Thursday, November 26, 2015

Final Songs: Riot Act

Album: Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Forever doesn't mean forever anymore
I said forever
But it doesn't look like I'm gonna be around much anymore
When the heat gets sub-tropical
And the talk gets so topical

Riot act - you can read me the riot act
You can make me a matter of fact
Or a villain in a million
A slip of the tongue is gonna keep me civilian

Why do you talk such stupid nonsense
When my mind could rest much easier
Instead of all this dumb dumb insolence
I would be happier with amnesia

They say forget her
Now it looks like you're either gonna be before me or against me
I got your letter
Now they say I don't care for the colour that it paints me
Trying to be so bad is bad enough
Don't make me laugh by talking tough
Don't put your heart out on your sleeve
When your remarks are off the cuff

Riot act - you can read me the riot act
You can make me a matter of fact
Or a villain in a million
A slip of the tongue is gonna keep me civilian

Riot act - you can read me the riot act
You can make me
First off, happy Thanksgiving (US) everyone! But as perhaps you can tell, we do things a little differently around here.

In 1979 Elvis Costello was riding pretty high. After a few years of having his songs rejected by producers and publishers, he'd put together three respected albums with the help of his backing band the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe. (The former actually didn't join him until his second album, but proved to be a good fit.) Acclaim was turning into sales, and there seemed little to stop him joining Bruce Springsteen as the future of rock 'n' roll.

In March an incident happened in Columbus, Ohio that did threaten to shut down the carnival. To sum up he had a drunken run-in with blues rock singer Bonnie Bramlett, one in which some unfortunate racial epithets were thrown around. By him.

In the long run this fracas seems to say very little about Elvis Costello as a man and if anything less about him as a musician. Quite a few were under the impression that was the real Elvis - or the real Declan, if you prefer - and suddenly he was being reevaluated, his stock corrected downward.

The next year came Get Happy!!, complete with two exclamation points, which is a stranger choice than one or three. This was very much a soul throwback album, with recording sounds and cover art suggestive of something just brought out of the Motown vaults. Or even more likely, the Stax vaults. "Motel Matches" even sounds like it could be a Ray Charles song. The right mix of dim and cynical could find this to be a phony bit of ass-covering. Really, though, Elvis had been a lover of American R&B since childhood, so it was inevitable that this would come out in some form. This is not a record you make as a cynical career move. If the Columbus incident had triggered it, that's only to the extent that the warm and gritty sounds found on those old 45s stood him well in times of turmoil.

Turmoil is the real subject of "Riot Act." Turmoil brought by change. "Forever doesn't mean forever anymore." Maybe the word "forever" is just a promise made to and by children, one that adults learn to read as "six weeks or so." Everything that matters is subject to end someday. This includes bands. It includes love affairs and marriages. Ultimately life as well.

And usually when things end, they end in recrimination. Somebody has to be at fault. Someone has to be the villain in a million. Costello had hinted this before with "Blame it on Cain - "It's nobody's fault but we need somebody to burn." Now with life moving at a faster and louder pace he was pretty much shouting it from the rooftops.

The song may be about dissolution, but the band is totally there for him. Steve Nieve is especially impressive on this one, through overdubs projecting the dual personality of dignified pianist and organ rocking Pied Piper. But the unrelated rhythm section of Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas do sterling work here too. They help Costello turn what could have been an unbearably bitter final note into a joyful one.


semiconscious said...

well, this post threw me off, considering that it made me realize that i'd never known that 'riot act' was a final song, because i'd never listened to 'get happy!!', which's because, truth to tell, other than his first 2 (& maybe the third), i'm not sure i've ever actually listened to any of elvis costello's albums?! :( ...

i mean, thanks to radio (radio), i'm extremely familiar with his most popular songs (& we do have 'girls girls girls' on our ipod), but, considering what an extremely talented lyricist he is, i'm kinda surprised that my familiarity with his work is so relatively limited. i'm blaming it most on the fact that, from the late '70s thru the early '80s, there was just such an explosion of new bands & music (the whole punk / new wave overload era) that it was inevitable some stuff'd push other stuff aside...

otoh, what i did happen to read a week or so ago was this slate article regarding his recently-published memoirs, which covered everything from the incident you mention to his dad's showbiz history (love the 'secret lemonade' thing :) ). so i guess i've never really completely lost interest in the guy...

'riot act' is, indeed, a wonderful song, & a perfect example of his patented technique of starting off with a simple catch phrase & proceeding to fabricate a universe out of it. thanks for reminding me of just how brilliant the guy could be - i might have a little musical catching up to do :) ...

Ben said...

As I recall you gave me a cassette copy of Girls Girls Girls when I went to college. I think that's one of the things that got me into Elvis Costello. I'd heard and liked his first two albums before but this suggested he'd been up to some interesting stuff since then, so I (over time) tracked down more of his stuff. Eventually got to see him live, too, at a later and I would guess more serene time of his life. His stage show wasn't overly serene, though.

I can see what you mean about there being a lot to choose from/keep up with, though. England and America were both bustling with creative scenes around that time. Probably other places too.