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Elvis Costello’s ‘Get Happy!!’ at 40

The 1980 album is a bracing time capsule of a singer-songwriter at the height of his powers and coming apart under pressure

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“You Can Total Up the Balance Sheet / And Never Know If I’m a Counterfeit”

It begins as a blitzkrieg and ends up an avalanche. Twenty galloping tracks covering 48 minutes of righteous indignation, roiling jealousy, political anxiety, and punishing self-recrimination: the speed freak’s White Album. It’s Elvis Costello’s epic, antic, and wholly singular fourth LP Get Happy!! and it just turned 40.

From the very beginning he was a lot. Over the course of the three masterful records that cemented his reputation as a bile-spewing, British-born analogue to Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s enfant terrible persona—1977’s rootsy and aggrieved My Aim Is True, 1978’s muscular and menacing This Year’s Model, and 1979’s panoramic and paranoid Armed Forces—Costello displayed a talent without bounds and a temperament without governance. Drunk on rage, ambition, and lager, he and his crackerjack backing band the Attractions stormed up the U.K. charts and made headway in the States, with Armed Forces streaking into the U.S. top 10.

By age 24, Costello was well established as a genius auteur whose mastery of song form situated him alongside not only the major figures of the rock era, but also connected him to the larger traditions of Tin Pan Alley and the Grand Ole Opry. He threw off great tunes at such a rate that he couldn’t release them all, so they were farmed out to icons like Dave Edmunds and George Jones. His momentum so unbridled it could not be stopped and could hardly be contained. There was only one person who could halt the inextricable rise of Elvis Costello.

To press play on Get Happy!! is to be both dazzled and concerned. The man on the other end of the speakers sounds manic, even feral. The first lyrics are, as is frequently the case with early Costello, both an accusation and a play on words. But unlike the precision of his previous broadsides, these lines are slightly obscure, like an advertising log line that forgets what it is pitching and embarks on a rogue agenda: “You won’t take my love for tender?” This sets a pattern that will occur throughout Get Happy!!, one clever but fractious phrase after another unspools as though autogenerated from a demented mail-order catalog. It appears, as he digresses from verse after verse to slogan after slogan to devotion after prosecution, that the man on the other end of the speakers may very well be losing it.

“Cheap Cut Satin and Bad Perfume / Showtime Is Almost Here”

An incident that occurred months before the recording of Get Happy!! hampered Costello’s spectacular ascent. The Attractions were touring America following the release of Armed Forces and one night found themselves in the same Columbus, Ohio, hotel bar as members of Stephen Stills’s band, who were also playing in town. Costello was drunk and highly irascible, which described him as frequently as not in those days. Playful banter with the blue-eyed soul singer Bonnie Bramlett turned antagonistic and then all-out toxic. Apparently desperate to offend, Costello proceeded to first malign American music icons Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, and then Ray Charles and James Brown in unprintable terms. Bramlett slugged Costello, a full-scale brawl ensued, and the entire thing made its way into the pages of People magazine.

Before social media, before TMZ, before camera phones, before the relative ease with which one can ruin their career in a single episode, Elvis Costello had innovated. Death threats poured in and radio stations removed Armed Forces from rotations en masse. Journalists who had previously praised his literary and musical gifts were justifiably outraged and some turned against him permanently. There was and is no excuse for the words that Costello used in those moments, although there was nothing in the previous three years or ensuing four decades of his very public life to suggest he is remotely bigoted. In retrospect, it was an act of self-immolation that he was fortunate to survive professionally and otherwise.

“Lovers Laughing in Their Amateur Hour / Holding Hands in the Corridors of Power”

Sessions for Get Happy!! convened in Holland with long time producer Nick Lowe at the helm some six months later. Costello’s inner turmoil was consonant with the external chaos of the world he was living in. The tandem rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism loomed like a slate grey sky, amplified by the accumulating sense that its transfer of power would last decades. His personal life was impossibly worse. In the liner notes to the 2002 Rhino Records reissue of Get Happy!!, he describes his mood this way: “I hated just about everything in my world, saving the greatest disdain for myself.” Accordingly, the songs on Get Happy!! tend to fly by in a fit of pique and embarrassment.

The album’s third track, “The Imposter,” distills its ethos into two minutes of towering hooks and Hitchcockian psychic disassociation as he frantically warns a lover that “This is your big decision / Hope you’re not disappointed / He’s got double vision / When you want him double jointed.” It’s a collection of weird but catchy aphorisms either directed at himself or a romantic rival or both, all adding up to a kind of universal theory of falseness. Having taken on the guise of a pretend Buddy Holly, the singer now perceives only masks and costumes at every turn.

The songs that populate the majority of Get Happy!! are so catchy that it can be initially difficult to perceive exactly how disturbing they are. The jittery “King Horse” weds a descending piano hook to a singalong chorus that conjures something of David Lynch’s nightmare-dream logic: “Now I know that you’re all king horse / Between tenderness and brute force.” Three brisk tunes scattered throughout the album were intended by Costello to be a kind of Burroughs-like, cut-up trilogy: “Temptation,” “Opportunity,” and “Possession” read like a tortured romance in three acts or a plan for military domination.

In the same vein, the robotic and malevolent “Clowntime Is Over” sounds like circus music from the Weimar Republic, a terrifying vision of men in the shadows getting ready to “take over,” set to a mechanized march borrowed from Kraftwerk and Bowie’s Berlin period. Only two years previous, Costello had concluded This Year’s Model with “Night Rally,” a chilling warning about the rise of authoritarianism that doubled as a pledge for vigilance. Here he tackles the same themes with resignation and maybe even an eerie trace of bemusement. He was not thinking clearly. He was rattled by the rush.

“Now There’s Newsprint All Over Your Face / Maybe That’s Why I Can Read You Like a Book”

In the aforementioned 2002 liner notes Costello set up the events in Columbus this way: “We continued to tour relentlessly through the end of 1978 and into an incredibly punishing schedule in the early part of 1979. We were riding around America in a tour bus that claimed to be headed for Marine H.Q. at Camp Lejeune. You might say we were spoiling for a fight.”

Too long on tour, too many drugs, too much drink. Fatigue and irritation on a mammoth scale. A scenario common to the vocation which rarely comes to good. And there were the Attractions: stranded in an Ohio hotel bar with castoffs from the love generation. “Whatever the larger argument,” Costello recollected in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, “the petty sniping over a few cocktails soon escalated from snide remarks to unspeakable slanders. I’ll have to take the word of witnesses that I really used such despicable racial slurs in the same sentence as two of the greatest musicians that ever lived, but whatever I did, I did it to provoke a bar fight and finally put the lights out.”

Costello has attempted to explain the incident repeatedly over the years: first in a hastily convened and not fully convincing press conference a couple weeks after it first occurred, then three years later in a Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus that ran on the cover with the sufficiently supplicating headline “Elvis Costello Repents,” and subsequently in both liner notes and his memoir. Decades later, he still regards it as a trauma. “I see someone coming and wonder: Do they know this, too? Maybe they’ve read this about me,” he wrote in Unfaithful Music. “It’s the kind of stain that lasts forever in a tangle of unqualified facts upon which you may now so easily stumble.”

This is Costello’s final word on the matter, taken from his memoir, and it’s a question that each of us will answer: “Does anything else that I’ve done in the other 59 years and 525,550 minutes suggest that I harbor suppressed racist beliefs?”

It nevertheless remains impossible, even for the artist himself, to unpack Get Happy!! without discussing Columbus and its Paradise Lost–worthy parable of a man who, in a moment of furious rage, acted in a way that revealed someone different entirely. “Words had always been my friends,” Costello writes in the notes to the 2002 reissue, “Now I had betrayed them.”

Temptation. Opportunity. Possession.

“Another Fashionable First / Like Walking Down the Road to Ruin”

The expression “the hits keep coming” has typically been intended as the promise of continuing bounty, the cheerful FM DJ’s assurance that the songs he’s spinning won’t suddenly turn turgid and bland. In the case of Get Happy!! the hits keep coming, but it’s more like a threat. The hits keep coming because there are more of them than there are of you. The hits keep coming because you don’t have the army to stop them.

Upon its release, Get Happy!! was famously marketed as a loving tribute to American R&B with a special emphasis on Motown and Stax. It made for an interesting press hook and perhaps even served as a subtle rearguard rejoinder to the Columbus incident. But however genuine the group’s affection for American soul music might have been, the album sounds absolutely nothing like its ostensible inspiration. In fact, it barely sounds like anything in the popular canon.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Attractions—consisting of keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas—to the overall sound of Get Happy!! Three highly distinctive players with immediately recognizable styles, they had, by this juncture, cohered into something almost automated, embroidering Costello’s frenzied impulses into supple, insinuating grooves that can seem at times almost oblivious to the man raving over them.

Album highlight and eventual single “High Fidelity” storms through its manifold chord changes and public accusations with a supercharged fury suggesting the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” as reimagined by imperial-period Genesis. “B-Movie” is a Specials-inspired ska-adjacent jam that highlights the Attractions’ virtuosity in various genres. “Motel Matches” is the midperiod Stones ballad Mick and Keith forgot to write, sped up to 45 RPMs.

There are discernible R&B references: the Booker T. bass line from “Opportunity,” the James Brown funk guitar of “Five Gears in Reverse,” and a faithful cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.” But much more than a tribute to past inspiration, Get Happy!! is a landmark in maximalist efficiency, anticipating everything from the Minutemen’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it polemics to They Might Be Giants’ 12-hooks-in-two-minutes Olympian exercises to the Beats-meets-beats psychic overload of Aesop Rock. Costello would go on to make other great records, but never again one so sonically characteristic. It was his strangest album occurring at the strangest impasse of his professional and personal life—an outré classic made under mercifully unrepeatable circumstances.

“This Is My Conviction / I Am an Innocent Man”

While the events of Columbus created the context for Get Happy!!, only one track addresses the incident directly by Costello’s own reckoning. That would be the album closer “Riot Act,” a simmering slow burn that stretches out to three minutes and 35 seconds while laying out something like a public defense for his behavior, or at least an acknowledgment of its ramifications. “It doesn’t look like I’m going to be around much anymore,” he seethes. “Why do you talk such stupid nonsense?” he brays. “I got your letter,” he concedes, adding: “I don’t care for the color that it paints me.”

The surpassing oddity of Get Happy!! combined with the surrounding controversy slowed Costello’s runaway train toward stardom—it charted lower than Armed Forces had in both the U.S. and U.K., and while it drew its share of fine reviews, there were also the first stirrings of some critical backlash against the can’t-miss kid of the literary punk scene. But astonishingly, Costello’s fecund creativity proceeded undiminished. The following year’s Trust was a classic of a different sort, slowing the pace ever so slightly and adding skittering percussive elements and hints of country and western to an album of strong songs that has developed a reputation over the decades as one of his best. 1982’s Imperial Bedroom was a big swing at Beatles-esque grandeur by way of Gershwin that many felt set another new bar for his compositional genius. And so it went for the rest of the ’80s, with Costello turning up annually or even semi-annually with a new bunch of tunes in a new guise, almost always memorable, many of them masterpieces.

In the end, he flirted consistently with mega-stardom on the scale of Madonna or Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen without ever really achieving it, before eventually assuming a role as a widely beloved, avuncular figure whose nearly 50-year career has seen him comfortably under the radar enough to consistently pursue his own muse to various but largely charming effect, safe in his stature as one of the greatest songwriters of the past century.

A final irony of Costello’s lowest public moment is his belief that it might have been his salvation. He has likened the incident to the famous motorcycle accident experienced by Bob Dylan in 1966 that nearly killed Dylan in the moment but ultimately provided a much needed respite from the constant touring and excess that claimed so many of his peers. Costello’s work continued, but the damage done to his professional trajectory proved oddly palliative.

”So what if my career rolled back off the launching pad?” Costello wrote in his memoir. “That Ohio evening might very well have saved my sorry life. I fear an obituary might have appeared not too much later, just a few short lines lamenting my unfulfilled promise, on the occasion of a tawdry demise. When I say this, I do not refer to the many anonymous people who offered to shoot me, but to the emptiness that I was already feeling and my ferocious pursuit of oblivion.”

It could serve as an alternate title: life, liberty, and the pursuit of oblivion. Forty years ago Get Happy!! saw Elvis Costello pull out of a tailspin just before impact, a dizzying display of desperation and talent that remains a fascinating, frantic flare from a sinking ship. It was a terrible period that could have been so much worse. That’s another thing he could have called the album: Get Lucky.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.