Armed Forces (2002) liner notes

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Liner notes

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Armed Forces


Elvis Costello

It was a chill and misty morning over the lake in Madison, Wisconsin. I stumbled into the deserted breakfast room. I had felt better on other mornings. I'm not sure how the subject came up, but within a couple of minutes the waiter had informed me that this was the place where Otis Redding's plane had crashed. Looking out on the evil, still water it seemed entirely plausible. It was only later that I found that it was in fact another lake in another part of town. Perhaps the fellow didn't know his local history or maybe he just liked to spook passing musicians. Nothing in America was quite what it seemed to be.

I was more used to staring out of a moving window; lately they had become the tinted panes of a tour bus. I'd got used to the staggering, half asleep, into a truck-stop in the middle of the night to squander scarce drinking money on irresistible junk — plaster statues of pining dogs and cruel hammers with which to smash them, 3-D Jesus postcards, and cut-out Conway and Loretta cassettes that played once and then unraveled.

Every shop front or nightclub sign seemed like a line from a song. In some cases that was just what they became. Wasn't there likely to be something dastardly going on at any place called the Quisling Clinic? It was just up the road from our hotel. I didn't know much, but I knew a little history. "Quisling" was the name of the Norwegian Fascist leader who betrayed his country in the Second World War. An entire Boys from Brazil-style fantasy could unravel from such a chance encounter.

Maybe the late hours and my chemical constitution were exaggerating the creeping threat, but the coincidences added the surreal edge into the sensory overload and the paranoid tone of "Green Shirt". The thugs of the nationalist parties were parading in the streets of London.

Although we played at an anti-racist festival on the eve of recording this record, I had never been that attracted to the slogan song. The last album had concluded with a song fearful of complacency, "Night Rally". It was a projection into a possible future; I was not reporting current events.

The only song based on such a banner premise was Nick Lowe's "(What's so funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?". Although the track was recorded during these sessions, it was not originally intended for inclusion on the album. It was first released under the name "Nick Lowe & His Sound" on the B-side of Nick's single "American Squirm". The producer was mysteriously pictured at the mixing desk in a pair of my horn-rimmed sunglasses, clutching a Jazzmaster with my name inlaid into the fingerboard of the guitar. I believe that Nick wrote the song as an affectionate parody of various pious '60s peace anthems. We certainly attacked the song with little sense of irony and as if it were obvious that no one knew the answer to the question that the song posed.

This album was originally to be called Emotional Fascism. Two or three half-formed notions collided uneasily in that title, although I never would have admitted to having anything as self-conscious as a "theme" running through the songs. Any patterns that have emerged did so as the record was completed or with the benefit of hindsight. Personal and global matters are spoken about with the same vocabulary; maybe this was a mistake. Betrayal and murder are not the same thing. The first of them only deadens the soul. 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.

"Two Little Hitlers" was about a loveless egotistical couple. It paints an unflattering picture of the whole courtship dance. The bridge makes passing reference to a speech from Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator ("He's an unnatural man"), but other than that had nothing to do with 20th Century history. Musically, I think the clicking guitar part came from listening to early Talking Heads records.

"Chemistry Class" was a reaction to the complacency of some of the university campuses that we visited on those first trips to America. As a teenager I'd grown up reading magazine articles about radical student politics in the '60s. At times we seemed only to encounter uncomprehending hedonism or braying superficiality. I could only imagine such people sliding blithely into some repressive future. Either that or they might find an excellent career in advertising. I wasn't feeling very reasonable or reasoned in my arguments.

I was as normal as any young idiot suddenly thrust into the charts and onto the cover of periodicals while being spoken about with exaggerated awe. If I seemed a little self-absorbed at the time, then I have to say that much duller songs have been written on the subject. The oddest and most overwrought is "Goon Squad". The rhythmic idea was borrowed from the great Don Covay record, "It's Better To Have (And Don't Need)", but we were too wound up to play it in that fashion. Added to this was a guitar figure that seems to imitate a very early record by the New York group Television. Nick Lowe's inspired suggestion — a highly amplified whisper of the title line, as if "Goon Squad" were the name of a kitsch '60s television show — provided a much-needed element of black comedy. Like "Pump It Up", it began as a reaction to the brutal and violent atmosphere of many U.K. shows of those days and the "reality" of rock and roll life but quickly became something altogether more pitiful as the last verse confesses:

Mother, Father I'm doing so well
I'm making such progress now that you can hardly tell
I fit in a little dedication with one eye on the clock
They caught you under medication
You could be in for a shock

Replace that "you" in the second to last line with a more truthful "me" and you've pretty much got the picture. The verse concludes: "Thinking up the alibis that everyone's forgotten Just another Mummy's boy gone to rotten"

This was the first record that I had written with an acute awareness of an "audience". More particularly, there was the matter of the personal attention that I was receiving and the unpleasant character that I felt I was becoming. I had left my family home and was living a totally willful life with little sense of gravity. I surrendered to temptation, committed selfish acts of betrayal, and destroyed any possibility of trust and reconciliation in my marriage.

Now whispered persuasions, ultimatums, and the closing time seductions passed for an emotional life. I was looking to discourage admiration and flirting with a sort of controlled fall from grace. As the words of "Big Boys" state: "I am starting to function in the usual, everything is so provocative, very, very temporary".

These misadventures inspired the heartless apology and barely coded confession of "Accidents Will Happen" as well as the wish fulfillment of "Party Girl". This last song was written for an art student that I barely knew. I found our meeting reported in the tatty gossip of a Mid-Western newspaper. I was handed the improbable role of "rock star" and certain assumptions were made about the character of the girl in the title. Some small kindness and tenderness passed between us, I could do no more than resent the portrayal and offer this apology. The song is not so much "hopelessly romantic" as simultaneously romantic and without hope.

The origin of "Oliver's Army" is easier to explain. I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news.

These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies marauding around the world. The song was based on the premise: "they always get a working class boy to do the killing". I don't know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems true nonetheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London.

Another song that contained thoughts of class and nation was "Sunday's Best", a slick little waltz that I had originally written for Ian Dury or at least in something approaching his style. The bewildered, xenophobic narrator was the kind of pathetic character that might have invited some pity in Ian's hands. It was also another song constructed out of shop signs and newspaper slogans.

Most of this record was written in hotel rooms or on a tour bus. I recall working on "Accidents Will Happen" in a stifling motel room in Arizona. In my mind I was writing something styled after the Burt Bacharach song "Anyone Who Had A Heart", even though I understood little of the mechanics of such a composition. This song also contained a lyrical reference from Randy Newman's "I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore", which can be found on Dusty In Memphis.

Our musical navigation came from the handful of albums about which we could all agree, records to which we listen with a disturbing and almost ritualistic frequency. These included Station To Station, Low, and Heroes by David Bowie — the effect of which can be heard overtly in the keyboard and background voices of "Moods For Moderns" and "Senior Service" — The Idiot and Lust For Life by Iggy Pop, Autobahn by Kraftwerk, and several early compilations by ABBA — including the Swedish language version that we constantly swore were superior to the U.K. releases. Finally there was The Beatles' Abbey Road album and Yellow Submarine soundtrack, especially the track "It's All Too Much".

Much of the credit for keeping the heart and pop soul of this record should go to Nick Lowe, who produced the album with Roger Bechirian engineering. The recording venue was once again Eden Studios in London, and the sessions were booked for what seemed like an extravagant six weeks. At the time, it seemed as if we were making an impossibly sophisticated leap from the sound of This Year's Model, but listening now there are very few production devices that sit between the listener and the songs. The confidence and cohesion of The Attractions' playing is the product of 12 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.

Some of the music that we were listening to on the road had an icy clean line that came straight out of art school, but it was safe to say there was little danger of Nick allowing us to take this path beyond the adoption of a few instrumental colours, the most prominent of which were Steve Nieve's use of the Polymoog and Jupiter-8 synthesizers. "Green Shirt" is driven by a loop created on a monophonic Minimoog keyboard that owes a little to the German productions listed above. However, our humour and the tone of the lyrics created something quite unrelated in the finished record.

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".

"Oliver's Army" was to be relegated to a B-side until Steve volunteered to add the piano part that owed no small debt to ABBA's "Dancing Queen". It went on to be the biggest U.K. single of our career, selling over 500,000 copies and being held at the No. 2 spot in the U.K. hit parade, while three separate singles reached No. 1, including "Heart Of Glass" by Blondie, and "Tragedy" by the Bee Gees, which presumably must have sold an even greater number, an unthinkable amount by the standard of the present day.

Meanwhile, two perfectly good tracks were left off of the album. The first was "Tiny Steps", which shared the Animals/Them-style guitar figure that drove This Year's Model outtake "Big Tears". It was probably the similarity to the previous album that led me to cut the track, although it is probably superior and less lyrically evasive than "Busy Bodies". That song contains the densest and most neurotic juggling of words in order to simply state that promiscuity wears you out. It's just about redeemed by a very ambitious vocal line and a guitar figure related to Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman".

The second song edited out of the final sequence was a modest but heartfelt song to a confidante of mine, written in the exhausted hours when lust requires only sympathy. It is called "Talking In The Dark".

"Wednesday Week" was a chillier item; a two-part trifle in which insincere lovers put each other on something rotten. The second part of the song is the most obvious sign of our affection for the Wings single that we always seemed to find on truck-stop jukeboxes.

Barney Bubbles' extraordinary pop-art sleeve design was a unique arrangement of folding panels which also included postcard studies of myself and The Attractions in "character" poses. Pete Thomas is pictured in a "James Bond" stance beside a pink sports car with two girls at his feet. Not all the other portraits were this frivolous.

Once the origami package of the original vinyl release was tackled, the "Live At The Hollywood High" E.P. was to be found. This was a snapshot of the band on the verge of success, although the source tape from the soundboard gives little sense of the audience or the atmosphere of the show. "Accidents Will Happen" was performed here as a slow piano ballad before we played what was a pretty typical set at the time. Three titles were issued on the original E.P. More songs from that show now complete the sequence on CD 2.

"My Funny Valentine" was a song that I had known since I was a child. I don't know what prompted me to record it, maybe someone was late for the session and I was just filling time. It was an oddly romantic choice in the circumstances. I just had lousy judgment in such affairs. It was later given away free on a red vinyl single at a show on Valentine's Day of 1979. Some might think that appropriate.

On the eve of recording this album a girl arrived on my doorstep from America. At best we were strangers with a coy and theoretical entanglement. I thought that she might be coming for a short visit and that I might at least satisfy my curiosity about her. However, she turned up with eight pieces of luggage like a mail-order bride and moved in. I was too stupid and vain to resist. She'd later claim to have inspired most of the songs on this record — all of which were already written when we met. This was also said about the previous release — a chronological impossibility — and many other of my compositions to this day. It is a tragic delusion about which I wish I could say: "I shall not dignify that with a response" but "dignity" doesn't come into this story.

I now had everything I needed, other than the ridicule that I seemed determined to invite. I had no way of knowing that this flirtation with disgrace was just about to begin.

— Elvis Costello

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Armed Forces liner notes (2002)


Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 2002 Rhino / Edsel reissue of Armed Forces.




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