On February 28, 1978, Elvis Costello was 23 years old and convinced of his own magnificence. His second album -- but crucially, his first with the Attractions, the three musicians with whom he'd make his most celebrated records -- the furious, paranoid, Aftermath-styled This Year's Model, would be released the following week, and would top the Village Voice and Rolling Stone critics' polls at year's end. At the close of his first U.S. tour, only two months earlier, he'd been thrown out of 30 Rock for aborting his Saturday Night Live performance of "Less than Zero" mid-song to play the broadcast-industry indictment "Radio Radio" instead, a stunt that got him banned from SNL for 11 years. (He was invited back decades later to recreate the moment with the Beastie Boys.)
Stepping onstage at the Warner Theatre for his first Washington, DC gig, aired on the radio radio by WHFS, the once-and-future Declan Patrick MacManus was full of ambition, swagger, impatience, and, probably, amphetamines. Opening with the apocalyptic stomp of "Pump It Up" and winding things down with the simmering "Chemistry Class" an hour later, the feral, compressed, too-clever-to-be punk rock he conjured up that night solidified his fan base in Our Nation's Capitol, even though he'd soon start doing everything he could to sabotage his growing popularity and acclaim.
You can hear the 1978 Warner Theatre show in its breathless 62-minute entirety on the new 30th anniversary edition of This Year's Model, which Hip-O Records is releasing today. Elvis's first 11 albums, originally issued here in the States on Columbia Records, has been repackaged more times than the Smiths' greatest hits, each time with a new(ish) side dish of bonus material. This year's, um, version of This Year's Model includes most of the same B-sides, demos, and outtakes featured on the 2002 Rhino Records edition; "Big Tears," featuring The Clash's Mick Jones on guitar, and a great, live cover of The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" from 1977 remain highlights. And yet its inclusion on a second disc of the previously unreleased Warner Theatre gig makes this an essential purchase for any Elvis geek, not just obsessive completists. This re-re-reissue loses points, however, for omitting the candid, often hilarious liner notes Elvis penned for the prior edition. (We need hardly tell you that on the merits of the 12 songs that comprised the original release, This Year's Model is a must-own in any version.)
The sound mix of the Warner concert is stellar, proving once again that while Elvis and the Attractions radiated as much kinetic force onstage as any punk outfit, they simply played too skillfully to embody the form's DIY ethos. Each Attraction has equal presence -- bassist Bruce Thomas is the only member who doesn't still play with Elvis in the Imposters, and to hear his bouncy, fluid anchor lines here is too miss him -- but the crowd is a crucial character in the scene, too. Despite Elvis's typically combative orders to them to get out of their seats ("You in the beard. What's the matter with you? Stop trying to be unimpressed; I don't believe ya "), they're plenty involved, from the guy who can be heard near the end of the show shouting "You're fucking brilliant!" again and again to the dude who implores Elvis during the hushed bridge of "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" to "Play some fucking rock and roll!" (How did WHFS handle these improptu contributions to their radio show, I wonder.) Hearing the show also invites you to consider the legacy of the Warner Theatre, one of the oldest and most storied performance venues in the region. Opened in 1924 (as the Earle Theatre) and operating almost continuously since (it was closed for repairs from 1989 to 1992) -- as a vaudeville club, cinema, concert venue, and even, briefly, as a porno theatre -- the Warner was around for decades before Blues Alley or The Bayou, which closed in 1998. Two concert venues on U Street, the Lincoln Theatre and Bohemian Caverns, both opened around the same time as the Warner, though the Warner wouldn't be used primarily for concerts until much later.
The Warner is home to the District's modest Walk of Fame, featuring the signatures of luminaries who've played there since its 1992 reopening, from Frank Sinatra to Chris Rock. These days it's part of the Live Nation megalith. Though Live Nation is supposedly getting out of the theatre business to focus on the concert trade,the industry juggernaut chose to hold onto the Warner even as it sold off many of its mixed-use venues in January. This would seem to reflect the Warner's continuing renown as a concert venue, a rep bolstered by the fact that 1,800-seat Warner has occasionally been a venue-of-choice for "secret" shows by artists who easily fill much larger rooms: The Rolling Stones played a gig there in 1978 on their tour for Some Girls, their last great album; two days later they played Philadelphia's massive, now-demolished John F. Kennedy Stadium. The Artist Formerly and Now, Thankfully, Once Again Known as Prince performed there on several occasions between 1983 and 2002.
The Warner's slate for the coming months is a typically mixed bag of musicals, plays, stand-up comedy, awards shows, and of course, rock and roll. In that regard, it's well, the DC performance venue most like Elvis Costello.
Now in his mid-fifties, Elvis remains a workaholic of near-freakishly eclectic interests who's just as likely to turn up crooning ballads in front of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as he is to play a rowdy 2.5-hour rock and roll show at the 9:30 Club. His recorded output in the latter half of his career has been even harder to categorize, encompassing ballet commissions, jazz, and collaborations with everyone from pop masters like Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, and Paul McCartney to avant-garde musicians like Anne Sofie von Otter or the Brodsky Quartet. Elvis and the Imposters -- essentially the Attractions, with Davey Farragher replacing Bruce Thomas on bass -- are opening for their contemporariesThe Police on the latter band's supposedly-final tour this summer. The Police couldn't pretend they were punks for very long, either. Compared to the seething jealousy dripping from every note of This Year's Model, "Every Breath You Take" sounds like the sweet little love ballad that many always believed it was.