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My Favorite album of all time in review: Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Greatest album of all time? “Sgt Peppers,” Best? “Are You Experienced”? My fave? No contest: from Steve Nieve’s Booker T pounded intro on “Love For Tender” to the lost in pain coda from “Riot Act” there is no album that has ever moved me this much, mattered to me this much.

The year was 1980 and new Wave raged and “Get Happy!!” was EC’s follow up to “Armed Forces” but although the sound was built completely around Nieve’s keyboards and the influences were named explicitly in one song “Tempted”, it was essentially new wave.

20 songs worth: a cavalcade of highly melodic, Sax-Motown influenced, New Wave songs: all short sharp dagger wounds to and from the heart, two minutes, two half minutes (the longest song is 3 1/2 minutes long). No solos, no third chorus: they are like a sword fight: all feints and faints.

Costello’s voice is right on top of the mix and the band is restrained and tied down and weary but not worn out: Costello is weary as well and yet every single song is so complete and perfect the weariness is like a badge of honor befitting lyrics about being lost in drunk and lost in drugs and lost in fame; staggering under the weight of being a twentysomething and a godhead.

And while musically “Get Happy!!” was a precise mix for my mood for moderns, lyrically it expressed exactly how I felt about life as a twenty-four year old. I am going to quote a couplet from “Man called Uncle,” sung to a girl: “Check your effect and check your reflection, I’m so affected in the face of your affection”. Reviewing the album Greil Marcus noted that we didn’t need to be told the girl had left the room by the time Costello had sung the last words.

She had to have: he wasn’t capable of baring himself, he was too deep inside his pain and even music wasn’t letting him find a way out. All the wordplay, all the Temptations riffs, all the hopes kept on baffling him here.

Have you ever been seriously drunk and struck up a conversation with a girl in a bar and you are being erudite and smart and incautious, you’re connecting at first, but then it slowly dawns on the girl how big a mess you are? That’s how Costello’s lyrics work here. Enormously clever, endlessly quotable: “He’ll only bring you souvenirs, it’s only going to end in tears,” “if you won’t take my love for tender”, “high fidelity, can you hear me?” “don’t wear your heart on your sleeve if your remarks are off the cuff…” on and on and on, “I’m just aching to break your secret laws as we go from clause to claws…” The words blow you away and they leave you on edge, the emotions are disasters: “Love For Tender” to “Opportunity” to “King Horse”… to “Beaten To The Punch,” “I Stand Accused,” “Riot Act,” round and round he goes at the speed of coke till he is just a voice singing to a girl long gone. “This case is closed, my case is packed,” loved her, lost her, trapped in fame, trapped in New Amsterdam, taking hard drugs, hitting one woman, being broken by another: sad, strange, lonely girl even though she’s with somebody else right now.

And when he takes a breather for a cover he chooses “I Stand Accused”. “Loving you is a big crime, I’ve been guilty a long time”. And somewhere in the middle of all this he returns to country for the first time since “Stranger In The House,” to take a nod at Sam Cooke before falling into one of his greatest metaphors EVER “… I struck it lucky with motel matches, falling for you without a second look, falling out of your open pocketbook, giving you away like motel matches.”

Then a Sam and Dave cover and then, on the “Just A Memory” EP, a Van McCoy cover of the disco great “Getting Mighty Crowded,” and then layer after layer of dense wordplay to hide the pain, to deal with the fame. Costello wrote these songs IN THE STUDIO -such a mess he doesn’t remember writing or recording them today. On the tour (he actually skipped the States) he was segueing from Bobby Blue Bland to “Secondary Modern” and back.

In a Costello think piece twenty two years ago i claimed anything i wrote about him would have “Get Happy!!” in the center and though he has made many albums since then i think i was right.

I will never love another album the way I love “Get Happy!!”. i can’t. I dont have the time to listen to an album that way, just over and over again. I can’t fall so deep, so completely in love. In those days Costello didn’t put the lyric sheet with his albums and there was no Internet; the mishearing of words made the songs my own (no he didn’t say “i want to be a funeral director,” he said “I want to be HIS funeral director” but i prefer mine: it suited my mood better). And in the days of vinyl, the scratches, the skips, the sequencing: getting up and moving the needle to play “B Movie” over and over again till there was a tiny scratch and the song started a beat too late until THAT BECAME THE WAY THE SONG STARTED: not only was the album mine but THE ALBUM was mine -there was only this one “Get Happy!!”: it belonged only to me and not to the manufacturor or EC.

I had been living in the States only a year at the time of “Get Happy!!”‘s release and after twenty four years of sustained insanity I was, as Costello put it, not only “drinking in self defense,” but “living in a state of shock”. Everything I was responded to this man exiled from his own life -we were both strangers even to ourselves; we were both men driving five gears in reverse drinking our way to dry dock.

So we both grew older and Costello is a happily married man with three sons today and whatever the devils were that haunt “Get Happy!!” (incidentally, it was original called “Girl Happy” from the old Presley movie, hard to know which one is funnier) seem excised through time.

Me? To quote a different guy, i’m still on the road looking to for another joint, and to end the quote, Elvis and I always felt the same we just started from a different point of view.

Can you ask any more from a rock album than to make you feel completely in synch with the songwriter as though he is living your life and turning it into art? As though while you might not be on the same page you’re absolutely in the same chapter?

I still listen to “Get Happy!!” from time to time though the memories it conjures up can be painful. I don’t have that old vinyl copy, I’ve got a 50 song extended double CD though and it’s great. 1980 was a long time ago and we were all differen peopbe.

Still sometimes I think Elvis wrote my epitaph: “Everybody’s on the make, it’s not your heart I want to take.” You can put that on my tombstone: a quote from my favorite album.

1 Comment

  1. Roy Zornow on January 21, 2022 at 11:09 pm

    Fantastic review. These songs have a bell-like resonance with my life as well. Somehow I’m not surprised that he doesn’t remember recording them, they seem like gems from the subconscious, despite wordplay that is deliberate (but not deliberated). I remember reading that the album was recorded in a ridiculously short amount of time. He captured lightning in a bottle. There is something both so crafted – the homage to Stax, Motown, Ska – and yet uncalculating about it. It’s almost hard for me to listen to some of his other albums after I’ve played “Get Happy”. Glad you understand.

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