Conventional wisdom has it that Elvis Costello is the New Wave resurrection of Buddy Holly—and that’s certainly the aesthetic Costello was after when he first made his splash in 1977. It makes more sense, however, to think of him as rock and roll’s Woody Allen: he’s smart, pessimistically hilarious, improbably funny looking and, at times, a little bit creepy. First and foremost, of course, Elvis Costello is a nerd. “I am,” says Costello during a tortured interview on Swedish TV, “rock and roll’s Scrabble champion.”
The Right Spectacle: The Very Best of Elvis Costello—The Videos features 27 videos from 1978 through 1994. In addition, the DVD includes over an hour of archive footage from television appearances by Elvis Costello and the Attractions between 1977 and 1983. This collection of videos is a treat not only because it documents the evolution of Elvis Costello’s music—it traces the evolution of the art of music video as well, from the primitive days of the late 1970s to the relative technological advancement of the mid 1990s.
The Right Spectacle opens with “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Pump it Up,” both classic songs from the 1978 album This Year’s Model. The pre-MTV aesthetic of these videos is decidedly bare-bones. As Costello puts it in the wry DVD commentary, “the idea is to fill the band with vodka and set them loose in a white room.”
Despite some pathetic video effects (no star wipes, thankfully) and dodgy lip-syncs, these two videos provide an intriguing portrait of a band at the height of its powers (though not necessarily in the prime of its fashion sense). The Attractions do a convincing pantomime of rocking out while Costello careens around the room on double-jointed ankles with distressed hair looking remarkably like Angus Young with motor neurone disease.
A handful of videos in support of 1979′s Armed Forces and 1980′s Get Happy leave the white room behind in favor of more exotic locales. They perform “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” while cavorting beneath a totem pole in a Vancouver park (filmed illegally after hours, according to Costello’s commentary). “Oliver’s Army” was shot on location in the bars and on the beaches of lovely Hawaii, and includes a shot of Costello prancing into the surf, guitar and all, only to think better of it and come scurrying right back to the camera (and not the only point on the DVD where, as Costello himself puts it, he runs “like a girl”).
“I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” was filmed in a rented villa in the south of France and features some of the worst choreography you’re ever likely to see in a music video. Even more incredibly, the Attractions actually attended dance lessons to learn the steps.
The most captivating of the early videos would have to be “New Amsterdam,” which has Costello alone, tulips in hand, wandering the industrial wastelands of the southern English coast. It’s a nice visual representation of the ambivalence toward love, hope and progress in the modern world that comes across in Costello’s lyrics. Also worth noting is a very cool video for “Accidents Will Happen” that showcases computer graphics and animation well in advance of a-ha’s breakthrough video for “Take On Me.”
The 1981 video for “New Lace Sleeves,” which Costello calls one of the best looking videos they’ve ever done, was shot in an atmospheric black and white that prefigures the the classic Police video for “Every Breath You Take” (Costello insinuates a connection between the two in his voice-over).
From a cinematic standpoint, the most interesting video in this collection is for “I Wanna Be Loved” off of 1984′s Goodbye Cruel World album. The song is a mournful cover version of an obscure R&B song by Teacher’s Edition and the video is just a close-up shot of a bedraggled, distraught Costello in a photo booth singing along (sort of) to the song as people lean in from off camera on either side to kiss him on the cheek. The video, which Costello thinks is the best one he ever made, came during a period of intense emotional upheaval in his life and the pain and despair really come across on the screen. The fact that this video was made in the same general time frame as “The Only Flame in Town,” featuring the vocal and acting stylings of one Daryl Hall (sans Oates, thank god), only goes to show that it wasn’t all pure gold.
Other highlights on The Right Spectacle include the video for “Veronica” (a song Costello co-wrote with Paul McCartney), which won the Best Male Video award at the 1989 MTV Music Awards, and the bizarre video for “This Town,” which stars British comedy legend Harry Enfield as the emcee of a game show called Babes, Bikes and Beelzebub where contestants can sell their souls to the devil for a variety of earthly delights. Costello plays the devil, of course.
The 1991 video for “So Like Candy” is indicative of the grunge era in which it was made. Filmed in sepia tone, the camera alternates between an earnest Costello strumming his guitar and artsy-fartsy shots of an insect buzzing around the corner and a piglet running around the house for no apparent reason. It is perhaps of additional interest that in the video for a song co-written with Paul McCartney, Costello bears an unsettlingly strong resemblance to the bearded and bespectacled John Lennon of the latter years.
The 99 minutes of videos are certainly a treat and will be a welcome trip down memory lane for any Elvis Costello fan. The DVD commentary adds a healthy dose of Costello’s dry wit to the mix. Even more illuminating than the videos, however, is the additional hour of bonus footage showing notable TV appearances of Elvis Costello and the Attractions from 1977-1984. The 17 performances (well 17 1/2 if you want to count the tiny fragment of “Alison” from Costello’s first ever TV appearance) are all live—Costello deliberately left out Top of the Pops-style lip-sync performances.
While the videos start with Costello’s second album, the 1977 TV appearances spotlight frenetic performances of classic tracks from his first record, My Aim Is True. Footage from the 1979 Pink Pop Festival in Holland catches the band at their absolute peak with fantastic renditions of “Lipstick Vogue” and “Watching the Detectives.” There is also a stark performance of “Shot With His Own Gun” from a 1981 broadcast of What’s In and a 1983 version of “Peace in Our Time,” a song that takes Neville Chamberlain’s empty promise and pays it forward through history. The DVD booklet includes liner notes by Costello about the TV show selections.
If you want to see the artistic evolution of the man who made geek chic years before Weezer and Conner Oberst were out of diapers, The Right Spectacle is, well, the right spectacle, indeed.