Saturday, 2 June 2018

Elvis Costello & The Attractions - Armed Forces (1979)

Don't start me talking....


Released June 1979

Recorded at Eden Studios, London

Running time 40.05

After 1978's This Year's Model, by 1979, Elvis Costello and The Attractions had made their organ and bass-dominated sound something of a trademark. Nowhere is it exemplified better than on this album, which became on of their most popular. Personally, there are others I prefer more, but it is twelve (thirteen if you include What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding) perfectly constructed three minute "New Wave" pop songs set against some observant, cynical lyrics. Bruce Thomas's bass never sounded better than it does here. This was an all-out attempt to make a poppy-commercially-appealing album, leaving behind the slight reggae influences of tracks like I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea and the punkiness of Pump It Up

Peversely, however, while the music was becoming more accessible, lyrically, he was becoming a tad more insular, cynical and paranoid in a "they're all out to get you" 1984 kind of way. Songs like Goon Squad, Senior Service, Green Shirt, Busy Bodies and indeed, Oliver's Army are all fine examples of this. So, while it was evidently poppy, there was still an intense, urgent density to it as well, making it quite a beguiling record. The cover and inner sleeves were full of photographic symbolism and slogans like "emotional fascism" that only helped to add to the feeling. 

Costello, looking back at the album many years, said this about his songwriting -

"....Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naive. It is full of gimmicks and almost overpowers some songs with paradoxes and subverted clich├ęs piling up into private and secret meanings. I was not quite 24 and thought I knew it all...."

Despite all its good points, there was just a little something about this album, though, and its presentation, that came across as a bit self-satisfied and possessing of a feeling that it was better than it actually was. 


1. Accidents Will Happen

2. Senior Service
3. Oliver's Army
4. Big Boys
5. Green Shirt
6. Party Girl
7. Goon Squad
8. Busy Bodies
9. Sunday's Best
10. Moods For Moderns
11. Chemistry Class
12. Two Little Hitlers

Backed by a mainstream TV advertising campaign (highly unusual, if not unique, for "pop" albums in 1979 - just showed how far "punk/New Wave" had come in three/four short years), the big hits - Oliver's Army, with its Abba-inspired keyboard riff, and Accidents Will Happen are obvious standouts, but other highlights are the sparse, mysterious Green Shirt (what was that one all about?), the futuristic-sounding organ-driven Busy Bodies, the quirky Big Boys, the upbeat, bluesy Goon Squad and the lyrically potent Two Little Hitlers. Senior Service has a quirky, staccato appeal too, while Party Girl is the album's one example of the sort of smoky ballad that Costello would record many more of over subsequent years.

There are a few inconsequential songs, though, the fairground organ swirl of Sunday's Best, the cod-funk of Moods For Moderns and the pretty impenetrable Chemistry Class in particular. Better was to come, however. For some, though, this was The Attraction's best album. For some reason, though, I rarely return to it all these years later. Maybe I should, because listening to it again I am really enjoying it, and the sound quality is excellent - big, full and bassy, as it should be.

Costello himself views it quite positively though, especially viewed through the context of The Attractions' progress as a band -

"...The confidence and cohesion of The Attractions' playing is the product of twelve months of intense touring. The sessions were not without dissent and tension, but we probably never had quite this level of consistent musical agreement again..."


The notable non-album tracks from the period were:-

What's So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding

A Nick Lowe song from his Brinsley Schwarz days, this is a marvellous song. Costello often ends his shows with a barnstorming rendition of it. It is a rousing number with a message that will always resonate. It has long been one of my favourite Costello numbers. 

Clean Money

This was a short, frantically punky out-take from the Armed Forces sessions that found some of its lyrics re-worked into Love For Tender off Get Happy!!. Costello retrospectively said this about it:-

"....Oddly enough the record was originally supposed to open with “Clean Money”, in an arrangement that owes quite a bit to The Beatles’ White Album rockers or more likely to The Beatles-influenced sound of Cheap Trick. Their record, In Colour (And In Black And White), had been another road favourite. We threw everything at the song: a rock and roll beat that is almost completely absent from the final running order, tracked guitar feedback, a guest background vocal from Dave Edmunds, plus a rare appearance from The Attractions as a vocal harmony group. It’s hard to imagine the record opening with this belligerent tone rather than the blindingly obvious first line of “Accidents Will Happen”.....".

What a lively opener it would have made to the album. It would have left everyone with a totally different first impression of the album, thinking "Elvis is still a punk after all". It is actually so short that I'm sure it could have been included. It is a good track that I have always liked. 

Talking In The Dark

Another from the same sessions. It is a short, romantic number with a catchy beat and refrain. It sounds more like a song from 1978 as opposed to 1979, though. A melodic, sonorous keyboard break is utilised in the middle of the song. It probably would have suited This Year's Model more than Armed Forces.

Wednesday Week

The punky energy of this song would seem to be a bit at odds with the crafted "new wave" pop of a lot of the Armed Forces material. It sounds like the sort of thing Costello was trying to leave behind in 1979. So, unsurprisingly, it didn't make the album. Just check out Steve Nieve's crazy organ flourishes on this, though. Also, it strangely changes ambience half way through and ends up sounding like something off Imperial Bedroom. It is quite an interesting track in that respect, showing Costello's composing development. 

My Funny Valentine

Elvis Costello always liked an easy-listening, crooning ballad and here he records a Rodgers and Hart number that lasts only a minute and a half. It appeared as the 'b' side of Oliver's Army. I remember my girlfriend at the time had the single and said to me "you must listen to this Elvis Costello song". She loved it. I was quite underwhelmed at the time. Now I guess it is ok, but far too short. Just sing the verses again, eh, Elvis?


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