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Shellac & Vinyl: Dan Rivkin on Get Happy!!
That Fatal Mailing List #105
Dan Rivkin and I crossed paths in college because we were both music obsessives, sharing our love for Elvis Costello; at the time, I drifted more toward college rock and classic rock while Dan’s impeccable taste encompassed Squeeze, Nick Lowe, and the Beatles.
Since college, Dan has pursued a day job in sports media, with more than twenty years under his belt at MLB.com. In his leisure time, he’s become one of the internet’s leading experts on the Beatles’ Twickenham sessions, immortalized by bootleggers on the “Nagra tapes” and popularized by director Peter Jackson in his massive documentary Get Back. Rivkin literally wrote the blog on the subject, They May Be Parted, where he continues to mine the tapes for insights with incredible results. His passion has led to many appearances across the media landscape, including one or two with Mr. Jackson himself.
Dan’s favorite EC record is Get Happy!! which we recently covered in Rank the Records, so it made sense to hear his thoughts on how that release has informed his music passions.
“The record is an homage to a sound, but not a gimmick.”
You and I first crossed paths at Northwestern because we somehow found each other as fans of Elvis Costello. When did your fandom start? (And do you remember how we actually met? It is lost to the mists of time for me.)
It’s 1989, and before I was any kind of fan, EC was already in the middle of my everything. Of course I knew him from as early as I can remember, between MTV and the occasional spin on top 40 radio. But it was my emerging obsession with Squeeze and longtime love of the Beatles and Paul McCartney that steered me to Elvis. I started to know enough about Squeeze to understand his importance to them, and now he was writing with Paul. Hit songs too! I dug all the McCartney-McManus tunes on Flowers in the Dirt. Things started to add up.
At the end of ‘89, Girls +£÷ Girls =$& Girls came out, and bless my library for having it on CD for me to check out – this was my chance to figure out what, if anything, Elvis himself could mean to me. I dubbed it to cassette just in case I liked it. And I loved it. I wore the tape out. Elvis was edgy, funny, thought-provoking and so catchy. What more from music does a high school freshman need? (Answer: All of the albums – that came next.)
Between 1989 and 1996 – high school and college for me – I already had gotten all his CDs. Thanks to Rykodisc, I already had some of them twice. You and I probably met in early ‘96 because my then-girlfriend (and current wife) was your dorm’s R.A. The rest of the story is a little fuzzy. She doesn’t recall introducing us, so my best guess is that I walked through the hallway, heard our songbird through the walls and inquired within. If I recall correctly, you and I (separately) went to the Costello & Nieve show at the Park West in May 1996, so it’s also feasible she knew that, made the connection and introduced us then?
That checks out, and that was an amazing night. What was specific your introduction to Get Happy!!?
I got to know Get Happy!! a lot earlier than that. Six of its songs were on Girls, including “New Amsterdam,” which of the whole collection became my favorite song of his, at least of the 50 or so that I knew to that point. I can’t say for certain, but Get Happy!! was probably my second EC LP, after buying (the still-new) Spike.
Make a case–why is Get Happy!! your favorite EC album? I can’t catch my breath when I listen to Get Happy!!. There’s so much information packed into every song -- lyrically, musically – it’s just early Elvis Costello & The Attractions completely distilled.
I feel the album has no centerpiece, no moment vying to be the signature statement (despite having several standout songs). The record pulls you from song to song like a magnet. There’s a vibe, but no two songs sound alike.
I don’t necessarily need bang for my buck when it comes to quantity – I’d rather have 10 exceptional songs over 20 very good songs. But Get Happy!! has 20 exceptional songs. It’s rapid, but not slight. Not a single second is wasted. It’s an explicit homage, but at the same time it’s completely original.
Where do you rank Get Happy!! in terms of EC’s discography–what does it narrowly beat out?
When you get to consume an artist’s catalog all at once instead of incrementally in real time, you can pick out the peaks, and that’s where I found Get Happy!! in my first sprint through his catalog in the early ‘90s. Now, it’s 2023, and I’ve heard them all, and it’s still the last one standing.
Imperial Bedroom and King of America are probably the closest rivals for me – both very different records, but so beautifully produced and two records so different than so much else in his career, certainly to when they were released. And maybe they’re better, but still not quite my favorite.
When I Was Cruel is my favorite 21st century EC album, a little edgy and fit well with where I was at the time, but it’s probably a more distant fourth.
Did you come to Get Happy!! with a strong knowledge of some of the influences that EC drew from on it? Have you discovered any music thanks to the record?
I grew up listening to a lot of oldies, when my parents ran the car radio – oldies in the 1980s being songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s – so I definitely knew and loved entry- to mid-level Stax and Motown. I didn’t dig further more ‘60s R&B because of Get Happy!!, but that’s only because I already enjoyed it on its own and pursued it on its own track.
How do you feel about the sequencing, the production, the arrangements–anything you’d change about the album?
Imagine making a record and not starting it with “Love For Tender”? It’s a magnificent musical mission statement for Get Happy!! And it goes for the whole sequencing. I can’t get picky about the sequencing, everything flows just like it seems like it should. “I Stand Accused” explodes as a perfect bookend at the end, with “Riot Act” finalizing the record as an outrageous coda, EC completely ripping his own heart out. Brilliant.
This record is an homage to a sound, but it’s not a gimmick. It’s the same genius producer, same dynamic band, and still they created a narrowly specific sound for this LP, just different enough to make everything sound very explicitly like it’s off Get Happy!! and nothing else.
The Attractions, as always, are perfect, and are used to their absolute maximum capabilities, which are basically infinite.
How often do you listen to Get Happy!!, and why do you think it continues to draw you in?
It sounds like a joke, but I listen to Get Happy!! when I’m feeling down. But I also listen to Get Happy!! when I feel all right! I think the pacing of the record, the range of emotions in the lyrics – it’s a rush.
I know you’re also a huge Beatles fan (which may be an understatement). How do you think the Beatles have influenced EC’s music and career?
Elvis would be the first to admit growing up in Liverpool at the dawn of Beatlemania was a formative event. Right age, right time, right place. Beyond that, the first thing that comes to mind is hearing the influence of the Beatles’ precision in Elvis’ music. There’s little waste, every word counts and every note is there for a reason. Then there’s EC’s eagerness to try something different, and then make it his own, which was something the Beatles made a career of, and Elvis has, too.
What’s your take on EC’s collaborations with Sir Paul McCartney? How do you rank those in terms of EC’s other work, and McCartney’s discography?
I’m in the camp that the McCartney-McManus partnership brought out the best in each party, and certainly EC was the best collaborator Paul had who wasn’t John Lennon (or Linda McCartney, who brought out something in him only she could). But I’ll also argue the benefit of EC to Paul wasn’t that he was a worthy stand-in for John, but that EC was like another Beatle, overall. EC had synthesized all of them. I think when reviews (certainly the contemporary ones, which I remember) said that EC was an acerbic foil to Paul’s saccharine, that was lazy criticism and ignored Elvis’ full spectrum of abilities – as well as Paul’s.
I do think at that moment in their careers, Paul needed the collaborations more than Elvis did, and the spike – pun mildly intended – in quality more visibly benefitted Paul’s late ‘80s/early ‘90s catalog than it did EC. Then again, does EC get his biggest American hit to date (“Veronica”) without Paul’s participation?
But the overall material is spectacular, and anyone reading this that hasn’t listened to the full set of demos needs to stop what they’re doing and do it now. Elvis really did bring the best out in Paul at that moment in time, even if Paul did squander some of the material with the wrong production. The collaborations are easily my favorite material by Paul from the last 40 years.
Are you sick of listening to Nagra tapes yet? Why not???
Did you get tired of listening to your parents fight? But really, the tapes are a trove! It’s such a challenge to decode what’s going on much of the time, but the payoff is real. I’ve described the tapes before as the Beatles reciting their autobiography, through words, through songs. People got to see it more clearly in Get Back, but the series really did only scratch the surface. It’s a joy to dig into something so many others can’t begin to and write about it to make sense of it all, truly understand the Beatles from a completely unique angle in the most difficult way possible.
Dan, thank you for the insightful responses and for being such a good pal for so many years! Once again, read his exceptional analysis of the Nagra tapes at They May Be Parted.