by Tim Den
Get Happy!!, arguably Elvis Costello And The Attractions‘ most controversial work during the band’s three-year commercial reign at the end of the ’70s, is about as easy to sum up as it is to listen to in one sitting (this new Rhino reissue includes the original 20 cuts plus 30 bonus tracks. 50 tracks, kids. Count ’em). For one, many have argued that this was the exact point where the band stretched beyond New Wave and began dabbling in other forms of pop songcraft (culminating in the Sgt. Pepper’s…-ish Imperial Bedroom a few years later), but most consider Get Happy!! a historical event because of an unfortunate episode that preceeded it. You know what I’m talking about, right? Costello certainly does, filling up most of the revamped liner notes with (as usual) eloquent/poetic hindsight that illustrates the impact this incident would have on his career and – at that point in time – this album.
I’m talking about, of course, Costello’s supposed racist remarks one drunken Cleveland night toward African-Americans, particularly Ray Charles and James Brown. The consequences of these self-described “absurd” comments scarring his reputation permanently, and some say led to the very Motown/Stax Records/R&B feel of Get Happy!! (even Costello himself wonders aloud in the liner notes whether or not this album was an act of subtly making amends). Whatever the reason, Get Happy!! is one of the band’s most important albums/periods, if not for the unsavory circumstances around it than for the excellent progress the band made outside of New Wave.
Indeed, the performances here feel like a fish in water, bopping to on-beats and Sunday gospel hollers as if directly transported from the Deep South. Of course, covers like “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” and “Getting Mighty Crowded” lend the festivities credibility, but the originals don’t necessarily need it, judging from the authentic sounds of “King Horse,” “Love For Tender,” and “Temptation.” Steve Nieve’s Hammond ooozes soul, while Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas’ rhythm section pound the dance floor like JB’s backing band. There is power here that never again makes an appearance from this band… as if, for a brief 20-song moment of their lives, they were able to walk and talk (and sing and play) in the shoes of The Miracles.
After Get Happy!!, the band move on to slick pop (Trust), Country & Western covers (Almost Blue), orchestrated pop (Imperial Bedroom), and sell-out AM radio (Punch the Clock) before imploding (the first of many more times to come) on Goodbye Cruel World. But for one album in the band’s turbulent beginning, Elvis Costello And The Attractions were able to pull off the first in what was to be many transformations, and deliver one of their most ambitious, substantial, and visceral offerings.
My advice: Get all of the pre-Get Happy!! Rhino reissues and read all the liner notes leading up to this album. Only then will you realize how significant the “episode” was to Costello.
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