If you caught the Christmas edition of Saturday Night Live, you saw the replay of a fascinating performance and statement by England's Elvis Costello.
Thirty seconds into a song, Costello signaled for his band to stop playing. The tune's lyrics, he explained, weren't relevant in America. So, he switched to a number that did have meaning here — "Radio, Radio," an attack on conservative AM radio.
Spontaneous or not, Costello's move apparently caught the show's staff off guard. The NBC program has hosted pop rebels (the Rolling Stones) and pop weirdos (Devo), but everyone had played by the rules. They stuck on camera to the material agreed upon in rehearsal. Costello's switch, he said, angered the staff.
"That show's a joke," Costello said later. "I didn't think much of it at the time, but looking back I can see where we challenged the idea of that being a live program. We did something really live and they freaked out. They were waving their fists from behind the camera at us.
"I think they were worried more about their timing than over whether we would say anything obscene. Jimi Hendrix went on live television once and he wouldn't stop playing. They finally had to cut him off. We didn't have anything like that in mind.
"We just decided to do a more appropriate song. What's wrong with that? We stepped outside the show's safe little formula. That's what we need more in radio and television and music: break the formulas. They don't do anybody any good."
Given that aggressive stance, it's fitting that Costello's third album is titled Armed Forces. The LP's about combat. But it's not just the mock battle of the playful Ramones. The issues are real and the fury appears genuine.
Ever since his Born to Run album was released in 1975, Bruce Springsteen has been the darling of American rock critics. Costello — who has been nominated for a Grammy as best new artist and whose first LP was released in late 1977 — has been his main English rival. With this commanding collection, Costello narrows the gap even more.
The feverish British rocker combines the forceful social ire of John Lennon's first two solo albums and the stimulating abstract expression of Bob Dylan's choicest works. The result is an album of unusual depth and power.
For all his angry-young-man image, Costello is an idealist. He strikes out at restrictive forces. But he's far from the passive, everything-will-be-better philosophy of the '60s hippies. Even under the best of circumstances, Costello warns us in the album's opening song title, "Accidents Will Happen."
Rather than just the romantic bouts that dominated his first two albums, Costello operates this time on a wider canvas. He strikes at the forces — from schooling to bureaucracy to the military — that can derail one's ambition and individuality.
In "Senior Service," Costello warns against trading one's future for the safety and security of the norm: "They took me in the office / And they told me very carefully / The ways I could benefit / From death and disability."
But Costello remains primarily fascinated with male-female relationships. In "Big Boys" and "Busy Bodies," he deals humorously with backseat groping and other sexual frustrations. "Chemistry Class" and "Two Little Hitlers" touch on another form of romantic grappling — domination. "Party Girl" and "Green Shirt" touch alternately on soft and explosive sidelights.
Costello's music still is based on rock's simple '50s and early.'60s base, but the musical support this time — thanks to producer Nick Lowe — is fuller and more accessible. There's a circuslike dressing on "Oliver's Army" that cloaks wryly some of the song's mercenary attack, while "Goon Squad" is supported by a menacing swirl.
The strength of Costello's music is that the songs aren't elementary, paint-by-number exercises. The lyrics are provocative and insightful. He uses both clever verbal twists ("it's a death that's worse than fate") and biting retorts ("her mouth is made up but her mind is undone").
As a bonus, he ends the album with a remake of an old Nick Lowe song, "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding," that can be used as a multiple-choice quiz for your own feelings about today's social climate.
Is the song, which is sung with great fervor by Costello, meant as a '70s update of the old Dylan anthems or is it meant as a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the innocence of those times?
While the roughness of Costello's vocals and the fierceness of his style continue to make him unacceptable to the tame AM forces that he attacked in "Radio, Radio," this collection ranks with the finest albums of the 1970s.
There are still 50 weeks left in 1979, but I wouldn't want to bet against Armed Forces holding up as the year's best release. It's not often we get music as fervent and catchy as this.