvis shocked the music world, and alienated a large part of his previous rock fans, by releasing an all-covers album of country music, Almost Blue. Elvis then followed this in 1982 with his most carefully crafted album of pop songs and ballads, Imperial Bedroom. In some way this could be called his 'Sgt. Pepper’s', as he went all out with elaborate orchestrations and instrumentation to create a rich pop masterpiece. Even as great as this album was, it still tended to further alienate many of his earlier harder rock fans, as he was heading more in the direction of a crooner than a rocker. Elvis continued in the pop vein in 1983, working with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, but with far less impressive results, featuring weaker songs and a dated 80’s pop sound, on 1983's Punch The Clock. In 1984, again working with Langer and Winstanley, Elvis released Goodbye Cruel World, one of his few critically slammed albums. However, I’ve always like GCW. To me, it was a major step forward from PTC, with much more interesting songs (and a few classics). Unfortunately, the production was mired in Langer’s synth-heavy ‘80’s style production. Elvis took another turn in 1985, as he ditched the Attractions, and started working on a roots-oriented American music album, with T-Bone Burnett, and full of folk, rockabilly, and Appalachian-style tunes. This became King of America, another of his landmark albums, but again, not really a rock album. Also in 1986, Elvis re-grouped with the Attractions for Blood and Chocolate, a return to a more familiar Costello style, but with songs that were more brooding and intense. After a much-needed break, Elvis returned in 1989 with another change in direction (or several changes in direction), with Spike, a hodgepodge album that mixed many styles, from borrowing the eclectic subterranean sound of Tom Waits (with musicians Marc Ribot et al.) to pop collaborations with Paul McCartney. With each album came another tour, and through these years, a great diversity of styles, songs, personnel, and attitudes, but always a great show. Sometimes adding horns, with the Attractions, without the Attractions, acoustic solo or duos, the spinning songbook, and many others. So to highlight Elvis and this extremely productive period, I’ll be featuring at least 1 show from each year of the eighties, sometimes more. So, check them out, and get to know the wonderful world of Elvis Costello.
For more info on the albums and shows, and for all things Costello, be sure to check out the great fan web site The Elvis Costello Wiki (formerly The Elvis Costello Home Page)(http://www.elviscostello.info/wiki/index.php/Main_Page), which includes everything you could ever want, biography, discography, pictures, artwork, and including lossless audio files of many concerts.