That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
At the dawn of the ’80s, Elvis Costello was the guy you’d least expect to release a cover version as a single. He was one of the most successful songwriters of the “New Wave,” fresh from a run of six self-penned top-30 hits in the UK (five with the Attractions) that stretched from “Watching The Detectives” in 1977 to “Accidents Will Happen” in 1979. He was at the top of his game as a composer and lyricist, who drew from a seemingly infinite pool of anger, cynicism, and bitterness. He might easily be supposed, therefore, to have written “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” a UK #4 for him in March 1980. Two reasons: (1) because the original was so little known, and (2) because he injected it with his own compelling brand of nerdy desperation and punk-rock intensity.
Costello, in fact, reinterpreted a Sam & Dave B-side as the sixth consecutive single with his breathtaking backing band, the Attractions. Yet few knew he’d plucked the song from the illustrious catalog of Stax Records in Memphis, in an effort to incorporate some deep Southern soul into his punk-fueled sound. Few knew he’d adopted it to stimulate his first major shift into a new genre as a songwriter and arranger. Few, indeed, knew he’d covered the song to serve as the advance single for an album, Get Happy!!, that was packed with an incredible 18 Costello-penned tracks embodying ’60s R&B/soul and ska, an act which proved to be more than a little bit political.
Costello had certainly flirted with black music by the time he and the Attractions came to record “I Can’t Stand Up” in late ’79. He’d given “Watching the Detectives” a reggae beat after hearing the Clash successfully blend punk and reggae on their first album. He’d also aligned himself with Joe Strummer and the boys in support of the UK’s Rock Against Racism campaign. Under this banner, he’d played London’s Brockwell Park carnival in September ’78, alongside reggae group Aswad. True, he subsequently embroiled himself in controversy in 1979 by making drunken racist remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown in a US bar (the “Columbus incident”). But he went on that same year to produce the debut album by British ska-revivalist group the Specials, then making a political statement merely by existing as a racially integrated unit.
Costello was doubtless inspired to embrace black music, specifically the Stax sound, by working with the Specials. He’d absorbed their energized reworkings of Jamaican ska tunes of the ’60s, by the likes of Dandy Livingstone, Prince Buster, and Toots & the Maytals. He’d also soaked up their radical cover of Rufus Thomas’s 1963 Stax single “The Dog,” retitled “Do The Dog,” which was defined by a punk attitude and Rock Against Racism stance. Then, while Specials leader Jerry Dammers set about releasing their groundbreaking LP on his own independent 2-Tone label, Costello was motivated to acquire all the singles he could find on the Memphis label responsible for not only Rufus Thomas, and Sam & Dave, but also the mighty Otis Redding. He paid a visit to secondhand record store Rock On in Camden Town, according to his autobiography, where he “bought every old Stax 45 that they had on their shelf and carried them home to plunder.”
Costello made the decision to cover “I Can’t Stand Up,” from the flipside of Sam & Dave’s “Soothe Me” single, when he and the band gathered at Eden Studios in London in September 1979, to begin work on their new album with producer Nick Lowe. But it wasn’t until they relocated to Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, Holland, the following October that he really set to work on revving up that slow soul ballad. He tapped into the cutting-edge creativity of his 2-Tone affiliates in doing so, many of whom were busy putting a punk stamp on ’60s ska and soul tunes as the basis for raw and danceable singles that would double up as exciting live numbers. He fell in with the Specials, particularly, who released their Livingstone-derived “A Message to You, Rudy” in October, as well as Madness, who did the same with their cover of Prince Buster’s “One Step Beyond.” He also found kinship with the Beat, who developed a huge live following with their ska version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown,” shortly before releasing it as a 2-Tone single in November.
In such company, Costello and the Attractions proceeded to make their mark on what was an uncelebrated Sam & Dave duet, penned not by resident Stax partnership Isaac Hayes and David Porter (behind their recent hits “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'”), but label staffers Homer Banks and Allen Jones. They took an emotionally heavy song and stripped it of its epic “Memphis sound” that came from being recorded live, in London, with Stax house band Booker T. & the MG’s, and the Mar-Keys’ horn section. Instead, they turned it into a giddy burst of punk-driven R&B, still with the self-pitying lyrics about rejection and dejection, but with more of a punch in its catchy chorus, and much more musicianship than a two-minute single is usually entitled to.
Costello reigned supreme on the record, his vocal full of ’60s-style reverb from being laid down, unusually, in a glass booth designed for string instruments. Impassioned as ever, he expelled anguish and bile to the point of making the lyrics frequently unintelligible (“And I’ve tasted, oooh, the dirty personaliteees”?). Meanwhile, Steve Nieve, like Booker T. Jones on the original, took center stage on the organ, providing choppy and swirly 2-Tone-style Hammond tones, as bassist Bruce Thomas offered funk and bottom aplenty. It was left to Pete Thomas to propel the song magnificently on the drums, and for Costello to ensure the guitar was taut and strictly rhythm, while Lowe made it all sound live and unpolished.
Pleased with their fusion of ’60s soul and punk on the track, Costello used his Dammers connection to release “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” as a one-off single on 2-Tone in February 1980, after Radar, his record label since ’78, collapsed. But there was little time to gain credit for making a brilliant contribution to the distinctive 2-Tone tradition of A-side cover versions. There was little time, either, to consider how the record happily united the 2-Tone and Stax labels, both built on an ethos of ethnic integration at odds with the racially conflicted societies in which they operated (Coventry in the late ’70s, Memphis in the ’60s). For while Costello succeeded in getting several thousand copies pressed on Dammers’ label, WEA stepped in, the distributor for Radar, and obtained a court injunction to stop them being sold, unhappy that Chrysalis Records had the stake in the operation.
Costello and the Attractions instead scored big with “I Can’t Stand Up” when they signed to F-Beat, a label quickly established by their manager, Jake Riviera, who retained WEA as distributor. They took the song to the top 5 in the UK singles chart (while releasing it on a four-track EP in the States), helping it on its way by engaging in comical promotional antics on TV. They gawkishly attempted some Motown-style dance steps in the video, shot in sunny Vence in Provence, while Costello additionally drank wine at a table, prompting some viewers to assume the song was about alcoholism. Moreover, on the UK’s premier music show, Top of the Pops, Costello agreed to be hoisted up and down on a wire while miming to the song, unafraid to make a pantomimesque display of himself, or to illustrate the lyrical refrain of the track in a ludicrously literal manner. It was all a long way from the song’s serious soul ballad origins.
Indubitably, the band made the song their own, while using it as a springboard into a new phase of popularity. They followed through on the huge success of “I Can’t Stand Up” with a UK #2 and US #11 album in Get Happy!!, their fans seemingly persuaded by its abundance of Stax and ska references, not least the groove from Booker T. & the MGs’ “Time is Tight” on “Temptation,” and the Specials’ whirlwind keyboard sound on “The Imposter.” They received criticism along the way for contriving the LP out of a desire to atone for the “Columbus incident,” but the record sounds way too instinctual and inventive for that to be true. In any case, they found not only a signature tune in “I Can’t Stand Up,” but a devastating live track, which they proceeded to play more than any other song on their 1980 tour. They played it to ecstatic crowds around Britain, usually during the encore, at the same time that it was riding high in the chart with Blondie’s “Atomic” and the Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On.” They played it more times than even “Oliver’s Army.”
So, yes, Costello and the Attractions’ “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” is a cover. What’s more, it’s a cover that marked the beginning of the singer’s rich tradition of genre-hopping reinterpretations, which would continue with 1981’s “Good Year For The Roses.” He turned the Sam & Dave B-side into an era-defining hit that helped fuel the anti-racist protest movement around Rock Against Racism and 2-Tone. He did a favor to Sam & Dave in the process, spurring the release of a 1984 compilation of the duo’s B-sides and rarities. He further gained the blessing of Sam & Dave superfan Bruce Springsteen, who performed the song with Costello on the latter’s Spectacle broadcast of 2010, starting it off Sam & Dave-style, before reverting to the fast-paced hit version. The Boss appeared to be very onboard with the fast version.