Future Is Past, February 17, 2019

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Future Is Past



Lipstick Vogue

Elvis Costello and the Attractions

The Future Is Past

It's one of the phenomena of pop music that occasionally, very occasionally, there could be a period in an artist's life when their career is on fire. It's not just about songs or performances, it's about something that is hard to create. Largely it's about Zeitgeist and luck and being in the right place at the right time but it's also about having the right goods to fuel the fire.

In 1978 Elvis Costello was approaching that point. His first LP My Aim Is True has a lot of charm, it's probably my favourite Costello record. I bought it then and I listen to it to this day. But for all its charms, My Aim Is True is probably just the best pub rock record ever. Costello was backed by West Coast country rock band Clover. They do a great job but they are still a country rock band. A couple of the songs were even shuffles, which had been outlawed by punk rock.

But the bar had been set. Two things were apparent: Costello was a great writer and an arsey fucker. He was already setting out his own mythology, the loser in love, the catalogue of grudges, the acid tongue and the fierce intelligence. It's not a particularly attractive combination but this was punk rock, we liked things to be a bit grotesque.

Costello soon gathered a band around him. Steve Nieve on keyboards and Bruce and Pete Thomas (no relation) on bass and drums. None of them had a punk pedigree but each of them gave 100%, no more country shuffles just short sharp and, notably, melodic, songs.

Costello seemed to have songs pouring out of him and within seconds his new LP This Year's Model was in the shops. A spikey, spiteful lump of vinyl, his second record saw him at his most wanted. Costello liked Jazz, he liked Country, he liked show tunes. Costello had no reservations about the use of "wanky Beatles chords." His music was incredibly tuneful and carried a whiff of the familiar with it. "No Action" and "Hand in Hand" could almost have been Merseybeat tunes, "You Belong to Me" was pretty similar to the Stone's "The Last Time," "The Beat" referenced Cliff and the Shadows, and so on.

There were two things that subverted the nostalgia process. The first was Costello's lyrics which mainly seem to be put-downs of women. It wasn't exactly the bully boy tactics of the Stranglers but the pen is mightier than the sword and 40 years on his misogyny is disconcerting. From the opener "Every time I see you I just want to put you down," ("No Action"), "Don't you know I've got the bully boys out, changing someone's facial design" ("Hand in Hand") to the memorable "They call her Natasha but she looks like Elsie" line from "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea." There's a lot of hatred and anger; 40 years on it's not comfortable listening. It sounded better in the 70's.

Costello was so full of bile that apparently when it came for the photo session for This Year's Model he asked the photographer to play the Eagles' Hotel California so he could look really pissed off.

What has worn better is the playing. Bruce and Pete are phenomenal on this record. Pete Thomas drives things onward with some really crisp playing, a mixture of restraint and blatant showing off. Bruce Thomas is simply doing things on the bass that I just don't understand; his bass lines bubble away aggressively or sometimes swoops to the fore with little bass hooks. He's like John Entwistle with a more restrained tone, both the rhythm section gives 100% and doesn't let up.

Arguably the pinnacle of the Attractions achievements is "Lipstick Vogue." Apparently brought to life by a last-ditch performance by Pete Thomas. Pete has had spent the previous night drinking with Larry Wallis. Wallis was ex-Pink Fairies and occasional Stiff artist/producer with legendary alcoholic prowess, which may be one of the reasons his solo career never took off. Pete Thomas inevitably had a colossal hangover and was barely able to function. This makes his performance here all the more remarkable as he batters the drums into some mutated aggressive Bo Diddley beat before backing the vocals up with a tempo of speed metal proportions.

Bruce Thomas on bass is similarly inspired, most musicians would be happy to hold it together with some quarter notes, maybe a bit of walking bass. Bruce Thomas is all over the place, I suspect his lines on "Lipstick Vogue" could be a year's study for a lot of bass players.

The main sound of This Year's Model is the organ, some sort of 60's model, a Farfisa or Vox Continental, I'm no expert. It's a shrewd move though, if Steve Nieve had used a Hammond it would have sounded 60's and a bit proggy. Instead it sounds both retro and futuristic.

And, of course there is Costello guitar, vocals and lyrics:

 "Don't say you love me when it's just a rumour
 Don't say a word if there is any doubt
 Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour
 You've got to cut it out
 You say you're sorry for the things that you've done
 You say you're sorry but you know you don't mean it
 I wouldn't worry, I had so much fun
 Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
 It's you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue
 It's you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue
 Oh yeah
 Get to the slot machine, almost dead on arrival
 Just hit me one more time with that live wire
 Maybe they told you you were only a girl in a million
 You say I've got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them
 Select the control and then insert the token
 You want to throw me away but I'm not broken
 You've got a lot to say – well, I'm not joking
 There are some words they don't allow to be spoken
 Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
 It's you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue

If you weren't there, it's hard to imagine just how influential this was at the time. The critics loved it because Costello was edgy and intelligent. Despite this he knew how to play the game. He was about the same age as the Sex Pistols, but he was a proper musician who had paid his dues; any Anarchy was going to be tightly controlled.

The band were retro and also pointed a way to the future. Best of all they were exciting and tuneful. For a while Costello and the attractions were pure pop with their skinny bodies and skinny trousers and skinny ties. Teenagers bought their singles, we all danced to them at discos. Today pop is pop and rock is rock but in the late 70's bands were managing to straddle both camps.

This was going to prove incredibly influential. Soon power pop bands were springing up both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain the Jags had a hit with "I've Got Your number," which many assumed initially was in fact Costello. In the States the Knack appropriated the beat to "Pump it Up" and wrote "My Sharona." By the end of the decade pop bands were back in a way that hadn't happened since the 60's

Perhaps the downside to this was that the Thomas rhythm section would never been regarded in the same way as Jones/Bonham or Bruce/Baker because there were no long solos and we were all dancing to their music at the school disco. There's an analogy with the Motown musicians — pop music but great playing.

Costello was already on his way to his next great pop masterpiece Armed Forces. I stuck with him for a couple more records then lost interest. I'm not alone, I recently watched a YouTube video listing his 10 greatest songs and only one of them was later than the 70's (mind you they missed "Shipbuilding"). I'm sure that he wrote loads of great songs but like most artists he only had a couple of years when everyone was interested in what he had to say. But, for a couple of years he was really on fire.

Tags: My Aim Is TrueCloverSteve NieveBruce ThomasPete ThomasThis Year's ModelThe BeatlesNo ActionHand In HandYou Belong To MeThe Rolling StonesThe Last TimeThe Beat(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaThis Year's Model photographerEagles' Hotel CaliforniaJohn EntwistleLipstick VogueLarry WallisBo DiddleyThe Sex PistolsThe KnackPump It UpMotownArmed ForcesShipbuildingPower pop


The Future Is Past, February 17, 2019

The Future Is Past recalls This Year's Model and "Lipstick Vogue."


This Year's Model album cover.jpg


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