Prince Uncharming: Elvis Costello, “Watching The Detectives” (1977)

Anything that’s heard as music must be ingratiating somehow, but an overt attempt to charm the audience has no place in rock, I want to say. No one would pick “When I’m Sixty-Four” as an example of rock. A rocker must be wilder, more imperious, more challenging than any charmer. Yes, that must be said, even if Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten have surely charmed us in their own raffish ways.

1970s Elvis Costello may be the great rocker whose singing and presence has the least appeal of any positive kind, or less than zero appeal.[1]  We listen to him not because he himself is any fun to listen to but because his songs and his bands are terrific. If you sort of squint (what’s the auditory equivalent of squinting?) you can hear him as a Graham Parker type—but really, Graham Parker himself owns all that kind of charm.

Elvis is geeky without a geek’s charm of naïve obsession—he’s too smart. On the other hand, he’s too earnest to possess the charm of playfulness (“What’s so funny ‘bout peace love and understanding?”!). His early look references Buddy Holly, but . . . wasn’t Buddy Holly kind of cute?

What Elvis is is Prince Uncharming, the principal of No Charm School.[2] Deal with it: that’s how he plays his leading role in the late-70s rebirth of rock. I had to deal with it near midnight on December 17, 1977, when I heard “Watching The Detectives” on Saturday Night Live.[3]

Elvis’s voice is like the raw broccoli in the dip, a fortunate not-good thing that helps some other good things work around it—including in this case strangely varying rhythms in the lyric (with some rap-like triplets in the verse), a wickedly loud reggae-derived drum part, and a portentous mystery-theater lead guitar. In the spirit of the lyric’s thematically crucial rhyme, Elvis’s voice is the “shoot” opposing “cute.”

She is watching the detectives
Ooh, he’s so cute
She is watching the detectives
when they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot

The peak moment that lights up and confirms Elvis-the-shooter’s uncharming role is not in his singing but in an ugly, forlorn lick the organ contributes at a structurally interesting point—listen to how it finishes early what you thought would be another verse following the chorus, right after these words:

They beat him up until the teardrops start,
but he can’t be wounded ’cause he’s got no heart

“Watching The Detectives”

In this cheap, simple sound there’s a full admission—poverty (of heart) is all you’ll find at the heart of this song.  Now that I understand this, it’s truth not disappointment.


[1] Please allow some exaggeration for the sake of the present argument.  Of course this couldn’t be literally true about his voice, or Imperial Bedroom wouldn’t be so lovable.  (But then, Imperial  Bedroom isn’t in the 70s.) His later singing can give enormous pleasure, as I’ve recently rediscovered on the funkier tracks of The River in Reverse (2006).

[2] Didn’t they teach you anything except how to be cruel / In that charm school? (Elvis Costello, “Charm School,” 1983)

[3] Here is a video of the famous other performance of that evening, the forbidden “Radio Radio,” a great specimen of the EC attitude though not as profound a song.  (And save KUSF!)


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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