Monday, 23 December 2019

Elvis Costello - The First Ten Years (1977-1987)




Covered here are these albums:-

My Aim Is True (1977)
This Year's Model (1978)
Armed Forces (1979)
Get Happy!! (1980)
Almost Blue (1981)
Trust (1981)
Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Punch The Cock (1983)
Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
King Of America (1986)
Blood And Chocolate (1987)
and The Best Of The First Ten Years

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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MY AIM IS TRUE (1977)

1. Welcome To The Working Week
2. Miracle Man
3. No Dancing
4. Blame It On Cain
5. Alison
6. Sneaky Feelings
7. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
8. Less Than Zero
9. Mystery Dance
10. Pay It Back
11. I'm Not Angry
12. Waiting For The End Of The World 

Released in 1977, My Aim Is True has, for me, always been something of a strange album. Fresh from the cleansing experience of Never Mind The BollocksThe Clash and The Ramones along came Elvis Costello, looking like an even geekier Buddy Holly and backed some (comparatively) old, musically experienced veterans playing a sort of jangly amalgam of "pub rock" and "country rock". Was this what the great punk revolution was all about? No sooner than it had started, the "New Wave" was upon us. Despite Costello's acerbic lyrics (by the way, Elvis Costello's lyrics are always described as "acerbic", (just as any Van Morrison review will contain the word "curmudgeonly"), there was precious little protest in the air on this rather (in places) tuneful and somewhat homely workout.

Regarding the album's creation, Costello was working as a data input clerk and called in sick to record this album, cut, amazingly, in six four-hour sessions at a cost of £1000. Granted £1000 went a lot further back then, but in record-cutting terms, the whole thing was truly remarkable. Because of that its sound has always been a bit "lo-fi", but it certainly isn't that bad and it sort of went with the home-produced punk ethic anyway. Stiff Records then matched his wages and gave him a contract. 

Costello was duly hyped to the nth degree by Stiff Records' (comparatively) amateur but ubiquitous hype-ists. He almost became famous before he was famous. Amateur or home-produced or not, the hype worked and Costello on the "Stiffs tour" with Ian DuryNick Lowe and Wreckless Eric became the hottest ticket in town. Everyone wanted to see this (apparently) knock-kneed, bespectacled odbball. 
           
On to the songs and their comparative lack of punkiness - yes, Less Than Zero seemed a bit of an angry song, about fascism, apparently, although to be honest what he was going on about was often not clear. Waiting For The End Of The World had a touch of down home nihilism about it, I guess. I suppose I could punch the air to Blame It On Cain, just about. Don't get me wrong, I like all of these songs, especially the short, bassy punch of Welcome To The Working Week and the hooky (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesMiracle Man had another huge rumbling bass line and a dense drum backing. Costello's voice is sneeringly brilliant on this one too.

   

All good stuff. I just had a problem with the cultural identity of this particular album. I didn't have any problems once The Attractions had been formed and the excellent This Year's Model heralded a run of truly wonderful albums.

As I said earlier, My Aim Is True has always sat outside from the others. Maybe it is just me but I found its music somewhat out of touch with the zeitgeist, too jangly, too old school, at times too country. "This Year's Model" onwards featured that trademark organ and bass dominated Attractions sound, which is just not present here. Tracks like the country-ish Sneaky Feelings and Pay It Back are just nowhere near being anything remotely punky. It was remarkable, really, that stuff like this went down well at the time. I'm Not Angry is in the same style, but its cynicism redresses the balance somewhat, while the vaguely slow rock'n'roll influence of No Dancing remains as a rather unique creation. Similarly, the short, frantic Mystery Dance has some of the same qualities.

Just listen to the live versions of some of these songs played in 1977 and 1978 included on the "deluxe edition" of this album and on the Live At El Mocambo CD. The difference in intensity and overall sound between them and Clover is seismic. Steve Nieve's organ sound, Pete Thomas's drums and Bruce Thomas's bass drives the whole thing along with so much more attack, verve and ingenuity. The sound quality is excellent too. 



Oh, my goodness, I am forgetting the gorgeous ballad, Alison. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of material on here with potential, but it was a potential that would take until the next album to fully realise. What we had here was an oddity of a punk record that was deemed so largely due to its stripped-down sound, punk-style artwork on the cover, afore-mentioned acerbic lyrics and Costello's geeky, anti-hero look. Once I had accepted that it was not punk, musically, but had something similar in much of its imagery and attitude, I was sold on Costello and would remain so for many more decades.

Regarding this album, I still enjoy the occasional listen to it though, in no way do I dismiss it completely. As debut albums go it is more than acceptable and it brings back great memories. Actually, listening to it now, through a good sound system, it sounds blooming great - full, bassy and thumping. Clover, all is forgiven!

Try to get an edition that includes the non-album single Watching The Detectives on it too.

Incidentally, the track listing for the live material is -

LIVE AT THE NASHVILLE ROOMS, LONDON, 7 AUGUST 1977

1. Welcome To The Working Week
2. Blame It On Cain
3. No Dancing
4. Waiting For The End of The World
5. Night Rally
6. Hoover Factory
7. No Action
8. (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea
9. Miracle Man
10. The Beat
11. Less Than Zero
12. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
13. Lipstick Vogue
14. Watching The Detectives
15. Lip Service
16. Mystery Dance
17. Alison

There were also notable tracks from the period that didn't make it on to the album:-

Watching The Detectives provided Costello with his first hit single and remains one of his most famous songs to this day. It hit the charts in October 1977 and was the first Elvis Costello song I ever heard. It has a vaguely reggae beat (very much clunky "white reggae", though) and concerns someone who wants to watch detective shows on TV all the time. The genesis of the song, an early example of Costello's lyrical cynicism is described thus by Costello himself -

"...I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I'd been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to another inductee's record, the Clash's first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote "Watching the Detectives..."

It features different musicians from those who played on My Aim Is True. 

Radio Sweetheart is a country-sounding, upbeat song was left off the album and ended up as the 'b' side to Less Than Zero. It would have suited the general country rock-ish, jangly sound of the album, though, as it features some twangy steel guitar. It also has some nice bass and sharp acoustic guitar too. It is a lively and appealing track. 

Stranger In The House - this very country song appeared again in 1978 (see This Year's Model) but it originated on the sessions for My Aim Is True. However,  it was thought to be commercial suicide in 1977 to release a Country & Western song in the midst of punk, a genre whose coat-tails Costello was hanging on to. It shows that his liking for C & W music went way back, though. This early demo is certainly very country, full of steel guitar. It was re-recorded for the Almost Blue sessions as a duet with country singer George Jones. I like it a lot, I am not sure I would have been so keen in 1977.

  

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THIS YEAR'S MODEL (1978)

1. No Action
2. This Year's Girl
3. The Beat
4. Pump It Up
5. Little Triggers
6. You Belong To Me
7. Hand In Hand
8. I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea
9. Lip Service
10. Living In Paradise
11. Lipstick Vogue
12. Night Rally

After Elvis Costello burst on the "New Wave" scene as part of the now legendary stiffs tour in 1977, he followed his debut album My Aim Is True with this even better offering. Now with his own band in place, The Attractions (the first album was played by session musicians, part of a band called Clover), Costello really developed his and his band's unique sound. Where Clover had been all jangly country-sounding melodies, The Attractions were like an amphetamine-fuelled, aggressive punky rock'n'roll outfit. Costello stated later that The Rolling Stones' Aftermath was a big influence on this album.

Based around keyboardist Steve Nieve's piano and trebly, parping organ, Pete Thomas's pounding drums and Bruce Thomas's bass, Costello's choppy lead guitar and contemptuously spat-out invective lyrics, they had a unique sound. A great example of this is the breakneck, punky hit single Pump It Up and the frenetic, just over a minute long opener No Action. There were none of the previous album's unthreatening country rockers, this was a proper punk meets new wave offering, maybe one of the first of its kind. One felt that My Aim Is True had "played with being punk", to an extent, due to its stripped down, edgy sound, but that this was the real thing. 

Also in the list of great songs are the mysterious, paranoid intensity of Hand In Hand, the staccato, slightly reggae-influenced I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea, the torch song-style ballad Little Triggers, the reggae-ish The Beat, the typically new-wave-ish Lip Service and the vibrant drum-dominated Lipstick Vogue. The anti-fascist Night Rally ends what is a short-ish but highly enjoyable album. 

  

Living In Paradise is a slow building number with a strong chorus. You Belong To Me is a frantic bluesy, jangly guitar-driven workout and This Year's Girl is a shuffling, solid and catchy song.

Actually, let's be honest, there's not a duff track on it. It is definitely one of my favourite Attractions albums and one of the best new wave offerings too. The songs literally speed by, played with such an energy that even the slower numbers bristle with an edge and an attitude. A song like Little Triggers, for example, is full of  a mean sneer that makes it a dark offering in a ballad's clothing. There is a viscerality to Costello's lyrics and his delivery, matched by the relentless abandon of the music that makes this an enigmatic and subtly menacing album. 

It still sounds good today, and stands steadfastly as an excellent example of what was breaking new ground in 1978-79. In many ways punk was pushed into the background by material like this. Clever songwriting, great hooks and melodies but still enough sneering anger to be part of the zeitgeist ensured that punk's development into new wave was a rapid one. 

There were so many tracks that didn't make it on to Costello's albums. Some of them this era are listed below:-

Radio Radio. This frantic, organ-powered number was a single in the early Autumn of 1978. It is a breakneck rant about "the radio" - a pet subject for many artists to moan about in 1978. Apparently we were forced to listen to whatever the radio wanted us to listen to. There was a simple cure for that - just put a record on!


Big Tears. This was the 'b' side of Pump It Up in April 1978 and a mighty good song it was too. It is sort of Graham Parker-esque and is notable for featuring Mick Jones of The Clash providing some trademark high-pitched guitar sounds in the middle. It was a track that deserved more exposure and should really have been included on the album. It has a great guitar intro, some evocative organ and a big, singalong chorus. It could have been released as a successful single, I think. Just listen to that wonderful bass line too. 

Tiny Steps. The 'b' side of Radio Radio was typical of The Attractions' sound at the time - lots of swirling keyboards and a mysterious lyric which made it quite an attractive, if slightly inconsequential track. It has a big, solid beat that make it always listenable. It wouldn't have been out of place either on This Year's Model or Armed Forces. 

Stranger In The House. A Country & Western-style record originally as a duet with country singer George Jones. Costello also recorded his own version in October 1978. It is an attractive song that provided a look into the future and the Almost Blue material. How this went down with the punks is not known as it didn't get much publicity at the time. It had been recorded earlier too on the My Aim Is True sessions but rejected due to its C & W sound. 

Crawling To The USA. This fast-paced, "Costello punky" number was recorded in October 1979 quite a long time after the release of This Year's Model but it would have suited that album easily, in my opinion, with its thumping drums and deep bass. It uses the Radio Radio organ swishing sound in its backing, making it sound rather similar to that song.

  

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ARMED FORCES (1979)

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
  
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 SquadSenior ServiceGreen ShirtBusy 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 clichés 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. 

  

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 HitlersSenior 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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GET HAPPY!! (1980)

1. Love For Tender
2. Opportunity
3. The Impostor
4. Secondary Modern
5. King Horse
6. Possession
7. Clowntime Is Over
8. Man Called Uncle
9. New Amsterdam
10. High Fidelity
11. I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down
12. Black And White World
13. 5ive Gears In Reverse
14. B Movie
15. Motel Matches
16. Human Touch
17. Beaten To The Punch
18. Temptation
19. I Stand Accused
20. Riot Act      

What a great album this was. Released in 1980, following on from the success of Armed Forces and its hit single, Oliver's ArmyElvis Costello decided to turn his back somewhat on the "New Wave" and produce and twenty track album of Motown/Stax/Atlantic/Northern Soul sub-three minute pop-soul classics. Any hanging on to the coat-tails of punk, whether intentional or not was long gone now, and, as mentioned, even the new wave was now something to be left behind as different styles were dabbled in. Indeed, when the band first recorded some of the songs back in 1979, they weren't happy with them, feeling they were "too new wave" (already, only a few years into the genre's existence!). So, they duly re-recorded them in an Atlantic/Motown/Stax r 'n' b style and this is what you hear on the eventual album. 
                                               
Contrived it may be, but the songs are a delight. Only Sam & Dave's I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down (radically re-arranged here anyway) is a cover. The rest are Costello originals "in the style of". Even the cover had sixties-style artwork and a false imprint of the disc imaged on to the middle of the artwork, to make it look like a worn-out old sixties album. He has the ability, however, to reinvent and interpret the past around his own image, making this very much a current, Elvis Costello & the Attractions album, as opposed to a revivalist exercise, or a tribute album. 

  

The tracks features Steve Nieve's organ to the fore and many have a Motown-stule percussion. Costello's acerbic voice is strangely suited, however, and tracks like the soulful Opportunity, the frenetic The Impostor, the Motown-ish High Fidelity with its first line taken directly from Diana Ross & The SupremesSome Things You Never Get Used To are a delight. 

Also up there are King HorseLove For TenderTemptationBeaten To The Punch and the ska of Human Touch. Only the final ballad Riot Act sounds like typical Elvis Costello.

The vibrancy never lets up on all the album's twenty songs. Just check out songs like the bassy Secondary ModernPossession, Clowntime Is Over and Man Called Uncle. They are all no more than three minutes long and form part of  the absolutely frantic first eleven songs that simply career through your ears like a fairground ride. The pace and quality drifts off just a tiny bit after that, but even then, little gems like the smoky and beautifully bass-driven B Movie or the country soul of Motel Matches turn up. 

From beginning to end, Get Happy! is an extremely enjoyable listen. In my top three or four Costello albums. Every time I put it on, it feels like the spring of 1980 again. I can't believe it is so long ago, because this album feels as vibrant now as it did then.



Some of the notable non-album tracks from the sessions for this album were:-

So YoungA cover version of a song by Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons (no me neither!). It is played in a lively reggae style and, with its infectious organ notes, sounds like an Attractions original, something I always thought it was. 

Girls Talk. This song was taken into the charts by Elvis's mate Dave Edmunds. This was his original of the song. It is a catchy song with a great hook that was, surprisingly, left off the album. I am amazed Costello didn't keep this for himself and release it as a single. It features that rather echoey backing that so characterised both the Get Happy!! and Trust albums. 

Clowntime Is Over #2. The faster track from the Get Happy!! album is considerably slowed down here on a very  evocative alternate version. It begins with an almost hymnal organ from Steve Nieve and Costello's vocal, together with the beat, is slowed-down to walking pace. It is a complete contrast to the fast, Northern Soul beat of the album's original. 

Getting Mighty Crowded. The Get Happy!! album had a lot of Northern Soul influences and this was a cover of a Northern Soul original, by Betty Everett. Elvis covers it enthusiastically, in suitably upbeat fashion. The organ parps away and the drums pound behind Costello's throaty but soulful vocal. It is a good track and would have sat well on Get Happy!!. 

Dr. Luther's Assistant. This was an odd out-take, sounding far more like something from Armed Forces sessions but it was actually recorded after the release of Get Happy!!, in March 1980. It is a mysterious song full of swirling, fairground-style organ parts and a bit of a grating vocal. What is was all about is unclear. 

Ghost Train. From the same session as Dr. Luther's Assistant is this equally sparse, stark and enigmatic song. Both these tracks were deviations away from the sixties soul sound of Get Happy!! to a denser, more stripped back style. This is not something that would continue on to Trust, however, which was far more full-sounding and melodic.

Hoover Factory. Similar to the previous two is the appealing little song about a distinctive building on a road out of West London. I remember the building well (pictured below). The song is short and again minimalist in its backing. These songs were more in tune with the ambience of Imperial Bedroom than Trust and Get Happy!!. 


Just A MemoryThis was a romantic ballad with a distant-sounding vocal from Costello sung against a grandiose piano and organ backing. It has a bit of a "demo" feel about it. 

  

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ALMOST BLUE (1981)

(in brackets are the country artists who originally recorded the songs)


1. Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do (Hank Williams)
2. Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline & Loretta Lynn)
3. Success (Loretta Lynn)
4. I'm Your Toy (The Flying Burrito Brothers)
5. Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down (Merle Haggard)
6. Brown To Blue (George Jones)
7. Good Year For The Roses (George Jones)
8. Sittin' And Thinkin' (Charlie Rich)
9. Colour Of The Blues (George Jones)
10. Too Far Gone (Tammy Wynette)
11. Honey Hush (Big Joe Turner)
12. How Much I Lied (Gram Parsons)               

When this was released, in 1981, the album actually carried a sticker that read “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.” Many punks and new wavers were appalled by the fact that their anti-hero had released and album of Country and Western covers. Motown? Sure. Northern Soul? No problem. Rock n Roll/Rockabilly? Ok, maybe. But Country And Western? You're having a laugh, aren'tcha? Many fans pretended to like it at the time, like me I guess, just as we had with David Bowie's Pin Ups.

The move was a perverse thing that would prove to be relatively commonplace in Costello's subsequent career - he went on to dabble in folk, classical, jazz and easy-listening as well, but do do this with a deeply uncool genre in 1981 took the biscuit for nerve and sheer bloody-mindedness. Costello said that "anyone who can string together three chords can play rock 'n' roll", or something like that, saying that he wanted to push himself and the band beyond current constrictions. However, I'm not sure the gentle strum of country music would provide such a stimulus.

Costello had also stated that "maybe I could just get away from myself for a while and throw the light on the emotional side of what I do...". He had always liked a tear-jerker of a ballad, and country music offered him plenty of them. Although all the songs on here are covers, the genre would continue to influence his songwriting over subsequent years. He didn't want to get too far away from what The Attractions were doing, though, and made it clear to the band that this was just a brief diversion.

                 
Actually, I always liked the single releases Good Year For The Roses and Sweet Dreams and also the frantic, bluesy Honey Hush and the melodic, piano-driven Gram Parsons cover, How Much I Lied.

The frantic opener, Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do had lots of appeal too. It had an irresistible attack and energy to it that was almost, well, dare I say punky. If anyone thought Costello was going to be tamed in Nashville, as maybe Bob Dylan had been for Nashville Skyline, this sort of proved them wrong, as too did Honey Hush.



















As the years have passed, however, I have found I have come to appreciate the others like Brown To BlueSuccess and the archetypal country self-pity of Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down a lot more. Sittin' And Thinkin' has crept in to my consciousness as well.

I'm Your Toy is another suitably lachrymose ballad that seemed to suit Costello's delivery down to the ground. It is taken from The Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin album where it is credited as Hot Burrito #1.

Colour Of The Blues and the moving Too Far Gone both fit the same bill too. 

Taken for what it is, a New Wave artist trying his hand at the Country & Western music he loved, it is an enjoyable effort. It is clear he knows his country music, by both his choices of songs and the respectful delivery of them. He makes this far more than just a vanity project.  Fair play to Costello for having the balls to release it at the time too. It didn't really go down to well with many people at the time, though, not that you ever got the impression that Costello really cared. He was confident enough now as an artist to plough his own furrow, and indeed has done ever since.

  
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TRUST (1981)

1. Clubland
2. Lovers Walk
3. You'll Never Be A Man
4. Pretty Words
5. Strict Time
6. Luxembourg
7. Watch Your Step
8. New Lace Sleeves
9. From A Whisper To A Scream
10. Different Finger
11. White Knuckles
12. Shot With His Own Gun
13. Fish 'n' Chip Paper
14. Big Sister's Clothes                     

Before taking a huge gamble with 1981's gamble of an album of Country & Western cover versions in Almost Blue, Elvis Costello & The Attractions came up with their most eclectic and polished album to date. Whereas the previous outing had been the twenty-song, short, sharp attack of the soul/Motown/Stax vibes of Get Happy!! The Attractions stuck to their to their trademark organ and bass-dominated sound for much of this album, but also, tellingly, experimented with other influences as well. There were jazzy bits, frantic punk energy, torch song balladry and a country song, for the first time. Steve Nieve's piano is also more to the fore than his organ. It was a complex, sophisticated album that showed just how far the new wave had developed in such a short period. This was far more than fist-punching punk rock, (not that Costello had ever delivered that) - it ploughed furrows that were far more innovative and creative. It is clever, witty and solidly rocking too.

Surprisingly, Costello has since said that it was by far his and the band's most drug and drink-addled recording of their career. You would never have known - the musicianship is vibrant, crisp and clear and Costello's delivery anything but slurred. If I hadn't read this, I would have said the exact opposite - that this was their most professional and sober album! Apparently, Costello also revealed later that various tracks were influenced by other artists - Clubland by The Police; You'll Never Be A Man by The Pretenders; White Knuckles by XTC; Fish 'n' Chip Paper by Squeeze and Big Sister's Clothes by The Clash. I can't say that any of those comparisons had struck me, but if Costello said he based the songs thus then no doubt he did. 

   

The country sound appears in the catchy A Different Finger, but there are other styles too - a torch song-style sparse piano-driven ballad in Shot With His Own Gun; a frantic, punky blues in Luxembourg; Get Happy!!-style soul in the addictive Strict Time; and a more typical Attractions sound in the beautifully evocative Watch Your Step, the jazzy ClublandNew Lace Sleeves and the jaunty Fish 'n Chip PaperLovers Walk has an absolutely addictive staccato beat to it, while You'll Never Be A Man  is a rousing new wave anthem. 

The duet with Squeeze's Glen TilbrookFrom A Whisper To A Scream is another enjoyable highlight. Big Sister's Clothes is a Costello classic, full of those wonderful lyrical couplets.

White Knuckles is dark and sombre beneath its typical Attractions backing. Pretty Words and the afore-mentioned You'll Never Be A Man both have killer hooks, the type of which Costello could trot out in his sleep by now. He is doing far more than just going through the motions though. These are immaculate, finely-tuned contemporary pop songs. Tuneful, yet cynical at the same time.

  

Costello was moving, however, into a slightly more mature style of composition. This album was something of a benchmark as Costello began to move slowly away from the constrictions of "new wave”. The musicianship on the album is excellent throughout, more inventive than it has ever been, but it is never allowed to become indulgent and, while this is a creative album, it is always down-to-earth, never pretentious. 



Some of the most notable non-album tracks from this era were:-

Black Sails In The Sunset. This is a most delectable track, with a lovely bass line and piano melody. Costello's yearning vocal gives the song great feeling. I am surprised that it didn't make the cut for the album as it is one of his best songs from the time.

Big Sister. A rocking, frenetic version of Big Sister's Clothes that has Costello spitting out the lyrics over a clunking piano backing. There is a further extended alternative version, which is twice as long and is slowed down to a trundling pace. It almost sounds as if it has been slowed down too much, and it goes on too long.

Twenty-Five To Twelve. This is a very typical Costello song from this period, and sounds like others on the album - driven by vibrant piano as opposed to organ, pounding drums, solid bass and Costello's couplet-based lyrics sung in a deep soulful fashion. It is a fast-paced, attractive number. It a quality reject. Bruce Thomas's bass is rumblingly superb. There is also a bit of the Get Happy!! album in its backing.

Sad About Girls. A track that would not have sounded out of place on Imperial Bedroom, with its laid-back, but bassy and tinkling piano style. It is another song that makes you think "my goodness there is some seriously good material left on the cutting room floor here...".

Slow Down. A cover of the old Larry Williams song, previously done by The Jam on their In The City album. The Attractions and Elvis rock out convincingly. It is the sort of thing that would have gone down well live, and it was performed occasionally.

Love For Sale. Cole Porter's song is delivered by Costello crooningly, over a subtle guitar background. Elvis always liked to do a few peaceful torch songs like this.

Weeper's Dream. Also in the same vein is this very Style Council-esque brief guitar instrumental.

Gloomy Sunday..and again, more laid-back fare in the smoky, late-night sorrowful sound of this ballad. This provided a pointer to much subsequent Costello material. It started here.

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IMPERIAL BEDROOM (1982)

1. Beyond Belief
2. Tears Before Bedtime
3. Shabby Doll
4. The Long Honeymoon
5. Man Out Of Time
6. Almost Blue
7. ...And In Every Home
8. The Loved Ones
9. Human Hands
10. Kid About It
11. Little Savage
12. Boy With A Problem
13. Pidgin English
14. You Little Fool
15. Town Cryer      

By 1982, the “new wave” had faded somewhat, the two tone thing had gone the same way and the preposterous flouncings of “new romanticism” abounded. Little more than five years and six albums later - was Elvis Costello still relevant? His previous album had been received with incredulity from may of his punk/new wave fans because it was an album of country and western songs. While Almost Blue was what it was, it must be remembered that the album nine months previous to that, Trust had been a mini-masterpiece of polished, organ-driven, bassy pop with Costello's now trademark cynical lyrical edge to the fore. It was also notable for its delving into different styles, though, and this is continued on this, arguably his best album. 

Although commercially, his star was waning a little bit, he remained highly respected and showed himself to be an artist who was prepared to diversify and push his own boundaries, albeit still at the moment within the confines of his band, The Attractions. He certainly did that with this, which in many ways was his Sgt Pepper.

                   
Ironically, employing the very engineer who worked on Pepper, Geoff Emerick, Costello and his band produced a “chocolate box” of an album, with tracks differing from track to track, from the short and snappy, bass-driven Beyond Belief and Tears Before Bedtime to the tuneful pop of Human Hands to the longer, mysterious, edgy Shabby Doll


Then to the gentle piano ballad of The Long Honeymoon and the slow torch song Almost Blue. A great pop single is there in the catchy, riffy You Little Fool and Man Out Of Time is classic overblown Costello. Little SavagePidgin English ...And In Every Home and the echoey Kid About It are all equally impressive. 

The musicianship is top class throughout and, as we had now come to expect, beneath what sometimes appeared jaunty, catchy melodies lay dark, sombre lyrics and images. There is a bitterness and a brutality the like of which, even for Costello, had not been expressed before. Songs like Tears Before BedtimeThe Loved Ones and Human Hands are all awash with lush orchestration and sonic perfection, yet bristle with that perplexing angst that Costello was rapidly making his own. You can say the same about the slow ballad Boy With A Problem and the moody closer, Town Cryer

It is certainly not an instantly appealing album. There is nothing on it that can be approximated as "rock" music. It is an exercise in trying to produce pop perfection, but with a lyrical cutting edge. For that reason, it took me quite a long time to “get into” this album when it came out. To be honest, it was probably fifteen years or so later that I really began to truly appreciate it. Therein lies its appeal, however.  Even now, I still find it a fascinating listen. Highly recommended. It still sounds good today. Most importantly, it is the first album that gained Elvis Costello true respect, across he board, not just from his fans or peers.

There were many non-album tracks that came from this period. These are some of them:-

Little Goody Two Shoes. Dating from November 1981, this song has two versions. The first is a frantic, harmonica driven piece of blues rock, the second a slowed-down, jazzy blues number. Both are equally impressive and enjoyable.

I Turn Around. This hails from February 1982 and has a lively Get Happy!! beat to it and an infectious bass line. Its organ sound goes right back to the Armed Forces era. It has a couple of lines that would re-appear in 1983's The Invisible Man

From Head To Toe. A cover of a Smokey Robinson & The Miracles song, it is also from February 1982. It is a suitable toe-tapping, energetic number featuring a glorious Motown bass line. Elvis and The Attractions do this really well. A rocking piano drives it along, together with some lively drums.

The World Of Broken Hearts. From the same sessions comes this Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman cover. It is given a grandiose Costello ballad makeover. It doesn't quite do it for me, being a bit too melodramatic vocally.


Night Time. This is a cover of a song by an artist called Paddy Chambers, whose work I am not familiar with. It is played slightly jazzily by The Attractions and would have fitted nicely on the Trust album, if it had to go anywhere. 

Really Mystified. We now get a fourth cover, this time going back to the sixties and The Merseybeats. It was as if Elvis was just having a bit of fun with these covers in the studio and had no intention of putting them on the album. This is a very sixties/Beatles-ish number, typical of its era.

The Stamping Ground. This was the 'b' side to You Little Fool. It is a slightly mournful, slow-paced Costello original. It is a reasonable track, with a good hook, but probably not worthy of being on the album. 

Imperial Bedroom. Now, this really should have been on the album that bears its name. It is a piano-driven waltz of a number with some killer, rumbling bass and some great vocals from Elvis. The hook is memorable and I have found myself singing "In the imperial bedroom, the regal boudoir..." many times. 

Seconds Of Pleasure. There are a couple of versions of this track. I am sure some of the lyrics end up on a song on Punch The Clock. Both the versions are Costello singing over a clunking piano backing. The "demo" version is marginally better than the eventual recording, although both date from the same session. The song meanders around without ever getting where it was heading, for me. 

  

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PUNCH THE CLOCK (1983)

1. Let Them All Talk
2. Every Day I Write The Book
3. The Greatest Thing
4. The Element Within Her
5. Love Went Mad
6. Shipbuilding
7. TKO (Boxing Day)
8. Charm School
9. The Invisible Man
10. Mouth Almighty
11. King Of Thieves
12. Pills And Soap
13. The World And His Wife       

For me, the great period of Elvis Costello & The Attractions began with the first album together, 1978's This Year's Model and continued until the highly impressive, career high of 1982's Imperial Bedroom. The following year, during a period when "New Romanticism", preening pop poseurs and synthesised, electric keyboard-dominated music were everywhere, Costello released an album of upbeat, pop songs, but ones driven by melodic piano riffs and punchy horn sounds, backed up by female backing vocals. It was a catchy album, with not many archetypal, mournful, bleak Costello laments. It was, it would seem, a deliberate attempt to produce an album that would appeal to the mainstream pop audience. It did, and it didn't. There were two excellent singles, that are actually the the first two tracks on the album - the pulsating, horn-driven Let Them All Talk and the instant likeable Everyday I Write The Book, with its easily singable chorus.

Most of the album's other material was lively, full of horn attack and convincing vocals, but it was still Elvis Costello, packed full of oblique lyrics and killer, cynical couplets, like that found on the otherwise jaunty Love Went Mad - "I wish you luck with a capital 'f'...". Costello, really, despite a few hit singles, would always be something of a cult artist, despite the fetching, rather showy leather jacket he sported on the promotional pictures. I did buy a similar jacket myself, however. In all seriousness, though, the jacket showed Costello trying to be showy. All that raw, punky edge had dissipated, as, of course, had the whole punk ethos in general. These were the worst traits of the mid eighties. Fashion and music was expected to be showy. A sun-tanned David Bowie was wearing a suit and tie, Paul Weller wearing pristine white denim jacket and trousers, Mick Jagger similarly bright, pastel-shades. Music had to be poppy, too - Let's Dance, Shout To The Top and the like. Costello was trying, unconvincingly at times, to plough the same furrow.

  

All the tracks are appealing in their very similar way - the funky The Greatest Thing; the piano boogie backing from Steve Nieve on Love Went Mad; the typical Costello cynicism on the bassy King Of ThievesMouth Almighty and the slow, soulful Charm School.

The Element Within Her and The Invisible Man hark back to the Motown-influenced, short piano-driven romps of the Get Happy!! album. It is almost as if he is trying to re-create his previous successes, though, somehow.

TKO (Boxing Day) is another one that features a mighty, strident horn riff, as also does The World And His Wife. All these tracks are quite indistinguishable from each other in some ways - all containing addictive hooks in some places, immaculate piano and bass and lots of classic Costello lyrics.

   

What is left? The two intense, evocative slow numbers - the Falklands War-referencing Shipbuilding with its stately feel, emotively-delivered vocals from Costello and simply wonderful French horn solo at the end. A truly mighty track. The animal welfare anthem, Pills And Soap is stark and staccato, sombre and bleak in its message and majestic in its piano and vocal set-up. These two songs are the album's two real classic moments.

This is not a bad album, for sure, but for some reason it is not one I return to very often if I am in a Costello frame of mind. There is something about it that makes me feel Costello was trying too hard to be something he wasn't. Imperial Bedroom, in contrast, had been effortlessly brilliant.



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GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD (1984)

1. The Only Flame In Town
2. Home Truth
3. Room Without A Number
4. Inch By Inch
5. Worthless Thing
6. Love Field
7. I Wanna Be Loved
8. The Comedians
9. Joe Porterhouse
10. Sour Milk Cow Blues
11. The Great Unknown
12. The Deportees Club
13. Peace In Our Time                        

This was widely accepted as a nadir in Elvis Costello & The Attractions' recording career - his Never Let Me Down, his Dirty Work. Even Costello himself dismissed it as their worst piece of work. Tensions were high between Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas at the time and Costello disbanded his high-successfulband soon afterwards. Thomas would only return briefly, in the nineties, and when he did, they fell out again. I actually quite like the album in parts, strangely enough. There is some good material on it, but you always get the impression that the production went awry somewhat and some of what were potentially good songs ended up sounding a bit half-baked.

This is true of tracks like The Comedians and Joe Porterhouse - they have some great lyrics, the usual Costello couplets but they don't seem to quite reach their potential. There is still a lot of synthesised pop abounding, a left over from the previous year's Punch The Clock. However, the slick, polished, laid-back poppy vibe intended to be achieved on The Only Flame In Town and the jazzy, smoky I Wanna Be Loved largely gets there, for me. Both these tracks are different from Costello, and all the better for it.

  

Home Truth is a typical, clunky piano-driven slow number, as also is the atmospheric and jazzy Inch By InchRoom Without A Number is a lively, invigorating shuffle rocker, while Worthless Thing and Love Field are two of my favourite Costello songs. The former is lyrically and musically beguiling, with an addictive hook and an excellent Costello vocal, while Love Field is mysterious, brooding and sublime in places. Listening to these tracks I have to say that this is not a bad album at all, certainly nowhere near as bad as many have said it is, and, for me, I definitely prefer it to Punch The Clock. The sound on it is excellent too.

  

The old "Side Two" of the album includes the two tracks I mentioned earlier that don't quite make it and a couple of raucous, Costello-blues in Sour Milk-Cow Blues and the enjoyable The Deportees Club. Both are lively enough, but a bit throwaway if I am brutally honest. The Great Unknown is another that doesn't quite get there. However, Peace In Our Time is the one true Costello classic that always comes up with, whatever the album. It is moving, meaningful and backed by some excellent brass.

As I said, this is not a truly awful album, not in any way, but this is Elvis Costello we are talking about. The mid eighties were a truly dreadful time for music. Elvis Costello simply suffered during it, as did everyone else. This definitely marked the end of Elvis Costello as a pop performer, however.


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KING OF AMERICA (1986)

1. Brilliant Mistake
2. Lovable
3. Our Little Angel
4. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
5. Glitter Gulch
6. Indoor Fireworks
7. Little Palaces
8. I'll Wear It Proudly
9. American Without Tears
10. Eisenhower Blues
11. The Poisoned Rose
12. The Big Light
13. Jack Of All Parades
14. Suit Of Lights
15. Sleep Of The Just           

Two years since his last album with The Attractions, which had been the half-realised and patchy Goodbye Cruel WorldElvis Costello returned with a session band of US musicians steeped in country rock and folk and produced this interesting album. He returned to his folk-rock roots for much of the material on the album, and the material features some of his finest songs for many a year.  His muse seemed to have well and truly returned, and the album sees him completely rejuvenated. It was the kick up the backside he needed to give himself. His days as a punk anti-hero were now long gone. He was now well on the path to being an established, mature, creative artist. Singles and chart success did not matter anymore.


                  
The album is absolutely pack full of excellent songs, and also, despite its rootsy edge, the sound quality is excellent and that befits the musicianship on view. There is a huge country tinge to a lot of the material, but it is one that backs Costello's wonderful lyrics, as opposed to 1981's Almost Blue, which was populated with covers of country standards. It is also very much an album of Americana. The catchy, lilting acoustic folk of Brilliant Mistake exemplifies this. A cynical tale of the mainstream US media. Lovable is a rockabilly-style bluesy romp, while Our Little Angel is total steel guitar country, but it has a captivating hook to it. Costello's cover of The Animals' sixties classic Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood is more than convincing. It is vibrant and powerful, suiting him down to the ground.

  

Glitter Gulch is back to the jaunty, folky country blues and Indoor Fireworks is a typical Costello ballad with country airs. Little Palaces and I'll Wear It Proudly are classic Costello slow numbers, full to the brim with cutting lyrics. I love American Without Tears - a folky, moving number concerning GI Brides from World War Two who left Coventry for a sad life in the USA with their whirlwind-romance GI husbands. Eisenhower Blues is a full on rocky blues thumper, and The Big Light has a fast-paced shuffling country blues style too, with a sort of stand up, throbbing bass groove. The Poisoned Rose is a mournful lament of a ballad.

The album ends with three copper-bottomed Costello corkers - Jack Of All ParadesSuit Of Lights and Sleep Of The Just. The former are very Attractions-like in style, full of uplifting piano riffs, but enhanced by the breadth of the musicianship and slick production of the team involved with the production of this album. The latter, and closing track, is an emotive song about a girl and her unfortunate dalliance with a soldier, sung over a haunting organ backing. It is a harrowing tale upon which to close what has been a varied and constantly interesting album. Up there with Costello's best of all time.

  

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BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (1987)

1. Uncomplicated
2. I Hope You're Happy Now
3. Tokyo Storm Warning
4. Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head
5. I Want You
6. Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind
7. Blue Chair
8. Battered Old Bird
9. Crimes Of Paris
10. Poor Napoleon
11. Next Time Round                                       
This was the last album in "phase one" of Elvis Costello and the Attractions' recording career, the final one after eight years of superb releases. Relations between the band were strained after non-stop touring and recording over that breakneck punk/new wave period and they recorded this album all in different rooms, listening to each other's contributions on monitors but playing in isolation. This was supposedly to get a "live" feeling in the recording, and indeed they played at stage volume (you can tell, it is a loud album), but also the fact they couldn't stand the sight of each other was helped by this set-up. The sound is nowhere near as good as on 1984's Goodbye Cruel World or earlier in 1986's King Of America, it is much more crashing.

The first two tracks are deafeningly loud - the grinding, throaty Uncomplicated and the frantic, vintage Attractions swirl of I Hope You're Happy Now. A lot of people do not like the lengthy, one-paced, wordy Tokyo Storm Warning, but I have always quite liked it. It is crammed full of images and perplexing references. Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head is an organ-driven soulful classic Costello mid-pace number, with its lyrical hooks and typical Costello vocal.

  

I Want You is an absolutely magnificent piece of paranoid jealousy put to music, in an insistent, acoustic ballad form that has a bitter, vitriolic Costello spitting out his invective against a lover who has left him for another. It is one of the great "anti-love songs" of all time. Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind is a straight ahead bluesy Costello rocker. Blue Chair is less confrontational, more melodic and catchy in that Stax/Motown-influenced Get Happy!! sort of way. It is a great track. Always been a favourite of mine.


Another superb cut is the evocative and slowly building, dramatic Battered Old Bird. To this day, I have no idea what is about, but it sounds full of conviction. Costello's vocal is excellent on this. Crimes Of Paris is an upbeat and instantly hooky number that would have made a good single, but wasn't one. Poor Napoleon is sort of buried in swirling keyboards before another top notch vocal finds its way through. Next Time Round proceedings with a raucous piece of mid-pace rock of the sort that characterised the beginning and end of the album so dominantly. Costello had spat out the lyrics and thrashed out the chords on this album, which is a bit of a cold one, emotionally, it has to be said. There is a nastiness to a lot of the lyrics.

Despite that, you can't really tell that all was not well with The Attractions on this outing. It sounds upbeat, energetic and powerful. A genuine Costello "rock" album. They would not record together for another eight years.

  

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ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS: THE BEST OF THE FIRST TEN YEARS

 

This is an excellent compilation from this outstanding group who arrive on the coat-tails of punk and became a leading light in the "new wave" genre of the late seventies/early eighties.

Elvis Costello's bespectacled "anti-hero" image was the thing people remember, and his lyrics - always described by writers as being "ascerbic". Their sound also featured Steve Nieve's instantly recognisable organ sound Pete Thomas's pounding, rhythmic drums and Bruce Thomas's (no relation) inventive, melodic bass.

This compilation covers the best of the albums from 1977's debut My Aim Is True to 1986's Blood And Chocolate. Costello would not record again with The Attractions until 2004's Brutal Youth. Actually, My Aim Is True's music was played by Clover, an American session group and there are two tracks from the solo album King Of America, otherwise everything else is with The Attractions.

The group put out some seriously great new wave singles - Oliver's Army,  Radio RadioWatching The DetectivesI Don't Want To Go To ChelseaAccidents Will Happen, the sixties soul cover I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down and High Fidelity. Other highlights that were not really in the new wave category were the country song Good Year For The Roses and the poppy Everyday I Write The Book. There are also some great album tracks on here too, like New Lace SleevesBeyond Belief and Shipbuilding.

The compilation ends with the decidedly non-commercial, cynical "anti-love song" in I Want You. Great stuff. Highly recommended if you just want to dip into classic early Costello. The sound is remastered too, and is of high quality.



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