August 20, 2009

NT's greatest hits, No. 18 (of 34)

These gaps must stop!

"Radio, Radio" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

In late 1989, I was watching the Saturday Night Live 15th-anniversary (wow) special on TV, which featured a montage of brief clips of the show's musical guests. Included was a few seconds from Elvis Costello and the Attractions' 1977 performance. Watch:

Apparently, the band was a last-minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, were pretty much unprepared and in a foul mood, and resented being asked to play "Less than Zero," an older single that they regarded as too Anglocentric for American TV. So 20 seconds in, just to take the piss, Elvis broke it off and directed his band to start in on "Radio, Radio."

The clip on the SNL special was a mere 25 seconds long; it cut off just a few notes into the keyboard intro of "Radio, Radio." I had no idea what the rest of the song sounded like. But I was hooked. That synthesizer riff was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. Soon after, I'd purchased the then-current edition of Costello's greatest hits (the first of many), and played the song over and over again. I still remember: track No. 8, three minutes and six seconds.

Shortly after, I made my first mixtape in a long and nerdily detailed series, and "Radio, Radio" was track one, side one. In college, I had a regular tradition of hosting an all–Elvis Costello radio show during "Dead Days"—the several days of downtime between classes and finals. I always felt like Costello's cynicism and anger perfectly suited the campus mood of the time. The show always ended with "Radio, Radio." It's such a wonderful song: tense but perceptive, hard rocking but full of so many different great sounds. And that keyboard riff: A friend once told me he dislikes it because it's "too raga," but I like color, I like a little ostentation, and no one did it better than the Attractions' keyboardist, Steve Nieve. (As great a songwriter as Costello is, never discount the importance or talent of Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas; best new-wave band ever.)

I used to be absolutely obsessed with Elvis Costello, but the fandom has faded a little. Like so many others, I'm not enamored of his more recent material—personally, I feel like become a rich and worshipped rock star has made Costello lose touch somewhat with his muse (how can you be the angry young outside when you're nailing a beautiful Canadian easy-listening star and having your ass kissed by Burt Bacharach?). But also, I realize how cliché it was for me to be such a big fan. (A contrarian once said that rock critics like Elvis Costello only because he looks like them; while I am neither a rock critic nor a glasses wearer, point taken.) His older music, though, has lost none of its luster, its energy and perceptiveness looking and sounding better by day. Such a lot of fools are still trying to anesthetize the way that we feel, after all.