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This week’s pick: “No Dancing,” released on My Aim Is True (1977)
Gary Stewart: Because we’re in the mood for mood swings, let’s go from last week’s selection, which was from Elvis’ most-recent album, and jump back to something from his first.
It seems impossible to believe anything from My Aim Is True needs rescuing, but that’s exactly the case with “No Dancing.” It’s not like it’s a buried track; it’s the third song on Side One. Maybe it was ignored because it doesn’t fit in with what everybody remembers from the album: the pub-rock-inspired sounds of “Pay It Back,” “Blame It on Cain” and Sneaky Feelings,” or the proto Attractions angry young man sound of “Waiting for the End of the World,” “Welcome to the Working Week,” and “I’m Not Angry.” Or maybe it was eclipsed by hits like “Alison” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” But even though “No Dancing” is as catchy as those last two, it rarely gets mentioned. And that’s too bad because in an alternate universe, it could have been a single.
I can think of few songs that so perfectly capture what it feels like when you’re out with somebody and it’s going horribly wrong for the both of you. It probably has been for a while, and denial has brought you to this point. That line in the last verse, “Even though I want to shake your hand, all I ever do is bow,” nails one of the worst moments from any kind of relationship with a fully soured power dynamic.
And then there’s the sound. Nobody talks about Nick Lowe’s production on this album anymore. People have the impression that he just let the band play their songs and recorded them simply and cleanly. But check out the echoey, almost Spectorian production on the verses that give way to the swinging chorus. The song just goes back and forth with a tension and release that almost makes it, well, danceable—in the best and worst ways.
David Gorman: I’ll see your Phil Spector reference and raise you one: It’s “Be My Baby” you’re thinking of when you hear “No Dancing.” And if it ain’t Elvis and Nick building a Wall of Sound, it’s the closest they could get with a third as many musicians, 2/3 the tempo, and 100% fewer castanets. But it’s the same one-two-three BAM beat that kicks off the verses, it has the same breakdown after the bridge, and Elvis belts out his best Ronnie Spector “oh-oh” stutter halfway through the song. And this is exactly the kind of thing that made me pay attention to “No Dancing” in the first place. It sure as hell wasn’t the complicated sexual politics of the song because, let’s face it, I wouldn’t come to understand any of that for several years (though once I did . . . yikes). Nope, it was hearing bits and pieces of the oldies records I fell in love with too long after they were cool—that Ronettes groove and those sunshine harmonies—delivered with just enough palpable frustration and vigor to make it fresh and vital again.
It’s hard to imagine as an adult—especially an adult living in the era of music-as-wallpaper—but for a lot of us as teens (and a sad number of us for decades afterward), the music with which we identified was nothing less than our identity itself. It set our world view and created social circles. So try to imagine a teenage kid who abandoned most of the music being made at the time in favor of artists long-since resigned to the oldies circuit. There just wasn’t a big clique in my high school to jam with and toss around phrases like “Wall of Sound” or debate the harmonies of The Temptations vis-a-vis The Beach Boys. As cool as it sounds in retrospect to say I was listening to Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke in high school, believe me when I say that there was nothing cool about it at the time. But then I stumbled on the U.K. punk rock scene (which, admittedly, I also discovered a few years after my favorite proponents had given up, broken up, or rejected the label) and it gave me hope. The Clash were covering obscure Stax and Motown singles, Joe Jackson was singing Louis Jordan, but Elvis Costello? He was on another level. I’d listen to his records and feel like we had a secret language. He was telling me through clues buried in songs like “No Dancing” that it was not only OK to be lost in the music of the last two generations we were supposed to be rebelling against, but it might actually be pretty damn rebellious itself. I owe the man a great deal of thanks for that bit of reassurance when I needed it most.
The song of the week may say there’ll be no dancing, but you’ll find plenty of beats to make you stomp your feets elsewhere on our mighty Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist: