Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18: Elvis Costello, "Radio Radio"

Artist: Elvis Costello
Song: "Radio Radio"
Album: This Year's Model
Year: 1978

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While there is certainly something to be said for subtlety, there are times when a far more aggressive, in-your-face type approach is more fitting for the situation.  In most cases, a writer or band is good at one or the other, as each takes their own special understanding.  Yet in the latter of the two approaches, one must still temper themselves in some way if there is a hope of getting a message across, and in many ways, this can be seen as the reason many of the early punk songs did not resonate with a larger audience.  Then of course, there was Elvis Costello.  Unquestionably one of the most uniquely talented musicians in history, it was his brand of cynicism and distinctively catchy songs that made him into a true music legend, yet it is also through his music that one can see the beginnings of many new styles.  By the time Costello released his third record, 1978's This Year's Model, he had already established himself as one of the finest writers of his generation, and yet it would be this record that would highlight his connection to punk rock, as well as the venomous attacks that seemed to come so easily with his writing.  Clearly fed up with the machine that is the music industry, Elvis Costello held nothing back, penning one of the most scathing, yet musically brilliant songs ever in the form of his phenomenal 1978 single, "Radio Radio."

From the moment that "Radio Radio" begins, a number of different genres are clearly at play, and one can hear just how closely connected the styles of punk and new wave are through the music found here.  Led by the strangely toned organ of Steve Nieve, the songs' hook is immediately set into play, and it remains one of the most recognizable progressions in all of music history.  The pace at which this hook is played also gives "Radio Radio" a unique sense of urgency, and this mood is highlighted by the drumming of Pete Thomas.  As the song moves into the verse section, the song drops into a sparse arrangement featuring little more than bassist Bruce Thomas and light touches from Costello's guitar.  Yet even with this change in the sound, the mood of the song is never lost, and the drive that lies underneath the music is in many ways the concentrated spirit of the punk movement.  The way in which the band spins back into the bridge and chorus sections is where "Radio Radio" gains its wide range of appeal, as even with the frustration that is evident in the sound, there is something upbeat, almost sweet within the sound that cannot be denied.  It is this juxtaposition of sounds that defines Costello's sound and proves the true genius of his musical arrangements.  On "Radio Radio," Elvis Costello also makes it quite clear that one need not use heavy distortion or excessive volume to make a musical point.

Perfectly aligning with the mood and sound set forth by the music, the vocals of Elvis Costello on "Radio Radio" are his finest in a number of different ways.  Though he had already shown his amazing voice on his previous releases, on this song he displays an angry sneer that was in many ways lying underneath all of his earler work, and when it is unleashed here, the complete picture of Costello as an artist becomes clear.  There is an attitude within his voice that is nothing short of captivating, and it is his ability to make these feelings almost universally understood that serve as further evidence of his skill as a musician.  Yet even with the music and singing in the top notch form which they are, there is simply no getting past the fact that "Radio Radio" boasts what are without question some of the greatest lyrics ever penned.  Taking full aim at the music industry, from the lack of "real" musical understanding and love in those who run it to the unfair practices used in promoting certain music above other, Costello holds nothing back and in the process created an absolute classic.  Speaking to the feeling that he was little more than a number to industry heads, few artists have captured the feeling as perfect as when he sings, "...it's only inches on the reel-to-reel..."  Costello continues his assault when he slams the industry heads with the lines, "...and the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel..."  Though many have tried to take similar shots over the years, in comparison, nothing even comes close to the powerful, yet catchy approach found on "Radio Radio."

Truth be told, "Radio Radio" does not appear on the original U.K. release of This Year's Model, and it became the albums' thirteenth song when the record was released in the U.S. By the time This Year's Model was released in the U.S., the single had already made waves due to Costello's notorious performance on Saturday Night Live in December of 1977. Serving as a last minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, Columbia Records insisted that Costello play "Less Than Zero" in an effort to promote the release of his first two records in the U.S.  Costello felt the song had little resonance in the U.S., but reluctantly agreed to play it after a lengthy battle with studio executives.  However, a few bars into the song, Costello famously stopped the band and stated, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here..." The band then launched into a blistering version of "Radio Radio," instantly becoming one of the most famous moments in music history.  The event lives on in the lore of the show, and on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, Costello "interrupted" a performance by the Beastie Boys on SNL, and they all launched into "Radio Radio."  Even without these unforgettable live incidents, the song would have achieved its iconic status, as in every way, it is absolute musical perfection.  Forever altering his image and becoming a legend of the punk spirit, there is simply no other song in history that can compare to the sheer musical genius that one finds in Elvis Costello's 1978 single, "Radio Radio."

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