High Roller, No. 1, 1979

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... Bibliography ...

High Roller
  • 1979 No. 1



This year's Elvis: More moods for moderns

Art Bubble

Elvis Costello / Armed Forces

Armed Forces was originally titled Emotional Fascism. The last minute switch perhaps indicates Elvis C.'s ambivalent but escalating flirtations with commercial success. Still, the revised title stands as a terse summation of Costello's expanding vision.

The metaphor of militarism pervades this, Costello's third superb, compelling work, as a brutal sign of the times. Elvis can no longer be brushed to one side as a malevolent, though absolutely convincing, woman-trodden misogynist-troubadour, Buddy Holly-fifties style, the cringing persona that haunted his warm-up, My Aim Is True. Nor can he be classified within his self-imposed limitations of the stunning This Year's Model, whereby Elvis pushed the frustrated social critic to the limit, precariously playing jaded devil's advocate to the vulgar fripperies and carnality of the lipstick vogue, pump it up set he loathes so much.

To the contrary, Elvis has now begun to fashion a vision of "the big picture" the way truly ambitious creators are want to strive. More and more he has become the detached and very moral observer, scanning both the globe and the heart to upend hypocrisy at the personal and political level. Formerly patient and potential psychopath, Costello sings as parapsychologist and politician on Armed Forces, at once grasping and intertwining "emotional fascism" on a human, international scale.

Take for instance "Two Little Hitlers," another in a seemingly endless Elvis catalogue of domestic drama effectively reaching for minor tragedy without an ounce of pretension and full of gallons of coffee-soaked black sobriety: "Two Little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will."

Or there is the bouncy "Oliver's Army," an archetypal pop rush of ecstatic ABBA-processed melody that sagas modern day Cromwellian mercenaries. Sings a disgusted Elvis atop the shiny surface of Spectre-like sound emanating from Steve Naive's keyboards (which form irresistible urges to dance the way "Lip Service" did last year):


"Only takes one inch of trigger / One more widow, one less white nigger... Hong Kong is up for grabs / London is full of fabs / We could be in Palestine over-run by Chinese lines / With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Times."

Almost any random line or set of lines in this sweeping album could in fact be quoted to Costello's benefit. He is simply that talented a songwriter. His puns are court jester witticisms constructed from the verbiage of contemporary phraseology. "Have you got yourself an occupation;" he asks stand-offishly on "Oliver's Army." "Are you ready for the final solution?," he demands of an estranged beloved during the fetching "Chemistry Class." "I'm a guilty party, girl," he confesses to this year's Alison on "Party Girl," a tour de force ballad that at the least equals the 1977 model.

From the TV screen to the social hubbub, Costello takes clever, urgent aim with his cheek-dwelling tongue. Dictatorial polemics abound. "Big Boys" is the politics of sex, a bassy mire of ominous consequence, the true-blue troubadour's irrevocable web of entangling alliances between hatred and romantic aspirations. Snideness oozes out of every vitriolic pour of the singer as he mouths frustration in the face of a present mechanized by cheap pleasures: "I am starting to function in the usual way / Everything is so provocative / Very, very temporary."

"Green Shirt" pulsates as a sparce oddity about media busy bodies at the news hour ("Better send the Begin letter to the big investigation / Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?"), a reference back to the farcical world of world news and politics "Oliver's Army" attacked.

"Goon Squad" rumbles as another overtly militaristic view, this time of the career world: "I could be a corporal into corporal punishment / Or the manager of a large establishment." Mirky undercurrents abound via Naive's trash pop organ and Nick Lowe's eccentric production, always a force to be reckoned with on any Costello outing.

For a little relief from the vice-like grip of Elvis' didactic barrage "Busy Bodies" jangles with the snappy sarcasm of Beatles' "social commentary" and ends with beautiful Beach Boys falsettoes. As always, Costello balances mid-sixties pop rock basics with his menacing style to produce his special blend of uneasy tunefulness.

"Senior Service," a reference to a popular brand of English cigarettes of course fumes with more sardonic puns atop more urban surfer harmonies. "Accidents Will Happen," the album's lead track, defines the rage and range of emotional fascism. A chimey exercise in the futility of both words and action, brooding Elvis numbly announces: "You used to be a victim, now you're not the only one."

The victims are out in full timbre on "Chemistry Class," one of Costello's more melodramatic closet romances and which displays his characteristic chilling ability to splice frayed nerves with mechanical equipment for a truly "industrial complex": "Sparks are flying from electrical pylons / Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons."

Adds Costello with parenthetical wisdom, "If it wasn't for some accidents, some would never learn." The sense of unease that began the album in "Accidents" has been specifically underscored. Not only is our emotional fascism far-flung, but ultimately beyond our control, fundamentally an accident, not a result with root causes. Accidents will happen.

Nick Lowe's own "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding" ends Armed Forces on a brilliant note of irony. A lazy, drug'n'sun dried cliché has been uprooted from its sunny locale and been planted right in the middle of the urban garage-land. Byrds guitar twangs, high speed drumming, and Elvis' impassioned voice lends the song a riveting mid-sixties appeal with the impact of "Radio, Radio."

"As I walk through this wicked world…," grimaces the little man of boundless intensity to begin the song, and the only question that can be asked is how much longer can Costello keep pumping out almost flawless records?

Tags: Armed ForcesBuddy HollyMy Aim Is TrueThis Year's ModelTwo Little HitlersOliver's ArmyABBASteve NieveLip ServiceChemistry ClassAlisonParty GirlBig BoysGreen ShirtGoon SquadNick LoweBusy BodiesThe BeatlesThe Beach BoysSenior ServiceAccidents Will Happen(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?The ByrdsRadio, Radio


High Roller, No. 1, 1979

Art Bubble reviews Armed Forces.

Eric Sundin reviews Nick Lowe's Pure Pop For Now People.


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Page scans.

Lowesome humor

Eric Sundin

Nick Lowe / Pure Pop For Now People

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On first perusing Nick Lowe's Pure Pop for Now People, one is insulted by its audaciously tacky jacket photograph of its "artiste" in six different rock and roll costumes. I mean, here is this unknown protean sort masquerading from mop-top to southside cool who has the nerve to think that he's creating viable music. Put the disc on the gramophone and the same proteus musically assaults your ears. From early Beatles twangy guitar riffs to late McCartney cutsie "do do doos" to Elvis gutterals to Punk mono-chord music — it's all there in Lowe's chameleon pop.

What is so irritating about the first listen, however, is not the daring blend of dubious pop or Lowe's ridiculous jacket postures. Instead, it is that we find ourselves admitting that the stuff's good. Melodically, the songs are infectious. If not infectious, they are bizarre enough to be interesting. Lowe seems a master of musically wooing you into acceptance — only then to give you a supremely unsubtle lyrical bash in the face. The upbeat "Kodachrome"-ish "Nutted by Reality," the catchy "Rollers Show," the charmingly simple "So It Goes" all belie sarcastic lyric jabs at what they manifest so well — pop music. Through his lyric witticism, one gets the uncomfortable sensation that Lowe is playing a finely-honed joke on a generation cultivated on pop music pap.

Like most good parodists, Lowe succeeds at thoroughly defining the genre he parodies and then deftly puncturing its illusory bubble. The definition occurs in the excellent music; the deflation occurs in the purposely inane lyrics. Ironically, the listener's bash in the face is the success of the album. Paradoxically, Lowe's sarcastic sledgehammer gives us a queer pleasure, perhaps derived from our own realization that we, in the past, considered ourselves "now people" by embracing such "pure pop." Perhaps true enlightenment is the result of personal irritation.

The not-unrelated extremes of enlightenment and irritation are skillfully blended in each of the album's cuts. "Marie Provost" begins as a pleasing ballad of a silent film star who doesn't make the grade in Hollywood after the appearance of talkies. Initially, we are seduced into sympathy for her (as any effective pop ballad should do). Then Lowe harmonizes "She was a winner / who became the doggie's dinner" after he reveals her suicide. Sharp Lennon guitar riffs introduce "even hungry little eyes that could not speak / say that a dog has got to eat / ...the cops came in and threw up at what they found / that hungry little dachshund / poor poor Marie."

In a similar progression from pop to bitter humor, the lyrics in "So It Goes" wander from be-bop impressions of a rock concert ("The security's so tight tonight / They're ready for a tussle") to a pessimistic view of American peace-keeping missions ("...with the worthy men of Spain and Siam / All day discussions with the Russians"). Sprinkled throughout is a non-grotesque, yet nevertheless poignant, Vonnegutian "So it goes / So it goes / Where it's going no one knows."

More blatantly sarcastic tunes include "36 Inches High," "Music for Money," and "They called it Rock." The first, a laborious artsy-rock tune, replete with bizarre "cool" effects, begins "Once I was a soldier / Riding on a big white horse" and ends with a sardonic Swiftian "Once I was a ruler / About twelve inches high / Three times me made a yardstick / 36 inches high, 36 inches high / I never got over 36 inches high." Lowe's point is that pop music is fine unless one listens to its message (or lack thereof).

"Music for Money" is less subtle, if you can consider any Lowe songs subtle. Tribal drums echo "Music for money / Gibsons for gain / Reddies for roadies / Fenders for fame / ...Buckskin for bucks / Singing for sucks." Lowe adds the wry chorus "Isn't it all clear?" after a purposely repulsive Muzak ice-rink organ solo.

If Lowe hasn't made "it" clear by his album cover or the mentioned songs, he certainly freely dispenses vitreous cynicism in the Lynyrd Skynyrd / Presley hybrid "They Called it Rock" and la creme des cliches, "Rollers Show." In the former track, the story of a hot rock group's debut album is spiced with, "CBS'll give 'em a big advance / Atlantic, c'mon take a chance / Arista says they love it / But the kids can't dance to it." In the latter, seriousness is undercut by the insistent juvenile reprise "Gonna see the Rollers / Got a ticket for the Bay City Rollers / Everything will be outta-sight (dynamite)" which helps to drive one more nail in pop's coffin.

One can't resist comparing Pure Pop to National Lampoon's Goodbye Pop parody. Unlike Goodbye Pop, Lowe's gem of a musical joke endures repeated plays. Lowe's parody pop, as well as his straight ditties "Breaking Glass," "Little Hitler," McCartney-esque ("It's Only Love") "Tonight," and reggae "No Reason," are all eminently listenable despite somewhat vacuous lyrics.

Lowe's Pure Pop For Now People more than sufficiently indicates that his talent is limitless. In addition, Lowe's long and varied career as performer and producer is equally impressive. Lowe headed Brinsley Schwarz, a British mellow-rock group of the early '70's; he collaborated with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile; he produced all three of Elvis Costello's albums and masterminded others by Graham Parker, Dr. Feelgood, and the notorious The Damned, the Sex Pistols' main rival in 1976. Yet one can only hope that Lowe's talent will appear more straight-faced on a forthcoming record, since parodies can only go so far as musical classics. Then perhaps the "Jesus of Cool" (as Lowe is known in England) will amoeba his way into musical respectability not as a jack of all trades but a master of one.

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Cover and contents pages.
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