Red Shoes (1977)

Elvis Costello

Written by Elvis Costello
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Red ShoesRecorded and released in the midst of the rise of Punk, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” injected nihilism-lite into the mainstream of Anglo-American music.

While Punk purists scoff at Costello, the undeniably catchy tune captured popular sensibility while maintaining punky, if slightly feathered edges. The influences of proto-New Wavers like Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds can clearly be heard. (Lowe produced the song.)

Try to be amused:

The buoyant, bouncy rhythm and the defiant, stinging guitar lead are at odds with the depressing story of a man who has lost his girl, then begins stalking her at London dance clubs. His red shoes make him such a dancer/player that the “angels” want those freakin’ shoes, the angels’ wings having gotten rusted doing God knows what. Unfortunately for him (and the angels in question), the red shoes lose their magical powers, which he realizes far too late.

Luckily, self-amusement lies at the core of the tension, evident from the opening lines, now recognized as classic:

Oh I used to be disgusted
and now I try to be amused
But since their wings have got rusted
you know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes

red shoes elvis costello

Now I try to be amused…

“Red Shoes” weaves the kind of dance music then popular in big city clubs along with a merciless pummeling of the ethos found in the same sweaty dance halls. It is a novella about an apparently very attractive, sexy girl who becomes a little too impressed with her booty’s popularity, and her ardent admirer’s reaction to such libidinous shenanigans.

I was watching while you’re dancing away
Our love got fractured in the echo and sway
How come everybody wants to be your friend?
You know that it still hurts me just to say it

The last line is delivered with a sneer worthy of the original Elvis, but Costello is bright enough to back off the aggression and dust the song with the humor of the resigned. Not bitter, but not exactly acquiescing to being treated shabbily.

There is a snide chorus that talks back to Costello during “Red Shoes,” half chiding, half sympathizing. It only adds to the circus-like feel of the work, pretty much a perfect radio single that comes in under three highly-charged minutes.

Oh, I know that she’s disgusted (oh why’s that)
Cause she’s feeling so abused (oh that’s too bad)
She gets tired of the lust (oh I’m so sad)
but it’s so hard to refuse

He expresses his joy (lust?) at merely seeing her at the club then sends that joy reeling.

A blazing, hammering drum line pounds its way through the song from start to finish. Costello’s wavry tenor-baritone varnished with an offhand, confidential story-telling timbre, evokes sympathy and revulsion from the listener at the same time.

  • Etched in the original vinyl’s runoff after each side is over: Side A – “A porky prime cut,” Side B – “Larger than life, more fun than people.”
  • The name of Costello’s label in 1977 was “Stiff Records.”
  • The reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale, “The Red Shoes,” is unmistakable. In Andersen, the wearer of the red shoes dances herself to death.