"Funexcitementtravel" promised the headline of the ad Bruce Thomas answered in 1977. Appearing in an issue of Melody Maker, one of Britain's weekly music tabloids, the ad sought players for a band to back a Stiff Records singer/songwriter named Elvis Costello. Thomas, along with drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) and keyboardist Steve Nieve, were the lucky three chosen for the group that came to be known as the Attractions. Bruce Thomas's powerful grooves and melodic playing turned Costello's folkie tunes into aggressive new-wave singles that had an impact not only on the charts but on a multitude of neophyte bassists. They ate up the muscular bass riffs of "Pump It Up" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," along with the playful yet solid foundations beneath "Oliver's Army" and "Radio, Radio."
Thomas spent nearly ten years with Costello and his fellow Attractions. But by 1986, Elvis decided to try it out with other musicians, and the Attractions went their separate ways. Sort of. Bruce and Pete Thomas kept their rhythm unit intact to back the likes of John Wesley Harding (as part of the Good Liars), a Spanish pop group called Duncan Dhu, and most recently, Suzanne Vega. The two have played separately on a number of records, too; many of these were produced by Mitchell Froom, who has manned albums for everybody from Crowded House and Vega to Richard Thompson and Peter Case. In fact, it was Froom who was responsible for bringing Thomas and Costello back together on Elvis's 1994 disc, Brutal Youth. Though Costello had at times used Pete Thomas and Nieve over the 1986-'94 span, Bruce was never called. Chalk it up to personality differences.
"It was always a bit intense with Elvis," Thomas says, "because he's such an intensely demanding person — not just artistically, but personally." Maybe it was Bruce's 1991 book, The Big Wheel [Faber & Faber], that got under Costello's skin. In it, Thomas wrote about the drudgery of a musician's life on the road in an almost stream-of-consciousness form that wasn't always kind to "the Singer." But when Costello penned his counterattack on Bruce, "How To Be Dumb" (on 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, Warner Bros.), bassist Jerry Scheff was instructed to play the way Bruce would — quite a tribute indeed to Thomas's unique bass style.
"I've talked with Jerry about that," says Bruce, "because he's done some of our songs with Elvis [on albums and on tour] — and he said, `There's just no other way of playing them. They don't work with other bass lines.'" Anyone who's heard Thomas's playing on Costello's records would have to agree.
When you tried out for the Attractions, what kind of a situation was it?
Well, I think Elvis always wanted guys who had never been in bands before — he wanted punks. But the problem was they couldn't play his songs. Punk is a different sort of thrashing out, you know: one-chord, psycho riffs. You couldn't get Sid Vicious to play "Blame It on Cain," could you?
Elvis had a couple of singles out, so I bought them and learned them, and then I went to the audition and sort of pretended I was learning them for the first time. So I looked like I was really competent — "That guy picks up songs really quickly." Pete Thomas was a big [Sutherland Bros. &] Quiver fan; he used to come to all of our gigs because he was a huge fan of our drummer. And Pete said that the day he saw me getting out of a taxi in London with a guitar case, it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen — that a musician could actually travel around London in a cab. He said that moment was when he decided he wanted to be a pop musician. So in the end, he probably swung it for me — he was probably so determined to play with me he overrode Elvis's desire NOT to have me.
This seems to be sort of an ongoing theme: Elvis's desire to have you or not to have you.
I think it pretty much started as it went on, you know? I don't think he ever wanted me in the first place, and I don't think he ever wanted me back [laughs]. I was just a thorn in his side. It must be some sort of weird karmic thing or whatever that we've been thrown together and drive each other crazy.
PUMP IT UP
Your bass playing, especially then, had a really aggressive feel to it.
Well, I had probably been waiting for ten years to have a platform for my playing. A lot happened in a very short time, when we suddenly realized we were a world-class band and I realized I was probably a world-class bass player. I didn't know it then, but all of this had been building up inside me, and I decided I was going to give it my best shot. It's nerves, you know — nerves and drugs and all sorts of things.
So explain the bass riffs in "Pump It Up."
[Laughs.] It's basically the riff from "The Price of Love" by the Everly Brothers, and then it's the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" on the end — but it's the notes of "You've Got to Lose" by Richard Hell & the Voidoids. If you combine the notes of one with the phrasing of the other, you've got yourself a riff.
Did you think it out that way when you were faced with the chords?
I didn't sit down and think, I'm going to play this with that. I just started playing a riff, and then later on I thought, Hang on — this is "The Price of Love," but it's the notes of... I mean, we played "The Price of Love" a couple of times as a cover version, and Richard Hell opened for us on one of our tours — so that's how these things happen. (Here they spend a long time diving deeply into the way Bruce works out the bass line for a song, his influences, etc., which I'll skip because it's all non-EC.)
When people say Elvis is a great songwriter, they should also have to say, "But those songs would have been nothing without Bruce, Pete, and Steve." I'm amazed listening to Armed Forces almost 20 years later, because I still hear things I've never heard before.
We'll never know what would have happened if we hadn't been there, will we? You can't try infinite possibilities; you can put only one into operation, and so we'll never know what Elvis's career would have been without the Attractions, or even how his songs would have turned out. I mean, we know to a degree when he went off and did a couple of albums without us. But the classic period is just the classic period, I suppose, and that body of work will have to stand as it does.
NEXT TIME ROUND
Bruce Thomas is currently finishing up a few books, doing session work out of London and Los Angeles, and looking forward to playing with the Attractions fronted by a different singer. But he didn't leave Elvis without playing on one more album (All This Useless Beauty) and one last tour, which in 1996 brought the Attractions to the U.S. and to Japan.
Considering your 20-year history with Elvis, how did you step up to the plate one last time?
I suppose that's my job [laughs]. And I guess, in the end, there might be someone in the audience who wants to give me a job! I don't suppose we'd be doing it after 20 years if all we did was tour around doing our greatest hits. But because we'd change arrangements or go off and write books and operas and play with string quartets, just once we could come back and do a few more decent gigs. But I don't know if there's any more mileage in it now.
So you're looking for work?
Yeah. Save me.
Save you from... ?
From the Attractions. I don't mind Pete Thomas coming along, or Steve Nieve. In fact, I don't particularly want to be saved from the Attractions at all.
It's Elvis you want to be saved from.
I think you've hit the nail on the head! I might bring my chums Pete and Steve along with me. I want to be headhunted, and I'll take half the agency with me.