In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: our favorite songs by or produced by Elvis Costello.
Elvis Costello’s fifth album, Get Happy!!, was dismissed by some upon its 1980 release as a roundabout apology for Costello’s drunk-in-public comments about James Brown and Ray Charles—a rant that infamously included the n-word—in 1979. (It didn’t help that Costello’s 1979 “Oliver’s Army,” contains the phrase “one less white nigger.”) Costello himself downplayed that reading of his intent, but listening to Get Happy!!, it’s not hard to see why the album was interpreted as a mea culpa. In addition to its overall tone, which is a blatant throwback to the ’60s soul sounds of Motown and Stax, the album includes two covers of ’60s R&B songs: Jerry Butler’s “I Stand Accused” and Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.”
Costello had not shown major hints of this style before. Regardless of what combination of impulses might have led him down the retro-soul path, Get Happy!! did serve the purpose of drawing attention to some lesser-known soul classics of the ’60s (including a peppy version of Betty Everett’s 1964 “Getting Mighty Crowded,” not included on the original edition of Get Happy!!). “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” though, became the album’s biggest single—and a brilliant, bracing homage to the original.
Written by Stax Records staffers Homer Banks and Allen Jones, “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” was not a hit for Sam & Dave on its release in 1967, but it couldn’t have been a better indicator of the strengths of both the duo and the music muscle behind them. Bathed in waves of heartbreak, it’s a portrait of romantic defeat and quixotic perseverance that leaves Samuel David Moore and Dave Prater panting exhaustedly (yet with a sweetening touch of sly self-promotion), “But that can’t stop Sam & Dave from loving you.” To Costello’s credit, he changes that line to, “But that can’t stop me from loving you.”
Costello’s cover of “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” was so popular in the U.K., it spurred the release of a 1984 collection of Sam & Dave songs of the same name. And as Costello himself rebounded from his gaffe and forged ahead with his storied career, it became more apparent that Get Happy!! wasn’t just a one-time, guilt-driven detour in style. Costello established himself as a musical multilinguist, and Get Happy!! was just the first dramatic demonstration of that. Still, as good as his reverential, revved-up take on Sam & Dave is, there’s no eclipsing the simmering, sinuous, tear-jerking power of the original.