Less Than Zero Means Everything

Elvis Costello’s début single, Less Than Zero, was released 40 years ago today

The chief weapon of punk rock was abrasive rebellion: that and political sensibility… Its two weapons were… Amongst punk’s weaponry were such diverse elements as….

Sorry…. Monty Python’s lawyers have been on to me and unless I cease and desist this they will despatch the Piranha Brothers to nail my head to a coffee table….

If you canvassed a dozen people of a certain age, those in their mid to late teens in 1977 say, and asked them what punk meant, you’d get a range of answers and have no clearer idea than you had before you asked. Abrasive rebellion, political sensibility and a bonded affinity with reggae might be some of the themes commonly mentioned. They’d be mine anyway.

It’s far too easy and glib to think that punk was the crashing wave that swept aside bloated and pompous rock music. It didn’t. It isn’t true with the benefit of historical perspective, nor was it true then. Take a look at the top 40 for the beginning of 1977 and you’ll find no evidence of this brash new uprising. Instead you’ll find the likes of David Soul, 10cc, Showaddywaddy, Leo Sayer, Abba, Bread and Chicago. Skip to the final chart of the year and you’ll find Wings at number one with (the bloated and pompous) Mull of Kintyre, The Floral Dance at number 2 and the Bee Gees at 3. Further down you’ll find, oh, wait, look… David Soul, Showaddywaddy and Abba.

There is very little presence of what you might call ‘punk’, aside from John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett with Really Free at number 29, The Boomtown Rats at 16 and, right above them, a callow young chap called Elvis Costello. 1977 was, of course, the year Elvis Presley died; Elvis is dead, long live Elvis.

Purists will argue to the point of exhaustion about who were the ‘proper’ punks, and it is, in my view, reasonable to argue that many of the artists who were thus labelled were actually just budding bands or singers trying to break through, who were young and fresh and whose sartorial and coiffure aberrations, eschewing flared trousers and having short hair, placed them in this new category in the eye of the media, and thus the public, regardless of having a punk soul. The Boomtown Rats? Wannabe pop stars whose lead singer was already 26. John Otway? He was aged 25 and having difficulty troubling the charts since 1972. Not exactly the rampaging youth associated with generational warfare.

Elvis Costello though, was only 22 when he released his first single and 23 when he enjoyed his first success with Watching the Detectives. A suit- and tie-wearing bespectacled singer is perhaps more reminiscent of ’50s rock and roll (Buddy Holly) than ’70s punk, but Costello was in fact trading on some the hallmarks of the ‘weapons’ mentioned above: he was a spiky and uncompromising character, he adopted and adapted reggae music to underpin his own and, perhaps most significantly, he had something – a lot – to say. Watching the Detectives was described by Rolling Stone as “a clever but furious burst of cynicism”. Those elements of ‘abrasive rebellion, political sensibility and a bonded affinity with reggae’ are there to be seen. True, nobody did these better than The Clash, but the early Elvis Costello sends its blood roaring through similar veins.

His first single, Less Than Zero, is 40 years old on March 25th. Sinking from view with barely a trace it was as good a single as any to come out of the early days of punk rock. In 1977 there was much to be rebellious about if you were a teenager. Firstly, there was fashion, which had become even more exaggerated than music, with collars and ties wider than the English Channel, and flared trousers and jeans ridiculously, well, flared. Then there was the hair… The once wild long hair of the hippies had morphed into beautifully blow dried tresses (see Justin Hayward or any of the blokes out of Guys and Dolls). A young man with a skinny suit and tie and short hair was actually much more of rebellion than the photographs of Elvis Costello appear to us now.

And of course, there was political unrest: “Labour Isn’t Working”. There was the growing belief that foreigners were taking ‘our’ jobs, scrounging benefits, occupying homes that the ‘British’ couldn’t get. The National Front, fronted in the main by scary-looking skinheads (terribly British) was gaining a following and there was an ugly backlash at the black and Asian communities.

A week before Elvis Costello’s debut single, The Clash released theirs – White Riot. In suggesting that ‘black’ people already had cause enough to be angry, they advocated ‘white’ people also finding a worthy cause to get up and shout about. There was plenty for both it seemed at the time, and the song seemed to reflect the disaffection felt by a generation who wanted change, who didn’t like the direction society was headed in, and wanted to say something about it.

Less Than Zero isn’t remembered in the way that White Riot is, but it too was an angry riposte to the growing trend to the political right, a response, in fact, to seeing Oswald Moseley, leader in the 1930s of the British Fascist movement being interviewed on television. It may not be the finest song to come from the punk canon, probably not even from Costello’s. It is though, hugely significant. Look at those chart entries mentioned above. Then look at what this young man was saying, or trying to say.

Where today, as once again the political right gains ground, ‘foreigners’ are scapegoated and provincialism is on the rise, are the angry young voices rebelling through music? I would argue these are even more scary times than 1977: at least then we didn’t have world leaders being the ones so blatantly openly driving the unrest. Nobody is stepping forward to use music as the tool of opposition, of rebellion, of rage.

Punk didn’t change the world, it probably didn’t even really change music, but, for one brief, shining moment it did hold up a flaming mirror and say ‘No! We’re not having this!’ Elvis Costello and Less Than Zero deserve to be recognised and remembered for not merely following a trend, but kick starting it.

From our guest writer, Danny JonesDanny entered the world at the start of the 60s. They say if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there. Despite being there, he has only the vaguest memories so it must be true. He certainly didn’t experience the much talked about sexual freedom (his junior school was rather forbidding in that regard) and wasn’t even one of the 20 or so ‘5th Beatles’. Now retired from the rat race, since the rats began to overtake him, he spends his time attempting to look busy for his still rat racing wife. She’s not fooled. Danny’s blog is currently moving and can be found somewhere between here and here.

One thought on “Less Than Zero Means Everything

  1. A great read! Very sharp.