100 Best Albums of the Eighties
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 'Get Happy!'
"We knocked off a few good grooves on that one, I suppose," said Elvis Costello of Get Happy!! earlier this year. Of course, he understated the case for his fourth album considerably. Get Happy!! — on which Costello and the Attractions race through twenty flawless soul-pop gems in just over forty minutes — is perhaps the smartest, most impassioned party record of the decade. It may also be the most listenable mea culpa in rock history.
In the winter of 1979, while in Columbus, Ohio, on tour in support of Armed Forces, Costello got involved in an ugly argument with Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills's band at a hotel bar. In a misguided effort to offend Bramlett and company, the British New Waver — who had been active in Britain's Rock Against Racism movement — made some racist remarks about black American musicians. The result was a painful and humiliating public-relations disaster for Costello that saw him receive death threats and have his records dropped from radio-station playlists.
While Costello dealt formally with the incident at a press conference in New York City a few days later, he did a much better job of clearing the air with this album, which affirmed his respect and affection for the music of black America. Get Happy!! was his and the Attractions' version of a Motown album and therefore an attempt to disprove some false accusations. "I had the feeling people were reading my mind," Costello told Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus in 1982, "but what could I do, hold up a sign that read, 'I really like black people?'"
For Get Happy!! Costello and the Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — again worked with producer Nick Lowe, though in a new location, Withlord Studios, in Amsterdam. Lowe came up with a low-tech, back-to-mono sound that suited Costello's soul-revival approach. Many songs were pieced together from notes made during the Armed Forces tour. As Tom Carson wrote in a Rolling Stone review, "This is an album that springs straight from the tensions and interruptions of life on the road — all of its scenes seem to take place in motel rooms or between planes or over long-distance phone lines."
The desperate, bitter romantic longing telegraphed in so many of the album's lyrics is offset by a light touch musically. Though Get Happy!! was the product of a difficult, even "demented" (according to Costello) time in his life, there are moments when, lost in the soulful gait of the music, he sounds, well, downright happy.