If you start with Elvis Costello’s superb Spectacle interview-and-performance series, sadly in its last run, and trace his career backwards, it’s a dizzying review. The last decade alone, which saw Costello’s induction into the Rock Hall of Fame, offered a breakneck pace with four solo records (from rock to bluegrass), two collaborative albums, a ballet, and dozens of one-off contributions. The ’90s were equally fruitful, full of Bacharachs, Brodskys, and beards. The ’80s, a decade in which Costello felt musically out of place among the New Romantics, nevertheless were among his most dramatic years as he began to solidify his stance as a rock and roll lifer, swinging from soul to rock to country, up to the esoteric brilliance of Imperial Bedroom down to the career crisis nadir of Goodbye Cruel World (although that record’s a lot more fun that it’s been given credit for). And if you keep going back, you finally get to that mercurial opening streak, Costello’s late ’70s hat trick. Costello was a revelation from the beginning, and for all his snarling cynicism and a singular combination of nerdiness and sexiness, no one could mistake how great the songs were. It was an urgent run of angry young pub rock, golden-age hooks, and tongue-tripping wordplay, adding up to one of the hottest starts in rock history. And now available is a brawling live show from the middle of this three-year explosion, Live at Hollywood High.
Recorded in the gymnasium of the famed Hollywood High School in L.A. on June 4, 1978, this is Elvis Costello and the Attractions on fire amid a feverish creative stride. The band was touring behind This Year’s Model, which had come out two months earlier, but American audiences were also just getting to know the debut, My Aim is True, the U.S. release of which was nearly a year behind the ’77 release in England. Just two months after this show, the band would be back in the studio to record Armed Forces. It’s a blistering 20-song set by a 23-year-old Costello leading the band through revved-up versions of their studio recordings and experimenting with some dynamic new song structures.
Live at Hollywood High is the second in the “Costello Show” series of full archival concerts from Hip-O Records, following the venerated Live at the El Mocambo, a set that had been available in various forms but was rereleased in full last year. The full Hollywood show has also been hotly anticipated by the faithful, as the legendary show had never been fully available until now. (Three songs from this concert were included on a 7” single giveaway with the first pressings of Armed Forces in ’79, and six more surfaced on that album’s 2002 reissue.) And while Declan-iacs scooped up this set immediately, it’s highly recommended for anyone with even a modest interest in Elvis Costello as a document of the artist and his killer band at the peak of their powers.
The show opens as Costello takes the stage and sings “Accidents Will Happen” accompanied only by pianist Steve Nieve before bringing on the rest of the band. You have to wonder if Costello didn’t borrow this idea from Bruce Springsteen, who had taken to opening shows with a piano-only “Thunder Road” a couple of years before. And like Bruce’s show, after the rather delicate opener, the band comes out and blows things sky high, here with a speedball version of the sex-angst classic “Mystery Dance”, as Costello spits out lyrics about as fast as the band can keep up. Half of the tunes here are from This Year’s Model, and the band’s adrenaline onstage sends these songs on the verge of careening out of control. “Lip Service”, for instance, makes the album version sound like it’s standing still. The bratty paranoia of “Living in Paradise”, dedicated to the “physical jerks” hanging in Hollywood High’s locker room, is only slightly faster than the original, but when they break things down, Elvis brings a sexual urgency that’s absent in other version; when he breathes, “I’ll be at the keyhole outside your bedroom door”, you can hear the girls in the balcony screaming.
By the time the band gets to acerbic punch of “Goon Squad”, one of three then-unreleased songs that would show up on Armed Forces, the band has established a gale-force manifesto that strips the arrangements of most of the backing vocals, probably because the band is so busy going for broke. Nieve, for his part, is a man possessed, flooding the songs with roller-rink swirls, haunted-house dive-bombs, and percolating stabs and burples, holding the songs together when Elvis vamps for the crowd. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a rock, locking into the bass drum, sure, but on the lovesick sweep of “Party Girl” (gorgeous version here) and the reggae lope of “Watching the Detectives”, Thomas provides crucial counterpoints to Costello’s intermittent jangles and riffs. And is there any rock drummer as feloniously underappreciated as Pete Thomas? All hail Pete! Hollywood High may be the ultimate document of Pete’s jaw-dropping prowess — just listen to the furious, continuous fills on “No Action” or the syncopated freakouts on “Lipstick Vogue”.
It’s also worth a reminder that Costello is the only guitarist on stage, always a courageous endeavor, but a particular feat here given the vocal demands of these intoxicatingly verbose tunes. 1978 also saw Costello growing as a singer — the opening performance of “Accidents Will Happen” is a case in point, proving that he could rock out like a street-wise tough on “Pump It Up”, but was an emerging crooner in the classic style, we well, as an equal admirer of Smokey Robinson and George Jones. It’s a preview of the epileptic vibrato that Costello would employ on future balladry — like Katherine Hepburn being strangled by a feral cat (in a good way).
The show ends with the knockout four-song punch of “Radio Radio” (the infamous Saturday Night Live stunt occurred six-months prior), “Pump It Up”, “Waiting for the End of the World”, and “Miracle Man”. During that climax, Elvis challenges the kids upstairs to go nuts: “Ideally, you would make the balcony fall down and crush everybody to death!” In an interview, Bono recently remembered going to an Elvis Costello and the Attractions show during this period, after which everyone in the audience that night left and immediately started a band. Listening to Live at Hollywood High, that kind of surging inspiration is still in effect 32 years down the road although few bands ever played and wrote as well as the boys on display on this indispensable recording.