A recently released third alum indicates that Elvis Costello will be one of the few acts to survive rock's New Wave. Armed Forces (Columbia JC 35709) is, first of all, a good album, but it will probably zip up the charts, too, because the first 200,000 copies include a bonus single that rivals its mother record.
The company figures it this way: The idea of the bonus as a collector's item will get Costello's small, devoted cult into the stores right away; these hasty purchases will show up on the sales charts very quickly; the chart action will attract attention from radio programers; and the radio airplay will expose it to the mainstream rock audience that has thus far ignored Elvis.
Are you still with me?
I know this sounds a bit like a conspiracy, but I'm told the modern word is "marketing." The marketing theory says that the person who buys copy No. 200,001 won't really be getting cheated because the cover of his copy won't promise the bonus single. He may feel a bit strange about the 199,999th customer who just left the store, but he won't have been cheated.
And whether it be conspiracy or skillful marketing. the main reason the strategy is likely to work is that both the album and the single are admirably well done and deserving of attention.
Costello is, of course, the bookish fellow whose photo accompanies this week's column, and one of the last angry young men. Compared to Elvis, most of today's rock singers (i.e. Rod Stewart) sound most interested in their own comfort.
Despite some obviously attractive features — the production, for example. is more elaborate than on Costello's first two LPs and fleshes out his catchy tunes more skillfully — Armed Forces directs its anger in less accessible directions. They are likely to captivate listeners, but only after some regular exposure.
And it can take some perseverance to get to that point. Costello's voice is rough and often irritatingly intense and his band is far from being the precision rock machine that, say. the E Street Band has become for Bruce Springsteen.
Nick Lowe did the producing, as he has on all of Costello's records, and it seems likely that this disc would be far less successful without his harmoniously pop ear. Lowe's biggest accomplishment here was figuring a way to make Costello's backing trio. The Attractions, sound like more than a punk bubblegum outfit.
The organ sound, for instance, still resembles the warbling pitch of ? and the Mysterions, but here it contributes a precise and solid foundation for many of the tracks. Costello is a decent guitar player, but does few leads here. the bass often taking a lead role instead.
But for this observer, at least, the result is a record that is more admirable than listenable. Armed Forces is a title that suggests direct Ideas performed with little subtlety. This album was originally to be called "Emotional Fascism," and that title would have been more to the point.
Elvis is upset about a lot of things and he discusses them in a very volatile and personal manner through a complex set of lyrics. If you share his feelings, you'll love this album; if you're in doubt, you'll probably only find some of it appealing.
There are a dozen songs here, all of them intriguing, but only a few that are sure to strike those still outside the Elvis cult. "Accidents Will Happen" and "Senior Service" get the disc off to a fascinating start, but soon the production details start to overtake the songs in appeal, as on "Oliver's Army" and "Big Boys." "Party Girl" ends the first side in a flurry of lyrical double entendres and a particularly intricate arrangement.
"Goon Squad" is a dramatically written, driving rocker that suggests the strongest natural talent on Elvis' part. Lowe builds an orchestra from the novelty organ sound that serves the Attractions so well. "Chemistry Class" is also attractive.
The LP's closer, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," projects an intensity not often heard in the studio. This may be the show stopper when Elvis and the boys come to the Uptown Theater March 9.
The single enclosed with the first 200,000 copies, Live at Hollywood High (School), adds quite a bit to this release's desirability. It begins with a soft version of "Accidents Will Happen," backed by a very melodic piano and featuring a surprisingly pleasant vocal.
Then comes "Allison," the only ballad from Costello's first LP, in another spare arrangement led by the acoustic piano. According to John Rockwell of The New York Times it was while attending this concert that Linda Ronstadt got the idea of how she would sing the song for her current Livin' in the USA album.