It was the 12th of July 1977. One week after quitting my day job, I found myself at a disused R.A.F. base outside the Cornish village of Davidstowe. The only structure that was not derelict doubled as the local dancehall. We were using it as a rehearsal room. In two days I would be playing in public for the first time with my new group, The Attractions.
The keyboard player, a 19-year-old student from the Royal College of Music, was easily the most impressive candidate at the auditions. He had asked to stay to hear the other players and later been discovered curled up asleep among the amplifiers, having quietly demolished a bottle of sweet cooking sherry. He was obviously the man for the job. His family name was Nason, which most people misheard as the more common "Mason", but we soon started calling him "Steve Nieve".
The bass player was a few years older than the rest of us. Bruce Thomas had played in a number of recorded bands and had plenty of road and studio experience. He had a fondness for venturing up the neck of his instrument to registers unfamiliar to other bass players. In those days he also possessed a decent sense of humour. Then again, he was from Middlesborough.
After a couple of years working in California, the drummer had arrived back in England courtesy of a major record company. They had sprung for his plane ticket after my manager, Jake Riviera, had persuaded them that he might be a candidate for a vacant drum stool for one of their new groups. However, upon arrival in London he headed straight for the studio where Nick Lowe had just mixed "Watching the Detectives". I never really entertained the idea of another drummer. Pete Thomas was three weeks older than me. I was 22 and had just released my first record.
Our live debut was second on the bill to Wayne County and the Electric Chairs in Penzance. This was about as far from "where it's at" as you could get. Any sense of the punk or "new wave" excitement that was filling weekly music papers was pretty hard to detect in the West Country. The next evening in Plymouth we saw a few girls sporting scary eye makeup, but everyone else looked like they might have been waiting for The Sweet to take the stage. On Saturday night we returned to Davidstowe to play a dance in the village hall in payment for our week of rehearsal room hire. Now we were ready for the big city.
On the afternoon of our London debut it was decided that I would perform on the pavement outside the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane where C.B.S. Records was holding a convention. Stiff Records personnel marched up and down bearing placards entreating the A&R staff to give me a contract or at least come to our show. Unfortunately, the hotel management thought we were taking part in a political demonstration, and in a short time a large number of police vehicles came roaring up to the scene. The senior inspector was not amused to find that his special squad had been mobilised to deal with a publicity stunt.
He stood directly between me and my bemused audience. He cautioned me that I was obstructing the footpath, although the opposite was clearly the truth. I took a step to the left. He did likewise. I took a step to the right. He followed suit and said, "Do that again and you're nicked". I could see in his eyes that he did not believe that I was about to turn on my heel. So I was arrested while all the other "protesters" got clean away.
Once inside the police van I mentioned that I was making my London "debut" that evening. "Not if we keep you in, sonny", snapped the arresting officer. I had already surrendered my belt and tie and was waiting to be taken down to the cells when my solicitor rang the station. I don't know what was said, but suddenly I was given a cup of tea, they completed the paperwork, and the desperado was released.
I remember much less about that night than the fact that I had to be in court the next day by 9 a.m. I took my turn among the drunks, the disorderlies, and the ladies wearing very few clothes. When I came before the magistrate, the charge was not even correct. I was fined five pounds for "selling records in the street", which I suppose had some truth to it. I thought it easier to agree than to try and explain. It was only when I reached the cashier's desk that I realised there was less than that amount of the fine in my pocket and I had to queue up for a further two hours to go before the bench again to request "time to pay". Three months later I signed a contract with Columbia Records and My Aim is True was scheduled for U.S. release.
After one hysterical trip round the U.K. club circuit, we joined the "Live Stiffs" package tour, also featuring Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, and Ian Dury. What started as a presentation of "labelmates" quickly became a pretty competitive adventure both on and off the stage. One night, while suffering from what might be politely called "assisted insomnia", I scrawled a large number of verses about this headlong pursuit of oblivion. Next morning, I mercifully threw away most of the pages, but that evening we were playing a brand-new song. Five days later, we recorded "Pump it Up" in one take. Pretty soon I would stop resisting the lure of the nightlife completely.
This Year's Model was recorded at Eden Studios, London, in a total of 11 days. The engineer was Roger Becherian, who was to work on our next four Nick Lowe-produced albums. Roger was a calm and practical foil to Nick's instinctive and emotional approach to recording. It was Roger who had the task of making a sonic reality out of Nick's directions, such as "turn the drums into one big maraca" or "make it sound like a dinosaur eating cars".
The Attractions made a huge difference to these songs. "(I don't want to go to) Chelsea" had originally used the same stop-start guitar figure as The Who's "I can't explain" (or for that matter The Clash's "Clash City Rockers"). Now Bruce and Pete came up with a more syncopated rhythm pattern and Steve found a part that sounded like sirens--although he rarely played the same thing twice, so you had to pay attention. His keyboard setup was limited to a Vox Continental organ and a cheap keyboard called an "Instapiano"--which had all the sustain and power of a musical box until cranked through an amp. I changed my guitar part to the sort of clicky figure that I'd heard on old Pioneers rock-steady records, only sped up quite a bit.
When working out songs, I always spoke in shorthand references to records that I liked. It was only after a couple of months that we discovered that Steve's appreciation of rock and roll really only extended to Alice Cooper and T.Rex. Pete, Bruce, and I had certainly listened to The Beatles and The Small Faces, and we could almost agree about the Rolling Stones--well, Aftermath at least, which was the album to which I listened more than any other at this time. "This Year's Girl" was pretty much an "answer song" to the Rolling Stones' "Stupid Girl"--though my words were much less contemptuous.
I never really understood the accusations of misogyny that were levelled at the lyrics on This Year's Model. They clearly contained more sense of disappointment than disgust. In any case, most of these songs were works of imagination rather than products of experience. The temptations and distractions of the touring life would soon enough add the more cynical and guilty edge found in "Little Triggers", "Pump it Up", and "Hand in Hand".
We were crossing a foggy mountain ridge coming into Tennessee, when the size of the task began to dawn on us. It was not going to be easy to take America by storm. The four of us plus our tour manager were jammed into a rented station wagon on-route from Atlanta, Georgia, to Madison, Wisconsin. We took turns riding "shotgun", that way you got to control the radio. It was during this journey that we managed to tune in to different parts of "Stairway to Heaven" playing simultaneously on three stations. It was not uncommon to catch the end of Linda Ronstadt's version of "Blue Bayou", only to find it had just begun on an adjacent frequency. You could have been forgiven for thinking that this was why they were called "frequencies".
We had landed in the country ten days earlier. Fresh from a 15-hour journey from London via Los Angeles, we arrived in the Bay Area at mid-evening and were confronted by the unimaginable luxury of a Howard Johnson's motel. The rooms contained king-size beds, colour television, and a bathroom. Our English hotels of that time typically featured narrow bunks with scratchy nylon sheets, a faulty black-and-white TV in the "residents lounge", and a freezing trip down the threadbare carpet to a shared toilet at the end of a dingy corridor. In the words of Chuck Berry: "Everything you want, they got it right here in the U.S.A.". I took a cab across the Golden Gate Bridge and called the driver to a screaming halt outside a record shop that was still open despite the fact that it was nearly midnight. Picking up a local music paper, I found that Iggy Pop was playing the same club in which we were due to make our American debut the next night. It took me three weeks to recover from seeing Iggy perform--with the limbs of an unstrung marionette, doing his Marlene Dietriech act with a straight-backed chair. I probably would have spent the whole tour hurling myself face down on the stage if I hadn't been holding a guitar.
Our shows went well in San Francisco. We received a pretty good welcome in the Bay Area. I even bought a couple of guitars: a red Rickenbacker six-string and the green Gretsch Country Club, which I later I used for the rhythm part on "This Year's Girl".
After an excellent start in Northern California, I took an instant and irrational dislike to Los Angeles. This was a town where nobody seemed to walk anywhere. Not being able to drive, I spent the first 24 hours in my room at the Tropicana Motel watching television. When I did venture out, I discovered regular resident Tom Waits resting in a chair in the front office and things began to look up.
The scene at our Whisky A-Go-Go show was curious. The audience consisted of young people making spectacularly misguided attempts to emulate London and New York punk style, all Halloween makeup and bin-liner dresses and a smattering of leather-skinned industry types in pressed denim, silver jewellery, and bouffant hair. It would take years and a driver's license to discover the best of this town, but at least we were playing where people had actually heard of us.
Three days later we found ourselves at a sparsely attended club in New Orleans--the atmosphere not helped by the fact that the audience were standing in a foot of water from a burst pipe. Our hotel rooms in the French Quarter had doors that had been kicked in on more than one occasion. The corridor carpet wore dark, tacky stains that were either ketchup or something more sinister. Outside on Bourbon St. we joined the gullible tourists drinking in the open air and paying a $10 cover charge to hear Clarence "Frogman" Henry sing two songs.
We headed north to share a bill with the Talking Heads in a small theatre in Atlanta that neither of us could have been confident in filling alone. The dates were so far apart that we had lots of time to take in the scenery. Every billboard or shop sign seemed like the opening line of a new song, and sometimes that proved to be the case--I was filling notebooks that would provide the lyrics of our next album, Armed Forces.
The tour proceeded across the States, encountering every reaction from curiosity to hostility until we reached the more welcoming audiences of Boston, Philly, and, finally, New York City. We even played the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park but had to lock ourselves in the dressing room to escape a furious posse of Springsteen fans when I jokingly introduced The Attractions' own "Bruce" as "the Real Future of Rock and Roll".
The following night we made our U.S. television debut on Saturday Night Live. The Sex Pistols had been scheduled for the show only to cancel after an alleged oversight regarding work permits. Needless to say the expected viewing figures for the debut of U.K. punk outrage were in our favour.
We arrived at NBC with the intention of playing a couple of songs from our live set. Maybe something got lost in translation, but none of the humour seemed nearly as "dangerous" or funny as they seemed to think it was, or perhaps they were just having a bad show. The record company interference certainly didn't help my mood.
We were getting pressure to perform a number from My Aim is True. I honestly believed that the words of "Less than Zero" would be utterly obscure to American viewers. Taking a cue from an impromptu performance by Jimi Hendrix on a late '60s B.B.C. television show, I stopped this tune after a few bars and counted off an unreleased song, "Radio, Radio". I believed that we were just acting in the spirit of the third word of the show's title, but it was quickly apparent that the producer did not agree. He stood behind the camera making obscene and threatening gestures in my direction. When the number was over, we were chased out of the building and told that we would "never work on American television again". Indeed, we did not make another U.S. television appearance until 1980. Although this clip from SNL went on to be rerun on numerous occasions, I was not allowed back on the show until 1989. However, I was forgiven in time to be invited to re-create the moment, with the Beastie Boys as my backing band, for the show's 25th anniversary special.
Back in 1977, we returned to England to find that my final Stiff single, "Watching the Detectives", had reached No.15 in the charts. Our manager, Jake Riviera, then dissolved his Stiff Record partnership with Dave Robinson, taking Nick Lowe and myself to be the first artists on the new Radar label.
Early in 1978, we recorded the last few tracks for this album. Then we returned to America. Between January and early March we played in 19 states and ended with two nights in Toronto, Canada--which were captured on the Columbia promotional album, Live at the Mocambo. The next five weeks were spent touring halls in England, Ireland, and Scotland. The last show was at the Roundhouse in London on April 16 th. Three days later we began another six weeks of American theatre dates supported by Nick Lowe and Mink de Ville. This was followed by our first European tour. Then we recorded our next album, Armed Forces.
The second CD features some songs that got away during this frantic time. "Big Tears" was the only genuine outtake song from the This Year's Model sessions. I cannot imagine why it did not make the actual album. I thought that The Clash were a really great rock and roll band, and although this opinion was most definitely not shared by some of The Attractions, I invited Mick Jones to play on one of our sessions. Despite that fact that his bandmates didn't approve of the idea either, the plan was for him to add another guitar to "Pump it Up". There is a version lying around somewhere on which he plays. However, he made much more difference to "Big Tears", and that is the track included here.
"Crawling to the U.S.A." was a song that was in our very first live set, but it never made the sessions for this album. It was finally recorded during our first Australian tour in the autumn of '78 and released on the motion picture soundtrack album Americathon, in which I had a small cameo as the "Earl of Manchester".
Our version of The Dammed's "Neat Neat Neat" was dedicated to "Chris Millar", otherwise known as "Rat Scabies", in a gesture of solidarity after the drummer got into a scrape in London. This live recording was made during the "Live Stiffs" package tour and features The Blockhead's Davey Payne on saxophone. Our live versions of Ian Dury's "Roadette Song" and the Everly Brothers' "The Price of Love" are also from late '77.
"Running out of Angels", "Greenshirt", and "Big Boys" are acoustic guitar demos dashed off in the first few days of 1978. I know this because "Greenshirt" refers to the "Quisling Clinic", a sinister sounding location simply because it put you in mind of the infamous Norwegian fascist leader. It is a real place in Madison, Wisconsin, that I passed by on our first U.S. tour, and it found its way into this lyric. I faltered over "Running out of Angels" at this session, and that was the last that was heard of it. "Greenshirt" and "Big Boys" were rerecorded for the album Armed Forces.
"You belong to me" and "Radio, Radio" are solo demo recordings, while the alternate takes of "(I don't want to go to) Chelsea" and "This Year's Girl" illustrate how the arrangements developed.
The version of "Stranger in the House" is the only decent item from several sessions recorded for B.B.C. Radio in the first year of my professional career. We always found the staff engineers unfriendly and hostile to our approach, although we were not exactly masters of diplomacy in those days. The sessions were often scheduled for unlikely daylight hours, which certainly didn't help.
The first single on Radar, "(I don't want to go to) Chelsea", went to No.16 in the U.K. charts, although it was removed by Columbia from the original U.S. release of This Year's Model (along with "Night Rally") on the pretext of the lyrical content being "too English". We followed this up with the release of "Pump it Up" and a stand-alone single version of "Radio, Radio" (which was added to the U.S. version of This Year's Model). Both of these singles charted, while the album itself reached No .4. in the U.K. charts. Our last London shows of 1977 featured a little-known support band, Dire Straits, and those locked out of the venue actually managed to stop traffic outside the club. Then again it was a very narrow street.
For a brief, improbable moment the horrified children of Britain were offered magazines featuring pop pinups of myself and the most handsome band in the world, right alongside Debbie Harry and those other blonde beauties, The Police. Thankfully for all concerned, I was just about to screw it all up completely.--Elvis Costello