Ever since rock ’n’ roll was born on American soil, British musicians have been masters at robbing the cradle. Pop music in the 1960s underwent a massive commercial boom only after British artists took the squalling sounds of American blues and early rock and groomed them for mass appeal. And when rock lost its edge during the 1970s, British bands reclaimed the music, stripping it back to its basics and injecting the vitality of punk and new wave into the mainstream. Emerging from Britain’s newwave scene, Elvis Costello has become one of pop’s most talented songwriters, drawing comparisons for his prolific output to such celebrated American composers as Cole Porter and George Gershwin. And Fine Young Cannibals, a popular 1980s British band, has won acclaim by grafting the vocal style of American soul onto the latest dance rhythms. The new albums of both Costello and the Cannibals demonstrate that, even at a time when technology has
transformed rock into a kind of borderless global pop, British musicians still play a leading role by borrowing American traditions and making them their own.
Costello’s Spike, his 12th album and his first for Warner Bros., is transatlantic in its production as well as its content. Recorded in London,
Dublin, New Orleans and Hollywood, it represents the artist’s most ambitious—and accomplished—work to date.
Using the talents of such diverse musicians as Paul McCartney and T-Bone Burnette, Costello’s palette covers the musical spectrum, from jazz and folk to rockabil-
ly and pop. And with it he paints a cynical world full of characters who are either victims or practitioners of deception and betrayal.
While Costello in the past has proven himself to be both inventive and eclectic, Spike takes his creativity to even greater heights. And in an apparent tribute, Costello has named the album after one of his heroes, British comedian Spike Milligan, and depicted himself on the cover as a harlequin with half his face in black paint.
Much of Spike is richly flavored by American music, from moody strains of the Old South to gritty urban styles of the 1980s. The New Orleans sounds of Allen Toussaint’s elegant piano and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s stately horns fill Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, a ballad of spurned love. The Dirty Dozen then shift gears to provide cartoon-like accompaniment—including much squawking and
screeching—on the funky Chewing Gum, an odd tale about a mail-order bride and her manipulative, “kinky beast” husband.
Two songs arise out of Costello’s recent collaboration with McCartney, who invited him to co-write material for his own next album, due later this year. Veronica, a portrait of an eccentric old woman, is a giddy romp blessed with a sunny melody that is classic McCartney.
But Costello’s mark is clear
on such lines as “She closed her eyes upon the world and/picked upon the bones of last week’s news.” And Pads, Paws and Claws, a scorch-
ing rockabilly number, deals with a drunk whose spouse is “a feline tormentor, not any vaudeville wife.”
But Spike’s strongest tracks spring from Costello’s own cultural roots. Although known for his Presley-derived first name and Buddy Holly glasses, Costello was born Declan MacManus to Irish parents (he recently moved back to Dublin from London with his Irish wife, Cait O’Riordan). And two songs that draw on Celtic music each tell a deeply moving tale.
Costello has said that Any King’s Shilling, a story about a man caught in the Irish independence conflict, set to bittersweet harp music, is about the experiences of his grandfather. But the trenchant Tramp the Dirt Down, depicting an England racked by the Northern Ireland civil war and unemployment, clearly stems from Costello’s own observations. Featuring traditional Celtic instruments, it amounts to a bitter farewell to the country. In it, he blames the government of Margaret Thatcher for
those social ills—“England was the whore of the world/Margaret was her madam.”
While Costello’s new album is a mother lode of musical and lyrical nuggets, the latest from the Fine Young Cannibals has riches of another kind: highly polished dance music. With Roland Gift’s anguished vocals, which draw on the styles of U.S. soul singers AÍ Green and Otis Redding, the Cannibals create an intriguing mix of sounds from the past and present. Tell Me What is a stylized version of the girl-group music of Motown, complete with do-wop vocals. But Good Thing and especially the wildly percussive I’m Not Satisfied take the sound into the 1980s by using the heavily accentuated rhythm tracks of so-called house music, the industrial-strength U.S. dance style that has recently become the rage in England.
The Raw & the Cooked also features guitar playing steeped in classic 1960s rock on such songs as the gutsy Don’t Look Back. Still, the highlight of the Cannibals’ sound, as on their 1986 self-titled debut, remains Gift’s plaintive voice. Conveying a kind of heightened sexual anxiety on the new album’s numerous love songs, Gift is already gaining a reputation as a sex symbol for his appearances in such movies as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and the soon-tobe-released Scandal. Like Costello, the Fine Young Cannibals are on the forward edge of pop. And as both new albums prove, their talent lies in putting a transatlantic stamp on what was once a distinctly American form.
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