Born this day in 1954, as Declan MacManus, Elvis Costello became—in the period of 1980 to 1986 or so—my main man. I cite 1980 because of the album Get Happy!! which was released in February of that year. I remember the winter of 1980 as pretty tough on a number of levels, and I recall listening and listening and re-listening to Costello’s amazing 20 track tour de force into the summer (I taped the album so I could have it in the car with me). The lyrics were so elusive, the singing so full of feeling and mood-shifts, glibly tongue-in-cheek one moment, bathing in bathos the next, and his band—The Attractions (Steve Nieve, keyboards; Bruce Thomas, bass; Pete Thomas, drums) became my favorite band—astounding in their intricate backing to the R&B-styled fervor of this album.
Today’s song is my favorite track on the album—and it’s an album on which early favorites jump out, and then, gradually, each song gains its own aura. There’s not a track on here I’d say is expendable and, really, this should’ve been a double album with the tracks released on Taking Liberties that same year added in. “Elvis” was incredibly prolific—what do I mean, “was,” he still is. But back then it was still surprising. By this point he had released four albums and each was a different kind of call-to-arms (before this album I liked Armed Forces (1979) best, but was knocked out by each of them in turn). I put it like that because no one could match Costello in that put-upon air that said “this sucks” and the only way to get back at the badness of everything is to call it as he sees it. Costello’s cleverness is a form of self-defense, a necessary theater in which to try on all the badges of bad behavior and the overcoats of outrage. Maybe even the hats of hamartia? Why not. Costello’s main speaker seems mostly to be a tragic clown, laughing up his sleeve at the sleight-of-hand that didn’t work. And never will.
“Riot Act” lays it all on the table. “Forever doesn’t mean forever any more.” There you go. Hi, Mr. Temporary, gonna be here long? Nope. “I said ‘forever’ but it looks like I’m not gonna be around much anymore.” Vows of love broken. Hopes for the future dashed. And—in late summer fashion—“when the heat gets sub-tropical / And the talk gets so topical – you can read me the riot act.” The “reading” of the riot act means a stern warning, a censure of one’s tongue or behavior. The feeling is that the speaker is at his wits’ end and is going to say something damaging to all concerned any moment.
And that’s the sense that Costello had a way of laying on thick. As, in “Radio Radio,” when he says “I want to bite the hand that feeds me / I want to bite that hand so badly / I want to make them wish they’d never seen me” and notes “the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, trying to anesthetize the way that you feel.” There are no anesthetics or nostrums available for the speaker of most of Costello’s songs. He has passed the point at which cautions or the consideration of others’ feelings will have any effect. And threats? “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.”
The latter is the height of what Costello can get away with. On the one hand, the shift from “bad” to “bad enough” completely deflates someone’s tough act and if that’s not clear, the juxtaposition of “laugh” and “tough” accomplishes much. It’s ridicule of a high order that’s pretending to be a warning, an effort to assert without ridicule. Then comes the corker: wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is generally considered foolish. It makes one vulnerable to mockery and humiliation, but Costello takes the idiomatic sleeve and gives it an idiomatic cuff. “Off the cuff” means unprepared, unrehearsed. Nothing, we might imagine, can be so damaging as “off the cuff” heart-felt protestations.
At the heart of the song is a truly desperate statement of how plaguey all these feelings are becoming: “Why do you talk such stupid nonsense / When my mind could rest much easier.” I have to say that, when this song first made its inroads into my consciousness, those lines paved the way. The nonsense and drivel of our media age is all around us—was then and is worse now. Resting one’s mind is the only way out; refusing to be riled, refusing to take on idiocy on its own terms. “Instead of all this dumb-dumb insolence / I would be happier with amnesia.” I used to hear it and sing it as “doped-up insolence” maybe because that shoe fit better. While never really insolent, myself, one cheered Costello as he took himself to task. Loving his insolence and hearing how insolent is his wish for amnesia. It’s almost to the level of Hamlet’s baiting of his adversaries. I’d be content only if I could forget what it is that has made me so insolent.
There’s plenty other playful sallies—as in a “slip of the tongue is gonna keep you civilian” where we’re asked to hear both “civil” and “civilian.” A “villain in a million” (!), our boy can only be “civil” by accident as it were. And the slip—between cup and lip, you might say—keeps him civilian, as in, not in service. They won’t take a mind so cutting.
Musically the song takes its tone from those big drumbeats that sound like the steps of doom, and there’s much moody tugging from Nieve’s background organ playing while his piano teases us with lighter tones. The choruses are full tilt with a big sound, and the bass provides much of the lyrical gravity to the whole, as Costello’s vocal rides the shifts in register and gets worked up to his most extreme pitch—and the high “oooo” at the close seems to come from some point at which the stab overcomes the jab.
Now it looks like you’re either gonna be before me or against me