MFT Blog, March 7, 2009

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MFT Blog
  • 2009 March 7



Armed Forces in America

The marketing of Elvis Costello

John Scot Sheets

On March 11 1979, Elvis Costello and the Attractions played the IU Auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana. On March 14 in Columbus, Ohio, he hit the wall.

The part I remember the most was they had these green lights that shot horizontally across the stage instead of shining down on the band. Elvis ordered the audience to stand up, bass player Bruce Thomas executed an amazing cross-legged drop to the stage. PLOP! I think the band thought they were shaking us out of our malaise.

I had no malaise, I had been standing since the first note, pissing off the older (he was 21, 22 max) guy with the frowning girlfriend sitting next to me. She was armed for bear, scowling and commenting on any lyric with a hint of political incorrectness. I helped her by singing along.

In March of 1979 CBS records was ready for Elvis to bring home the bacon, Armed Forces had just been released in January and the record company had high hopes for the critics darling, the album we got was an "American Version" with a different cover and track listing, just like The Beatles!

The King was on a hot streak, having released three monster records in a short period of time; just like Dylan in 1964 through 1966! Of course Bob had a major crash and burn after a grueling tour promoting the best of his trilogy, and never reached that level of intensity again.

The key track on Armed Forces was "What's So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding" which was written by producer Nick Lowe. This song had no keyboards and Elvis sang at the bottom of his register kind of in a Springsteen way, it was polished and shiny and had hit single written all over it. Properly promoted, all the Bob Seger fans making the Journey from Kansas to Chicago could go New Wave dancing to it. I loved it, still do.

I had just shaken off prog rock, was too dumb to understand Jazz and loved the Sex Pistols, Television and Cheap Trick. I was the consumer CBS was looking for.

None of my friends at Ball State would go to Bloomington with me to see Elvis, no one! I finally found a ride with some friends of friends of friends who were going to the show, the only catch was they had to go to Fort Wayne first to catch the ride to IU. I spent two hours with these guys in a suburban Fort Wayne bedroom smoking hideous pot that looked like lawn clippings and listening to The Rocky Horror Picture Show LP on a close and play waiting for the ride to show up. All the while this kid's mom was banging on the door threatening to kick us out, call the police and/or beat us up.

The Rubinoos opened the show, I thought they were pretty good. I think they even did a cover of "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies.

The hottest new wave hits blasted from the PA in-between sets. I remember hearing "Gary Gilmore's Eyes." The place was packed, I was sitting by myself, all wound up after the long trip, and the guy and his date sitting next to me were almost too easy to offend.

The show was loud, fast and brief. The house lights came on right after the last note. I think he had a "no encore" rule.

These guys were on the road constantly from 1977 to March of '79, how they ever had time to make three LPs is a miracle. I do give a lot of credit to Nick Lowe and his "bash it out and tart it up later" production technique, but no wonder things went bad. I imagine a meeting in a boardroom at CBS going something like this:

Executive #1: Hey.... Elvis Costello got in a fight in a bar in Columbus Ohio with Bonnie Bramlett. Executive #2: Bonnie Raitt? Executive #1: No, Bonnie Bramlett, he and his band made fun of Steven Stills and then made a racial slur against Ray Charles. Executive #2: I knew those punk rockers were bad news. Steve Stills, he's a top money earner for us, we can't make him mad. What was Ray Charles doing there? And so on??..

This was Elvis's motorcycle wreck, fighting with a girl and using the n-word to describe Ray Charles (who of course wasn't there). Fighting with a girl? Of course Elvis was not a racist, he had just produced the first album by the Specials, done a huge Rock Against Racism show in London, blah, blah, blah.

Armed Forces did go Gold in America in 1979 with sales in excess of 500,000. America yawned, put on a Toto record and went back to sleep.


MFT Blog, March 7, 2009

John Scot Sheets recalls Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Sunday, March 11, 1979, Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington, IN.


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