SONG TITLE: GOON SQUAD
PERFORMER: ELVIS COSTELLO
SONGWRITER: ELVIS COSTELLO
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1978
COMMENTS: Elvis Costello's greatest gift and also his most subversive trait was his ability to explore the heart of darkness in the human soul through catchy pop songs. He wrote songs that completely fulfilled every possible requirement for commercial pop music. He wrote songs with the big rock beats, and with the lighter AM touch, and with the pop hooks to die for. In his prime, he did it better than anyone else in the business. During his peak period, the only other person consistently in his league was Prince Nelson himself.
Once he got those hooks into you, though, he'd use his hold like a knife to cut into you with sharp, painful emotional insights. Oh, yeah, he can clean you and gut you, fry you up in a pan like trout and make you like it.
"Goon Squad" makes a perfect example. He compels you to join in. The tough rock beat will rivet your attention. The pure cool badass groove sucks you in. Then the sweeping, breathless compulsion of the tune draws you into singing along in empathy.
Just hearing the song, without knowing the title or deciphering the words, you may intuit that there's something a little off kilter in the air. Anxiety and a faint sulfuric hint of evil hang in the air, but the excitement and the visceral rewards will override any misgivings you may have. Just like they do for the narrator.
After a couple of listens, you will find that you have wandered into the thought stream of a young soldier who has just been selected to become a member of the goon squad. We join him as he has probably his last big fit of conscience as he talks himself into doing what he "has" to do. He contemplates the carrots and the sticks in front of him, his fear of the consequences of refusing to join and his lust for the rewards of compliance. "They said they'd make me a major if I met all their demands!" Pretty soon he'll talk himself into thinking that it is really for the greater good, and he'll be signing away his soul.
The genius of this comes in making the narrator sympathetic. Of course none of us would ever become the jackboot of the regime. None of us would join the SS or the CIA, but somehow lots of people do. Elvis takes us right to the brink, and lets us see just the point where it seems like a plausibly defensible idea. Yeah, ok, I can see how I might have talked myself into some evil crap like this when I was 18. Would I have had the strength to refuse? I'd like to think so, but I can see just how easy it would be to go along.
The Attractions really earned their keep on this recording. The bass line was particularly outstanding. It just boils, churning with his anxiety in a perfectly melodic way while being the relentless main anchor of the groove. Those beautifully painful organ chords in the extro give perfect voice to the death throes of the narrator's conscience.
Elvis Costello Is King
Music Sustains the Soul
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