The first thing you notice is the retro cover, with its lurid colors, and the ring wear that’s been pre-distressed for you so that you don’t have to wait for your album to look vintage. Then there’s the opening song, a pounding cover of the fairly obscure Sam & Dave song “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.” Elvis Costello has explored all sorts of musical styles over the years, but his 1980 album Get Happy was his very first foray into the unexpected, in this case the world of soul and r&b music.
The timing of the album may or may not be a coincidence. On tour in 1979, Costello got into a drunken argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio. During that argument he infamously resorted to racial slurs when making reference to James Brown and Ray Charles. Get Happy was seen as his shot at redemption, although Costello denied it in the liner notes of the 2002 Rhino reissue. “It might have been tempting to claim that I had some noble motive in basing this record on the music that I had admired and learned from prior to my brush with infamy. But if I was trying to pay respects and make such amends, I doubt if pride would have allowed me to express that thought after I had made my rather contrived explanation. I simply went back to work and relied on instinct, curiosity, and enduring musical passions.”
That’s not all that’s unusual about Get Happy. Costello and album producer Nick Lowe managed to cram 20 tracks onto two sides of vinyl, something that was rather unheard of, largely because it was thought that such “groove cramming” would result in a loss of sonic quality. Lowe addressed this issue on the album’s back cover:
“You’ll have noticed that there are ten (?) tracks on each side of this, Elvis’ new LP, making it a real “long player.”
Elvis and I talked long and hard about the wisdom of taking this unusual step and are proud that we can now reassure hi-fi enthusiasts and/or people who never bought a record before 1967 that with the inclusion of this extra music time they will find no loss of sound quality due to “groove cramming” as the record nears the end of each face (i.e. the hole in the middle).
Now get happy.
Producer Nick Lowe”
Costello addressed the issue in his own way, by closing the album with the brilliant song “High Fidelity.”
There is a lot to take in before you even get to the music. But once you do, you will find that Get Happy is an album overflowing with songwriting brilliance, and as fine a tribute to American soul music as you are likely to find. By that time the Attractions (Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, Pete Thomas) were known as one of rock and roll’s most potent bands, and they didn’t lose a step when they ventured into new (for them) form. Aside from the songs that I’ve already mentioned, “Motel Matches,” “I Stand Accused,” “Riot Act,” “King Horse,” “Man Called Uncle,” “Clowntime Is Over,” and “New Amsterdam” are still among Costello’s finest efforts.
Get Happy climbed to #11 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, and was also #11 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the eighties.