"Oh, I just don't know where to begin," Elvis Costello swooned in the opening line to his lusciously hummable 1979 hit "Accidents Will Happen". Not strictly true. Elvis Costello has always known precisely where to begin. Knowing when to stop, that's been another kettle of worms. His latest batch of reissues being a case in point. Each has been fattened up for market with a mind-bending welter of bonus tracks, so that Get Happy!!, a 20-track tour de force in the first place, now weighs in at 50 tracks (with Trust at 31 and Punch The Clock at 39, see right).
“Oh, I just don’t know where to begin,” Elvis Costello swooned in the opening line to his lusciously hummable 1979 hit “Accidents Will Happen”. Not strictly true. Elvis Costello has always known precisely where to begin. Knowing when to stop, that’s been another kettle of worms. His latest batch of reissues being a case in point. Each has been fattened up for market with a mind-bending welter of bonus tracks, so that Get Happy!!, a 20-track tour de force in the first place, now weighs in at 50 tracks (with Trust at 31 and Punch The Clock at 39, see right). As if that wasn’t enough, each is accompanied by 28 pages of sleevenotes composed by the Human Jukebox himself. As exhausting as they are exhaustive, as mesmerising as they are maddening, these new editions of his early-’80s work go some way towards explaining why Elvis Costello, pop’s most modern pantheist, was ultimately denied his place in the pantheon. Destined to be remembered more as pop’s Peter Greenaway (archly ironic, overstaged, cleverly contrived) than its Michael Powell (iconic, visionary, authentic).
Swing back to 1979 and Costello was riding high on the hog. He’d just released the masterly Armed Forces, his third near-perfect album on the bounce. Having racked up a pile of hits back home, he was now relentlessly touring the States, and looked poised to crack it big. Two years into his career and he was prematurely being talked up as the punk generation’s very own Bob Dylan/Van Morrison/Neil Young. Then came the “Ray Charles” moment in an Ohio bar. In his notes to this final version of Get Happy!!, Costello reflects at length on this ugly incident, “the consequences of which I suppose I’ll carry all my days.”
Costello is not alone in supposing that his racist outburst in that Columbus bar represented a crucial turning point in terms of how he was perceived as a serious artist. Routinely, it is written that he lost our collective trust at that decisive moment and would forever be denied the right to win it back, condemned to a life on the margins as a result. The truth is that, even as Armed Forces was confirming him as the pre-eminent songwriter of his time, our trust in him had begun to get testy long before he slandered Ray Charles in a drunken lapse of reason.
For two years, Costello had moved so fast it was impossible to get a fix on him. He was everywhere and there was so much of him, all of it contradictory. He was so far ahead of himself, it was asking a bit much for the rest of us to ever catch up. The words poured out of him, each song containing multitudes of meanings, attitudes, metaphors. Like a moth trapped in a warehouse full of light bulbs, his music never stood still for a second, flitting from style to style, restless beyond belief.
Just when we managed a brief pause and finally got a fix on him, we realised that Elvis Costello had won our heads but was never going to win our hearts. His music charmed and surprised, stimulated and provoked, but it never quite seemed to connect emotionally. Maybe because there was so much in front of it, so much of Elvis Costello to get past before we reached the heart of it, that we started to wonder whether this music actually possessed a heart at all.
Given all this, an extended holiday might have been in order after Armed Forces. But, less than a year later, he blazed back with Get Happy!! And, what do you know? It was his best yet. By a country mile. Twenty first-rate songs packed into 48 breathlessly claustrophobic minutes?driven by fear, disgust, self-disdain, frustration and romantic obsession from the blaring opening gusts of “Love For Tender” to the final torched regrets of “Riot Act” (with its guilt-ridden nods to Ohio and the morally superior shit storm that followed). More than two decades after its first release, there’s still so much to take in, so much to admire, that it leaves one dizzy.
When it first arrived, deadline-panicked reviewers were quick to pick up on Costello’s remark that the songs were written after a visit to a Camden Town record store, where he ordered up a large crate of obscure soul singles. Thus, in the white heat of its release, the album was widely described as little more than a pastiche of the Motown/Stax back catalogue (an idea enhanced by the release of the first single from the album, a rendition of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up [For Falling Down]”). On reflection, it’s as stylistically wide-reaching as any of his work, ranging from the high-energy waltz of “New Amsterdam” to ingenious supper club examinations of sexual mores like “Motel Matches”, via the blazing “King Horse”, one of Costello’s most brilliant songs.
In fact, it’s so wide-reaching that it’s difficult to know where to start explaining. Never fear. Because Costello’s sleevenotes explain everything. Absolutely everything. He was never one to follow John Wayne’s advice in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon when he said, “Never apologise and never explain.”At least the second part, anyway. But, in these voluminous notes, he explains each song away with such obsessive, completist zeal that your own instinctive responses are worn down to a frazzle by the time you come to actually listen to the music. As amusing as it is to learn that “the song ‘Possession’ was actually written in a Dutch taxi during a five-minute journey back to the studio after I had become drunkenly besotted with the waltress in a local cafe”, the muso revelation that “Black And White World” leans towards “the narrative style of a Ray Davies song while the final recording was based on a Pete Thomas drum pattern which owed something to the style that Richie Hayward of Little Feat employed on ‘Cold, Cold, Cold'”, adds nothing to the pure enjoyment of the song while taking plenty away.
Get Happy!! arrived in January 1980 as perfectly formed as any album of that decade (give or take a Dare! or a Too-Rye-Ay). So the thought of 30 bonus tracks is enough to turn molten the blood of any true believer. No worries, though. These extras amount to no throwaway car boot sale. This version of Get Happy!! is worth the price of admission alone for a frantically souped-up “Getting Mighty Crowded”, a tub-thumping “From A Whisper To A Scream”, a hymnal “Clowntime Is Over” and a gloriously raw-boned “Riot Act”. Get Happy!!, always a masterpiece, is now nothing less than a 50-track encyclopaedia of pop and soul.