Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Opportunity" /
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Like Elvis Costello -- a.k.a. Declan MacManus -- I was too was "born in the middle of the second big baby boom," and as soon as he sings that opening lyric he has me

This sublime 1980 album, Get Happy,  was conceived as Elvis' tribute to the Stax sound, and he gets pretty close, with Steve Nieve doing his best Booker T on the organ and Bruce Thomas doing a pretty fair Donald "Duck" Dunn on the bass. But like a lot of Elvis's music-geek tributes, it's a slightly self-conscious bit of homage, and the references are solidly 1950s U.K.  But does that bother me?  Oh no it does not.  That makes me like it even more.


Despite the relentlessly perky syncopation and all those chipper organ fills, is this a paranoid little song or what? The chorus, yanking anxiously back and forth between two notes, sums it up: "They shop around / Follow you without a sound / Whatever you do now / Don't turn around." A child of the Cold War, Elvis has that paranoia down stone cold, and I realize listening to this song that I too still kinda conduct my life under this assumption.  Because why not?

And poor Elvis -- all he wants is a little love. In verse one, he's "looking for a little girl, / I wonder where she's gone." After all, in Austerity England, it's his civic duty to procreate: "Big money for families having more than one."  Give the kid a break -- he's just operating as expected.

This being fairly Early Elvis, however, there's no way his Love Object is going to be anything but a ballbusting vampire.  "She was sitting pretty on a velvet cushion / But her bedroom eyes were like a button she was pushing."  Watch out, Elvis!

And soon enough, in the bridge, we get the obligatory love-as-battlefield metaphor: "I'm in the foxhole / I'm down in the trench." Excuse me, but only a kid who grew up in the shadow of a World War would leap so easily to that terminology.  And yet, he's enough of a postwar generation to admit "I'd be a hero, but I can't stand the stench." You'd be surprised at how often those lines jump to mind for me.   Trust me, they fit a lot of situations.

Later verses lose sight of the theme, as Elvis can't resist following a trail of puns and up-ended cliches -- "The Fitness Institute was full of General Motormen" (cross reference the "physical jerks" of "Living in Paradise" on This Year's Model). Still, isn't this why we love Early Elvis? Here comes one of my favorite Elvis lines, for reasons I cannot explain: "The chairman of this boredom is a compliment collector / I'd like to be his funeral director." Countless times these lines have gotten me through boring meetings where I smile and make nice, while in my heart of hearts I know perfectly well that I am NOT a stooge of the Corporation. Herein lies the value of rock and roll.

Is this a major song? No it is not. Is it even a major Elvis Costello song?  No it is not.  But the minute I hear it I am transported, not just to 1980 but to some weird out-of-time dimension where Elvis Costello and I are on the same bizarre wavelength.

This is a song woven deep into my musical DNA, for reasons I cannot even begin to analyze. And when it comes up on my shuffle?  The world falls away, and it's just me and my pal Declan, being paranoid together to a Memphis beat.


NickS said...

I don't know if I've mentioned this here, but I went through a period (in my early-20s) when I listened to a lot of Elvis Costello -- I could go through a couple weeks at a time where I didn't want to listen to anybody else. I would just decide that if I wanted something sad I'd play a sad Elvis Costello album, funny, a funny Elvis Costello album, etc . . .

Then at some point I stopped, and I barely listen to him at all, and I don't have a good explanation for why. Part of it is simply that the music is so deeply rooted that I don't feel like I need to listen to it, I listen to newer things and don't feel like I'm missing it. But I also got tired of something in Elvis Costello, and I'm not sure what -- possibly the consistent whiff of misogyny, but possibly not. For as much as I love him as both a singer and a songwriter, I got tired of the sound. At some point it felt cramped and solipsistic -- like it just didn't go well next to something else. Perhaps that explains the periods of only listening to EC, but that's just speculation.

But I do appreciate his ability to write lines which work as both incredibly catchy wordplay and carry emotional weight.

For me, the lines which bubble to the top of my head from time to time are:

"Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal / I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel."

"Welcome to the workin' week. /
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you."

"Must have been a wonder when it was brand new"

"Charged with insults and flattery / Her body moves with malice /
Do you have to be so cruel to be callous"

and so on . . .

Holly A Hughes said...

And so on indeed. The number of Elvis lines embedded in my consciousness is nearly as long as the number of Beatles lines, and that's saying something!

NickS said...

Very true. I am reminded of a line that Casablanca is the only movie which rivals a typical Shakespearean play for the number of phrases which have become common references.

The other thing that's impressive about Costello is his ability to use an unexpected word. I realized, after I wrote the above comment, that there's a different line from "Beyond Belief" which I think of slightly more frequently -- "Just like the canals of mars and the great barrier reef / I come to you beyond belief" than I am the line quoted above. But the one quoted above sticks because of the use of "callous" (and the lovely rhyme with "malice").

I can't think of another song that uses it. I'm sure there are, but if something causes "callous" to catch in my head, I'm going to think of "Beyond Belief."