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.