SONG TITLE: RIOT ACT
PERFORMER: ELVIS COSTELLO
SONGWRITER: ELVIS COSTELLO
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1980
SONG TITLE: DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD
PERFORMER: ELVIS COSTELLO
SONGWRITER: (Benjamin/Marcus/Caldwell) ?
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1986
COMMENTS: Elvis Costello had problems -problems with women, with the music business and with society at large. His neurotic behavior during the first couple of years of his career was legendary. He claimed publicly that his motivations for getting into the business were "guilt and revenge."
Despite the brilliance of his work, at some level Declan MacManus felt that he was a fake and a fraud, and that he would soon be found out and run out of the business. He basically dealt well with the early rejections from all the record companies. Rejection he knew how to deal with: he just kept hustling till he finally got a deal. What he didn't know how to deal with at all was success. His first album got rave reviews and sold like hotcakes. He just couldn't believe that he would in fact become a big rock star, just like his idols.
Elvis then went to great lengths to sabotage his burgeoning success. His most infamous incident came in some crappy little hotel bar in Ohio. He was being berated by some worthless, jealous dried up old singers not worthy of having their names mentioned in the same breath with Elvis. Having been taunted and baited with accusations that he was just a ripoff of James Brown and Ray Charles, he eventually dismissed them as "niggers." His nominal point was simply to piss off some smug liberal idiots who were harassing him
Now this was asinine enough to get him some serious humiliation. Naturally, the self-righteous pigs went tattling to every reporter they could find. They were going to make some ink! This was bigger news than anything in their pathetic careers. Of course Elvis didn't mean that stupid stuff, but his apologies still left him sounding like a fool. This stupid outburst was only a minor drag on his career, but left him with a little albatross of shame to carry around.
One good thing did come from all this foolishness. "Riot Act" is a merciless slow, grinding soul song. Feel the grand drama of bad karma coming inevitably back home. The organ and bass heavy groove works up tremendous torque. Hear the descending chords pulling down the narrator's ego and slowly grinding it into a fine powder.
He does not specifically invoke the Ohio nonsense, but it would be obvious to someone who follows his career. This is an outstanding tactic, making it autobiographically meaningful to his loyal followers, but not wrapped up in what to later generations will be boring and irrelevant personal details that would also make it difficult for others to cover the song. The narrator has been running his mouth, indulging his "pent up insolence," and finds himself having to step up and take his whipping. "A slip of the tongue is going to keep me civilian." By the end, he's volunteering to take it like a man.
"You can read me the riot act." Repeat 10 times. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
One cool thing about the record is that you might take it partly as a tribute to Ray's style. The best apology to be made for Elvis in the whole matter is to note how good a student of Ray the guy obviously is. Nothing would ever be cooler than to hear Ray himself sing "Riot Act." Damn, but that would be tough.
In fact, Elvis has a lot of songs that would be really great Ray Charles songs purely on a musical level, beyond anything else. Some of them are soul/r&b, some are Costello's weird country style. Besides "Riot Act" as the linchpin, let me just suggest a lineup for a Ray Sings Elvis fantasy record:
Pump It Up
Let 'Em Dangle
God Give Me Strength
Accidents Will Happen
The Big Light
American Without Tears
I Want You
Shot With His Own Gun
So Like Candy
When I Was Cruel
Pills and Soap
Hurry Down Doomsday
It seems like "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was simply sitting around for decades, just waiting specifically for Elvis Costello to come along and record the definitive version, even Nina Simone. Surely the song means more coming from Elvis than it ever could have from the Animals. What had those young boys ever done to have that much regret over?
The first obvious difference from the well known Animals version is that Elvis slowed it way down. This worked well for several reasons. The most important one is that it makes better emotional sense. He's not trying to rush out a couple of quick words of apology and vamoose. He has come to make amends. He lays out his mea culpa in a measured and self-conscious manner.
Slowing it down also makes a much better groove. He has slowed it down a lot, but still moves at a good midtempo clip. This recording pulses along on the organ very nicely. You could perfectly well actually dance to this, which I defy anyone to do with the Animals.
He also turned it into a country song, which makes a lot of sense. Better yet, he made it not a strict or even loose commercial country style, but more like Robbie Robertson's Band. The record has a dusty, earthy quality. It sounds like the statement of a humble country boy.
Guilt, regret and accepting responsibility are classic country themes. George Jones himself could not have put more shame or sorrow into lines like "Some nights I lie awake with long regrets, some foolish thing, some simple thing I've done."
We all need to make repentance and humble apology from time to time, and perhaps Elvis more than average. He has done so now doubly in music, with grace and dignity.
Elvis Costello Is King
Music Sustains the Soul
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