Day Forty-Five: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces

Columbia Records ■ JC 35709

Released January 5, 1979

Produced by Nick Lowe
Engineered by Roger Bechirian

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Accidents Will Happen
  2. Senior Service
  3. Oliver’s Army
  4. Big Boys
  5. Green Shirt
  6. Party Girl
  1. Goon Squad
  2. Busy Bodies
  3. Moods for Moderns
  4. Chemistry Class
  5. Two Little Hitlers
  6. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

While I’ve managed to cover bands from ItalyCornwallSwedenIrelandAustralia, and, of course various other parts of the UK (“other parts” references back to Cornwall, not Australia), I’m most definitely a U.S. citizen. I have always lived here, and indeed have never left here. As a result, many of my used records reflect the peculiarities of the U.S. market, and the alterations¹ thereof. While Mondo Bongo managed to squeak into my Boomtown Rats poll without warning, I decided, in the future, to notate these issues as they arise, in case anyone is voting on standing preference or favourites. Armed Forces is more distinctly transformed from its original U.K. counterpart, going so far as to be effectively unrecognizable even on sight. The tracklist is altered only slightly, though: “Sunday’s Best” is dropped from the middle of the early half of side two in favour of the closing inclusion of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” E.C.’s cover of Nick Lowe’s song, which was originally released as the B-side to Lowe’s “American Squirm”, and credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound”, though the cover does manage to hint at the artist’s true identity if you look (just a bit) carefully.

As a further result of my age, Costello was introduced to me primarily through Spike, and from there largely because of his hit collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Veronica”. I began to gather his work simply because it was available briefly on eMusic when I was in high school and I quite liked what I’d heard (a brief predilection for recorded chunks of various sets of music television, not all of it MTV, that my dad had tucked away on VHS meant I’d also heard, for example, “Oliver’s Army”). Indicative of why I do this blog in the fashion that I do, downloading a complete discography–especially one with the loads of bonus material that comes from digital releases of these albums, or did at the time–was overwhelming and meant I barely gave any of it a listen over time. Because I often played an artist’s work in chronological order, it did mean that what I did hear was mostly his earlier material. My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model were early physical purchases (on CD, in 2-disc expanded form), and this was the first, and for a long time only, album of his I purchased on vinyl.
While I’ve come to love albums like Trust more (“Clubland” deserves a lot of credit for this, but by no means all of it), it being a very deliberate purchase on vinyl in relatively recent years, the earliest of his² albums remain the strongest in my mind, possibly because of the sensibilities and production of Nick Lowe that they are imbued with. An excess of plays for My Aim Is True and the sense that one is “supposed” to pick This Year’s Model to prove some kind of taste (the closest I come to responding to those positions), Armed Forces may be my favourite of that first trio, though it’s neither easy (nor especially useful) to do so. When my parents and I went to see him about a year ago, though, I took no issue with the career-wide selection of material he played (though I continue to regret that the wheel never fell on “Clubland”).
Costello opens the album with his distinctive voice, singing, “Oh I just don’t know where to begin…”, but softens the creaking, nasal tenor that defines it by lowering it for the verses of “Accidents Will Happen”, Steve Nieve’s keyboards, as is often the case with the Attractions, take the melodic lead, though Bruce Thomas’s bass has its run of the lower end, and doesn’t seem content with rhythmic accent. Elvis’s guitar is nowhere to be heard, Pete Thomas (no relation) accenting the off beat in a rather standard backbeat, but clears away its snares and Nieve takes the rhythm for the chorus, giving a kind of jarring clarity to Costello’s voice, which emphasizes the first syllable of the song’s title sharply before relaxing for the rest. The wall of keyboard sound and Costello’s subdued vocal gives the song the feeling of his own lyric: “Oh I don’t wanna hear it/Cause I know what I’ve done”. The song is edged with the feeling of “Yes, yes, I know already,” but as a speaker, not an impatient listener. The fading repetition and tilted piano riff carry off as echos of a conversation had endlessly.
A wonderfully rubbery bass from Bruce hits all four beats, Pete joining him with some great, solid snare hits on the last three acts as the perfect balance to the delightfully escalating keyboard melody from Nieve as “Senior Service” begins, the brevity and power of Pete’s hits giving the entire song a bit of a stop-start feeling. Pete moves to the off-beats again, and Costello starts the song with the chorus: “Senior service”, answering himself with the rising pitch of his own “backing” vocal: “Junior dissatisfaction”. A lowered voice as on the verses of “Accidents” continues, bobbing to the halting rhythm: “It’s a breath you took too late/It’s a death that’s worse than fate.” The verses come without vocal restraint, but it’s all about that chorus. Even the “oohs” and sustained keyboard chords of a brief reprieve are short-lived, working us back regularly to the constant motion of the song’s brilliant chorus. That the chorus manages to include that evocative pair of lines and that clever inversion only makes it that much more wonderful. All too soon, it ends, at only two minutes, eighteen seconds.
“Oliver’s Army” has been Elvis’s best selling single to this day, and is focused primarily on the piano of Steve Nieve, the initial melody of which is distinct and sudden in its place after “Senior Service”: it’s dramatic and “big”, but falls back to organ-esque keys which hop around behind Bruce’s restless and very mobile bassline,  Pete half-stuck to the hi-hat for the whole song. Elvis sings the verses over this, but are joined by Nieve’s piano flourishes for the chorus, his voice here seeming to be trying to get out all the words before he runs out of breath, but without the exertion that normally marks that sound. It’s a stupendously catchy chorus, especially matched with the piano as it is. The subject matter is (unsurprisingly for Mr. MacManus–Costello’s real name, I should probably clarify) cynical and dark despite the cheery sound of the song, inspired, he has said, by seeing the extremely young soldiers in fatigues and carrying automatic weapons in Belfast. 
Crouched low, a quiet hum keeps “Big Boys” low to the ground as Costello starts the song off, effectively a cappella. “Everything’s so provocative/Very very temporary”, he sings, but as he goes on to the next line, “I shall walk,” the Thomases drop in a cool steady beat, backing vocals that bear the signature sound of E.C. himself repeat his words, as he gains in energy, before he reaches the chorus, where the escalation is unwound with a single drawn out, downward-winding word–“so”: “You tried, so-oh-oh hard/To be like the big boys”. Keyboard textures flash around the sides of the verse, the Thomases pushing insistently at the song. As the verse continues, Pete’s beat stays rocksteady, Costello’s voice starts to speed up but remain regular and steady. He answers each of his own lines with a simple phrase–“She’ll be the one”–but comes back around to the descending emphasis of effort, each repetition raising the pitch of “So”‘s descent before he finally ends with that calm “to be like the big boys”. 
A brief faux-harpsichord starts the knowingly paranoid wonderings of “Green Shirt”, steady 4/4 bass kicks back a monotone repetition of muted guitar strings. Every 12 beats, Pete adds four snare hits to his regular kicks, Nieve’s keys slowly fading in with the telltale synthetic sustain of electronic keys, Costello singing in quiet confidence, a hand palm out in front of his mouth to whisper aside to the listener “discreetly”. “Buy you tease/And you flirt/And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt/You can please yourself but somebody’s gonna get it”, he sings at the chorus, still close to the vest. The next verse has more of his clever lyricism: “‘Cause somewhere in the “Quisling Clinic”/There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes/She’s listening in to the Venus line/She’s picking out names/I hope none of them are mine”. After the chorus comes back around, Pete’s snare becomes a steady fixture, growing with a burping of Nieve’s electric keys, though the song builds on Pete’s drums only to drop anticlimactically to nothing but Nieve’s synthesizer. The sound on a synth often used to represent horns (poorly!) rises over the fading measures of the song’s end, never really leaving the conspiratorial, private “conversation” it begins with.
The low, beleaguered swing of “Party Girl” is like a party wound down, in its death throes but not yet devoid of the humour and good mood that previously defined it–drunkenness is fading, hangovers are still a ways off, but everyone has calmed and quieted, though the signs of a party remain. Guitar plays a short, easy lead, but drops away as Costello launches into the vocal portion of the song, bass and a steady beat that somehow drags despite being tight and on-beat–as it should, in context–is all there is behind him. “I have seen the hungry look in their eyes/They’d settle for anything in disguise of love/Seen the party girls look me over/Seen ’em leavin’ when the party’s over”, he sings over a suddenly strengthened, intense, pounding piano line, but with the end of those lines it subsides. It’s sweet and romantic, but utterly jaded, bolstered most thoroughly by the melody and force of the music behind those lines which only makes one more appearance, but is a wonderful hook for the song, which gradually falls to wild strings of piano and the repeated pleas Costello fades out on.
The ominous chime of guitars and keys in “Goon Squad” calls to mind sounds of the late 60s in a way, though the rumbling burble of Bruce’s bass is more like that of the muscled basslines of 70s cop movies, even those scored by Goblin (yes, more obscure references, which neither prove my esoteric knowledge nor help anyone!), but the ride cymbal swing of Pete’s drumming seems to marry the two–perhaps it’s a 70s production of a 60s cop show? Costello’s voice cries out with a kind of desperation with guitars playing more blended chords, a push from the accelerated ride gives us a different voice, that of considered options, no longer desperate, but ended with an exit from thoughts of possible future to the inevitability of the present: “but I never thought they’d put me in the…Goon Squad!” A low, spoken version of the same last two words comes with the cry from Elvis’s voice as naturally led into by the preceding lines, and gives it a punch (apparently, this was at the suggestion of Mr. Lowe). Left to only the rhythm section, Costello spews out a confessional instead of a cry, the crispness of the drums and the roiling warmth of the bass accentuating the earlier sense of soundtracking. The way it floats off is the way it jumped in: seemingly part of a greater fabric, but displaced to some strange fit into this album.

Almost a sort of ballad at first, “Busy Bodies” goes slightly herky-jerky, Nieve tapping out a neat little organ lick that responds to each of Costello’s lines. Interestingly, this flows nicely into a return to the balladesque format of the song proper, though the automatic drive riff that follows the bridge’s repetition of the word “Nowhere” again pulls the song away from that vibe. That organ lick, though, is a fantastic hook, though Bruce’s slowly descending bassline that follows it is almost like a rudimentary form of the one that flows through “Clubland”, for which I can only cheer.

There’s a certain subset of E.C./Attractions material that has the most nervy, wiry “new wave” feelings–at least in my endlessly pattern-seeking mind–and “Moods for Moderns” is a prime example. While Pete is laying down a nice but simple feel at an even 4/4, Bruce is muscling into a melody, but Nieve is playing organ-y keyboards with the feel of a guitar played only with upstrokes, giving me the desire to move upward with each note, in a sort of light “pogoing” sense. This dance-y feeling is made worse (actually, better) by the repetition of the title in a “backing vocal” style, all four syllables crammed into about two beats. Elvis’s “sensual” voice marks the actual verses, an escalating bassline subtly raising the tension, but it’s responded to with the quirky pop of a questioning keyboard bit from Nieve. As if the song weren’t loaded with enough hook-y moments, the sudden downard slope of Costello’s rapid vocals–“Soon you’ll belong to someone else/And I will be your stranger just pretending”–knocks this one out of the park. This and “Senior Service” often vie for the throne of this album, I feel.

Maybe it’s following “Moods for Moderns” that does it, but “Chemistry Class” has often felt like, not so much a disappointment, but just a “standard” song for Costello–which is still an extreme positive, but not one on par with the rest. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to note, as the lines “They chopped you up in butcher’s school/Threw you out of the academy of garbage/You’ll be a joker all your life/A student at the comedy college/People pleasing people pleasing people like you,” and the strange choice to take the word “accidents” in the lines “Ready to experiment, you’re ready to be burned/If it wasn’t for some accidents then some would never ever learn” and repeat it as if edited in is fascinating, as are the hovering e-bow-y vibrations the song exits on.

I’m left to wonder how on earth Nick Lowe could release “Little Hitler” only to have compatriot Costello release “Two Little Hitlers” the following year (indeed, not even a whole year later!) and even produce the record! I won’t complain though–the jerky, pseudo-reggae stylings of the Costello song are enjoyable enough, with the fun of a rather quick bassline from Bruce and a bit of “upstroke” organ from Nieve gets us to the aesthetically appealing collection of phonemes that precedes the chorus: “Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/One little Hitler does the other one’s will,” he sings, the cruel descriptions of a two-tyrant relationship dripping with cynicism, but sung with a certain amusement. But the semi-disco drumbeat and bass that follow it are the perfect counterpoint to mild vocal acrobatics to expand simple words: “I will return/I will not burn”, a vocal hook that redeems the track from, “Hey, not bad” to “Yesss!” in one fell swoop.

While “Two Little Hitlers” is a great closer, in the U.S. they simply could not resist the possible sales uptick and dropped “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” there. The song has often struck me as similar to “Accidents Will Happen” with respect to Costello’s recording of it, being one of the bigger songs (“Oliver’s Army” is the third) on the album, not so much in the single sales sense as the sound of large flourishes and drama. It doesn’t dissuade me from the notion to hear the furious snare introduction from Pete,   cavernous piano riffs pounded out from Nieve, and the ringing guitars that blend with those keys to create great sheafs of sound. While the original Brinsley Schwarz version (which Nick performed on and sang) does have the same chord structure, the looming riffs are guitar rather than keys, and Nick’s vocal choices are more subdued, somewhat sad (apparently his intention). With Costello freed to add a minor underscore to the song’s melody and force on guitar, the song is actually amplified even further, and his vocal reading is rhetorical, cynical and has no interest in answers to its questions–doesn’t believe there are any to be had, really. It’s amusing to know that most of us had no idea there was a certain sincerity to the original version, if nothing else, in the mind of the character Nick was singing as. Of course, with Nick, that adds a wry and very subtle element of humour, knowing his own tendency toward dark humour and certain humanistic cynicism. That the song fades out on the same parts still crashing is perfect; this isn’t a resolved matter, even if Costello sees no forthcoming or useful answers–just a possible reality to “this wicked world” and “all hope lost”.

I was thinking, and, in truth, my real introduction to Elvis Costello was this image, looming and large on a wall in a room in the house I grew up in. He looks somber, intense, and vaguely like a person unaware of how his leaning and staring comes off as far, far too interested in the person on the other side. Innocently curious, but intrusively acting upon it. It coloured a perception that might have been better served by images like the awkward, self-aware and droll cover of My Aim Is True, which seems to be almost ironic in its callback to old record covers. The intense expression and sharp, long cheekbones of that first image lacked the humourt most images on album covers carried, and gave him an alien appearance of a kind, rather than the semi-nerdy, gap-toothed, punk-inflected sneer that marked many of his late 70s appearances.

I’m not sure what it made me think, really. But it gave me an entirely different impression of what he was, or what he would sound like–maybe someone so far gone into a persona (or a real personality so pronounced it seems like a persona), a Klaus Nomi or a Thin White Duke, some kind of eccentric, unusual and clearly defined aesthetic. I suppose this is interesting in light of the fact that Costello has mentioned that this album actually bears a few influences from the Berlin-era of Bowie, which immediately followed his Duke persona. Maybe more interesting is that Costello said the band had a short list of commonly agreed upon music, and it involved two Beatles albums alongside other artists (like Bowie via the aforementioned Berlin trilogy)–Abbey Road and the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, particularly, he has noted, “It’s All Too Much”, which happens to be my absolute favourite Beatles track of all. Curious, indeed.

While the sounds of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces are distinct, they feel of a kind, which one might be inclined to lay at the feet of a producer–but one would be mistaken, as Lowe stuck with Mr. MacManus for another two albums. While the R&B influences are the automatic point of reference for Get Happy!!, even Trust feels stylistically different, and the two remain separate in feeling from their predecessors. Perhaps Armed Forces is the apex of that initial slew of albums, being more refined than Aim and less (a bit) snarky than This Year’s Model–a tiny bit more personal maybe.

I can’t leave this without mentioning the track that was omitted: “Sunday’s Best”. It’s a shame–this is a great song, with a carnival atmosphere and a great vocal from Costello, particularly on the title, but also on the circus swing of his verses. Considering “(What’s So Funny)” was actually intentionally left off the album, relegating “Sunday’s Best” to the compilation Taking Liberties seems unfair. Oh well–it was not abandoned as a practice by this time, and certainly wasn’t abandoned for some time after (and may only now approach actual abandonment), so I suppose that is just life.

  • Next Up: Cream – Wheels of Fire

¹While some of these alterations may occur for other reasons, even some of the U.S. bands (such as Codeine) with that tag were altered for their U.S. release. It’s a bit mind-boggling, really.
²I should say “their” as I am loathe to avoid recognition of the work of any musicians involved in a work, but, like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I’m inclined to be lax in specificity because they all drew vague lines (if any at all) between solo credits, “actual” solo albums, and “actual” band albums, often overlapping significantly between them.

One thought on “Day Forty-Five: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces

  1. I should say: I don't talk much about his lyrics, which is probably somewhat disproportionate considering how good they are themselves, and what a reputation they have. This isn't so much an intentional omission, or even a failure of recognition–it's indicative of my linguistic limitations when it comes to some of his references and word choices.


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