By the time the ’80s started, Elvis Costello already had released three classic albums: his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, the following year’s This Year’s Model and 1979’s Armed Forces. Two of them were made with his backing band the Attractions, all three were produced by Nick Lowe and each included all-original songs by Costello.
For his fourth album, Get Happy!! — released in February 1980, a little more than a year after Armed Forces — he kept the Attractions, once again worked with Lowe, but this time he included a couple of cover songs that helped serve as the catalyst for the record, a 20-track tribute to ’60s R&B music, with most songs clocking in at less than two and a half minutes (and a few that barely made it to one).
It was a risk-taking moment by the singer-songwriter, who became one of the era’s most heralded — and most misunderstood. Initially attached to the punk and New Wave movements — skinny ties and a jittery stage presence will do that — Costello wanted to break free from the shackles of the Angry Young Man label he was burdened with. How else to do this than with a new set of songs evoking ’60s soul music collected under the title Get Happy!!?
The surface story was a bit misleading. There’s still some spite and acerbic wordplay bubbling alongside the punchy melodies of many of the new songs, including “Man Called Uncle,” “Clowntime Is Over” and “Riot Act.” In fact, there were very few happy songs on Get Happy!!, when you get down to it.
Several of the cuts originated during Costello’s 1979 tour with the Attractions, and they sounded a lot like the music found on Armed Forces, synth heavy and still tied to the New Wave tag he wanted to sever. So by the time they convened in a Netherlands studio with producer Lowe in late 1979, most of the songs had been reworked in the style of the beloved ’60s R&B record label Stax. They even tossed in a cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” (the other cover, “I Stand Accused,” came from a 1965 song by the Merseybeats). And if that wasn’t enough, the album’s cover art was designed to look like an old-school record from that classic soul period, complete with vinyl ring wear.
In a way, Get Happy!! could be seen as a reaction to a nasty incident in April 1979, when Costello, drunkenly arguing with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in a hotel bar, referred to Ray Charles as a “blind, ignorant n–.” Costello immediately and publicly apologized for the comment, and when the LP was released in early 1980, some critics and fans saw it as atonement. Costello dismissed this notion, and it’s easy to hear Get Happy!! as more than mere tribute to the music Charles helped create.
Whatever the case, it’s one of Costello’s most tuneful records, filled with some of his best songs from the period. Often neglected, and waved off as a novelty (as is 1981’s country album, Almost Blue), during discussions of Costello’s ’80s work, Get Happy!! may be his most jubilant LP ever. The 20 songs pack more muscle, hooks, heart and, yes, soul than many of his more acclaimed records that followed.
The album reached No. 11, the last time a Costello record placed so high in the U.S. (Armed Forces made it to No. 10, his best showing). And it remains a pivotal work in his long career, an assured first step toward even more grandiose experiments to come — from jazz, classical and baroque pop to hip-hop, New Orleans groove and Americana. It’s also a great album, an extension of his first three classic LPs that also happens to consciously move away from them and into brave new territory.