Get Happy!! Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
1980, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, 1998. (Rykodisc Reissue.)
IN A NUTSHELL: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, is jam-packed with 20 songs that sound like 60s Motown and Stax records filtered through white British punks. The band is superheated, its muscular rhythms pumping behind Costello’s deft wordplay. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a standout, but everyone contributes to the party vibe. And even when the lyrics get downhearted, you’ll still Get Happy!!
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
My dad died earlier this month. He was 78. He hadn’t been well for several years, and his last few years he spent trapped: confined, physically, to a wheelchair; and wandering, mentally, through the labyrinthine horrors of dementia. His death was seen by all of my family members as a blessing, as something that I thought should have rightfully taken place years earlier, something he should have been able to choose for himself at the onset of his afflictions. However, this was not to be the case.
He was a man from a bygone era. He was a child of the 40s, even though he came of age in the American Rock ‘n Roll 50s. He would have been a contemporary of Richie and Fonzie and the rest of the gang down at Arnold’s Drive-In, but he was not a Rock ‘n Roll guy. Sure, he loved fixing up old cars, the classic American 50s teen boy pastime, but his music was the swingin’ Big Band sounds of his youth: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. (Similarly, I clung to the 70s Classic Rock sounds when I was a teen, ignoring the new stuff around me.) Even in his formative years, he didn’t necessarily go along with the crowd.
The 1950s and 60s were some times of incredible industrial and technological advancements. It was a time of “better living through chemistry,” when science was going to save the “free world” from the commies, JFK promised a “New Frontier,” and the country was still unaware of some of the unintended consequences of such advancements: thalidomide babies, dioxin poisoning, lung cancer1.
But despite the advancements of the day, my dad wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends. He didn’t need the best Hi-Fi technology, or the latest in automotive trends to be satisfied with his life. He had a self-directed outlook, a type of self-possession that allowed him to make decisions with few external influences. Of course, this led to some wrong decisions, and it didn’t diminish the anxiety and guilt he felt over his decisions after the fact (he was the king of the land of “I Should’ve”). But there was something to be said for a man who recognized the inherent bullshit of the marketer’s “New and Improved!” sloganeering, and recognized, too, that so many people around him easily allowed that messaging to permeate all aspects of their lives. He was a skeptic of “New and Improved,” whether it was technological, cultural, societal or commercial.
But he was not a thickheaded dope who would cling to his beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. He was a smart guy. Also, he was very attuned to the people around him. The well-being of his loved ones and the feelings of those around him – whether he knew them or not – were very important. So while he may have been nostalgic for the old ways, he didn’t value the past over knowledge or humanity.
Sure, he may have griped in the 70s and 80s about the pointlessness of these new computers and computerized machines, but as a tool and die maker, when he got to use his first computer-aided machine (the one with the instruction course in Chicago, for which he had to take his first airplane ride ever, as a 37 year old) he recognized its value and acknowledged its advantages over the old machines. And even though he’d expressed the typical late-20th-century, straight, middle-American homophobia into his adulthood, when he saw his own loved ones fall in love he warmly welcomed their sweethearts into his home and life regardless of their gender and orientation. He was more comfortable opening his heart by reassessing his beliefs than using them to build a fortress around it.
Over the years I heard him reassess his thinking on little things, like Thai food, and big things, like race and gender. But at no time was I more aware of his ability to re-examine his beliefs and consider a different perspective than when my wife was expecting our first child, my dad’s first grandchild. I lived far away from my parents at the time, but when I’d call and tell him about all the late-90s preparations we were making – attending birth classes, hiring a doula, getting a gliding rocking chair with a gliding footrest – he seemed interested in all of it; this despite the fact that he’d matured in the Mad Men era of American men, when there were many, many issues about which a man was not expected to care, one of those being childbirth.
My dad got phone calls at work to let him know his kids had been delivered, just as he might have been notified that a new bathtub and sink had arrived at home. The difference would be that he’d be expected to work hard to remodel the bathroom when he got home, whereas the kids were to be almost entirely his wife’s concern, at least until they went to school. But when I discussed my own activities around the upcoming birth, he never mocked me, never said I was foolish, and never expressed a wish for a bygone era of indifference and inaction to return. When I told him about the experience of watching my child being born, he did say he was glad he didn’t see his own kids’ births, but also questioned why he didn’t choose to be at the hospital.
After my baby’s arrival, when my parents took a cross-country flight to visit their new grandson – something I was a little surprised they’d done – and he saw me changing diapers, giving bottles, and fussing over the baby’s cries and temperature and diet and routine, and when he heard and saw me exchanging smiles and baby talk and laughter with my infant, he said2 “Boy, things sure are different for dads nowadays.”I said, “I’ll bet you’re glad you didn’t have to do all this stuff with your kids.”
To which he replied, with a bit of a sad smile, “It would have been okay. I’d have done it.”
He didn’t have to say more – we both knew what he meant. It was classic dad. If he saw the “new ways” were valuable and useful, he’d admit it – in very few words.
I’m thinking of my dad these days because his body recently left us3. And during my experience as a new dad, from preparing for my first child through childbirth and into my new kid’s first year of life, the soundtrack to it all was Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. I’m sure my dad heard it when he came to visit. I’ve written before, a time or two, about my love of Elvis Costello. I spent the 90s diving into his entire catalogue, and by 1998 Get Happy!! was cued up.
Elvis is one of the most perfect songwriters for my taste in music. He’s close to (but obviously well-behind) Lennon & McCartney, on a par with XTC’s Andy Partridge, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Steely Dan’s Becker & Fagan, and a few others4. They’re all artists who write catchy melodies, have terrific lyrics and can pull it off while getting super-energetic. (Well, except for Becker & Fagan, who tend to get super-jazzy instead of super-energetic.)
And his work with his most famous backing band, The Attractions, is some of my favorite recorded music. Each of The Attractions brings a style and vigor to the songs that suit Costello’s twitchy melodies and head-cold singing style perfectly. By the late 90s I was devouring Elvis, and while my wife was pregnant the songs on this record resonated with me. First of all, the album title provided a good reminder to me whenever the situation felt overwhelming or worrisome or scary that the biggest feeling I held was one of happiness. Secondly, the songs themselves are almost entirely upbeat, danceable, energetic songs that are hard to hear without smiling. Thirdly, the lyrical content often connected with me, even when the songs clearly were not meant to be about new families and future dads.
For example, “Opportunity” is clearly not about the opportunity inherent in starting a family, but the first word is “born,” and the first verse does speak of family …
As with many EC lyrics, I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they stick with me nonetheless. His clever wordplay and economy of words (“The chairman of the boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”) are striking, even when they’re obtuse. Musically, the song encapsulates what Get Happy!! is all about: organ and bass and drums. Keyboardist Steve Nieve boops and beeps while bassist Bruce Thomas plays a clean, bouncing line throughout. Along with drummer Pete Thomas, The Attractions really carry the load on this record, with Costello’s guitar only making cameo appearances – some nice strumming in the choruses, a little twist during the fade out.
I love “Opportunity” for its melody, its sound, Costello’s voice – and also my reminiscences of impending fatherhood. But it’s one of the more mellow tracks on this album of 20 tracks, (which Elvis promoted in America with a pretty funny TV commercial.) The record in full is an upbeat salute to 60s Motown and Stax records, with the band speeding ahead, full-tilt on catchy, danceable numbers like the opening track, “Love For Tender.”
Bruce Thomas is a phenomenal bassist, and as a bass-playing hack myself, I find him astonishing. He pumps these songs full of life, like at 0:40, his fast walking bass line in the pre-chorus. This song uses Costello’s considerable metaphorical skills to position himself as the banker of love to someone who won’t make a withdraw. I love the backing vocals, which Elvis provides himself, behind the chorus, and I love the energy of the entire song, up through the four-note finale. It’s clearly an homage to 60s soul, and songs like “5ive Gears in Reverse,” and “I Stand Accused” also carry the Stax/Motown torch. (The latter is actually a 60s British Invasion song that the band perks up, with Elvis coolly spelling out the title at the very end.)
Another soul-sounding treat is the wonderful “Temptation,” whirling organ and all.
This song actually features some of Elvis’s subtle guitar work, but once again the star is the backing band. Nieve’s organ, Bruce Thomas’s Duck Dunn-esque bass, Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drumming … The lyrics are straightforward temptation-based. It’s a dance-fest of a song, just like the band’s furious reworking of an old Sam & Dave slow number, “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down).” The album is chock-full of hyper energy, found in songs like the straight ahead stomp of numbers like “Beaten to the Punch,” and “The Imposter.” (The band could definitely pull off these numbers live, too!)
Elvis and the band do slow things down now and then, and my favorite of these mellower pieces is the atmospheric one-man-band piece “New Amsterdam.”
Elvis plays all the instruments on this fine waltz, keenly strumming his acoustic guitar and adding some sturdy bass lines, and displays some clever wordplay as well. It’s another song about his difficult love life, in which he wonders if he can “step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.” His inventive wordsmithing is also on display in the ballad “Motel Matches,” in which Elvis’s lady friend’s duplicity, and presumably, affections are given away “like motel matches.” “Secondary Modern” has perhaps Elvis’s strongest vocal performance. And in the album closer “Riot Act,” Elvis defends himself against an unwarranted onslaught from what he claims was a slip of the tongue.
These slow songs are all terrific, but it’s the energetic, upbeat ones I’m drawn to, particularly those featuring Bruce Thomas’s bass, such as “B Movie.”
The song has a weird, echoing drum sound, has a little out of time piece just after each verse, and one can actually hear a little guitar throughout. Bruce’s bass line keeps the song bouncing along, and the lyrics are standard Elvis complaints. This is one of a few songs that stretch out the album’s musical theme, straying from the 60s R&B template. Another is the ska song5 “Human Touch,” a plea to escape the modern world that “looks like luxury and feels like a disease.” “Possession“, with its clever couplet “You lack lust/ you’re so lackluster,” and “Black & White World,” which the band played on the BBC, where pianist Steve Nieve was forced to pretend to play guitar, are a couple super-catchy mid-tempo songs.
But it’s the upbeat, 60s stuff I really, really love – even when I don’t know what they mean. For example, “King Horse.”
It opens with a regal piano riff, then features Elvis singing along to Bruce’s bass. There are terrific harmony vocals, provided by Elvis himself, throughout. The tension builds through each verse, then is released with each chorus by Pete’s introductory snare roll. The lyrics are a pastiche of phrases around relationships that, to be honest, sound great but make no sense to me. But he clearly knows we’re all King Horse. At least the lyrics to “Clowntime Is Over” make sense, even if the tempo change throughout the song doesn’t.
“Men Called Uncle” has a looping melody, with a plea to a woman to give up the older men in her life.
It opens with a great piano, and Bruce’s bass again keeps the song pumping along. The songs on this album just make me want to dance and sing along. I often listen to the SiriusXM 60s soul station, listening for great numbers that I’ve never heard before. That’s what this album is like: it’s one catchy, bouncing, soulful song after the next.
Elvis’s voice is scratchy and torn, sounding like the end of a long night spent on stage, howling out hit after hit. The chorus has great harmony vocals, the lyricsare again about a woman who done him wrong; he’s wondering if her new lover expects High Fidelity, as he once did. It’s fun and catchy and epitomizes everything I love about the record.
Get Happy!! is an album in which Elvis Costello and The Attractions tried something new, moved away from the new wave, post-punk sound and embraced a different way of making songs. It worked perfectly. Humans are at their best when they learn to reconsider their beliefs and actions, to peek into what else is out there and incorporate it. This is what my dad did, and it’s one of the things I’ll miss about him. But Get Happy!! will always remind me of him.
“Love for Tender”
“Men Called Uncle”
“Clowntime Is Over”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Black & White World”
“5ive Gears in Reverse”
“Beaten to the Punch”
“I Stand Accused”