New Musical Express, January 6, 1979

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NME

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Out go: The politics of impotence
In comes: The impotence of politics


Charles Shaar Murray

Elvis Costello And The Attractions

Armed Forces

In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin opined that white people’s hatred of blacks is based on terror, while black people’s hatred of whites is based on fear. Without wishing to debate that particular point (as an explanation for anything at all, it seems entirely too neat and slick to be entirely convincing or satisfactory), it remains plausible to a large extent that Elvis Costello’s much-vaunted hatred of most of the unknown universe is based on a volatile combination of both.

Armed Forces was originally entitled Emotional Fascism; the change is for the worse, though a simultaneous consideration of both titles gives the prospective listener a clear indication of the album’s tenor and content than either in isolation. Armed Forces tells you what institution Mr Costello has in his gunsights this time around (and military metaphors are definitely on the menu troops, so be warned); but "Emotional Fascism" tells you what attitude is about to be subjected to both long- and short-range fire.

An oversimplification by way of recap: Elvis Costello introduced himself as a repressed, resentful cuckold caught between a desire to throttle down his revengeful impulses and mirror image desire to indulge them: he was a protagonist in a particularly gruelling kitchen-sink drama. Extricating himself from this particular setting in time for his second album, his subject matter became the fashion industry (in which he once worked in a somewhat humdrum and menial capacity), the "smart set" and the growth industry surrounding the lunatic Right in this country. He also became more of a commentator and less of a participant, and this shift in emphasis was paralleled by the merging of Costello’s voice and guitar into the collective sound of The Attractions (who now receive full co-billing on the album sleeve). In the light of the weight, power and texture of the sound currently concocted by Costello, the band and the increasingly berserk Nick Lowe production, My Aim Is True (despite its manifold merits) begins to sound like a collection of extremely polished demos.

So as we lurch and splutter into 1979, we find an Elvis Costello far removed from the quintessential outsider with the big bug eyes and the death-ray glare who slashed his way through tight-lipped domestic dramas back in ’77. We find a fully-fledged international rock star with a solid band, a tough resourceful manager (though he has been described as otherwise) and a vast amount of Corporate Bull Shit to draw on the Americas. To consider Costello still the Bitter Twisted Wimp that he so skilfully portrayed circa Aim would be about as smart as still calling The Jam a punk group or The Rolling Stones "the greatest rock and roll band in the world."

Armed Forces demonstrates Costello's skills and resources to be vastly refined and extended, his subject matter markedly more "important" and his use of persona as a prop almost totally discarded. The majority of the songs are aimed at institutionalised violence (Armed Forces), but the theme underlying the entire collection is the attitude and reflexes that represent the worst aspects of the human character and which manifest themselves socially and politically as totalitarianism (Emotional Fascism). The change of title unfortunately, reflects itself in the change of attitude with which one approaches the album: certain songs achieve a prominence by extended thematics which they might not have attained on strictly audible criteria.

To cases, therefore: General Costello's opening salvo is "Accidents will Happen," an ornate, melodic and exquisitely danceable pop song designed to lull American record executives into a sense of false security and get played on the radio a lot. It introduces the listener to the sound of the album, if not the fury: the lyrics are simultaneously incisive and oblique, while Steve Naive's keyboards and Nick Lowe's production connive to surround Costello with a dense and detailed backdrop compounded by chiming Byrds guitars and layered Beatles vocals.

"Senior Service," which follows, is the first of the "theme" songs spotlit by the album's title: a distinction not entirely deserved. As the more alert amongst you will undoubtedly have guessed it links the well-known cigarette of the same name ("it's the breath you took today, it's the death that's worse than fate.") with Her Majesty's Navy, its self-image, role, propaganda value etc, etc. It's taunt and clever, but sadly slight. Still, any nagging doubts concerning the potency of the album are allayed by what follows.

Bouncing off a chord sequence as fresh and minty-breathed as "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen," and a vocal approach almost as insufferably cute as Neil Sedaka's "Oliver's Army" examines the plight of the bewilidered teen-age soldier, the way he got suckered, the way he gets used and the was he could all too easily get used in the future.

"Oliver's army is here stay / and I would rather be anywhere else today." Costello carols and anyone still believing that Costello's work is devoid of compassion will experience considerable difficulty sustaining that delusion through a careful listening to Armed Forces.

"Big Boys," the next contender, scans sexual fascism and the way mores from older kids as much as from parents (if not more so), and the first strategic masterstroke occurs with "Green Shirt," a muted claustrophobic essay in paranoiac crystal-gazing: Angela Rippon as Irma Bunt, and 1984 as more than just convenient cliche. Folks tell me that they have already heard it on the radio (the irony is positively creamy) and in many ways its skilful evocation of environment and circumstances as well as simply mood and character is Costello's most notable achievement to date.

The first side rounds off with a fullblown love song: a territory which Costello has not stooped to conquer since "Alison" to which "Party Girl" displays a notable family resemblance. It would be churlish to draw parallels between the lyrical content of "Party Girl" and any of Costello's current circumstances, but I would suspect this song to be personal in a manner that very few of this particular batch of songs are. One looks forward with a certain morbid glee to discovering how Linda Ronstadt will handle this one. Record it Linda, I double dare you!

The second side opens less promisingly with "Goon Squad," a noisy — if well-intentioned — howl of political disgust which bears an unfortunate resemblance to what might conceivably occur if Status Quo and ELP were forced to drink gin and snort speed for forty-eight consecutive hours and then jam at the bottom of a very large oil-drum. "Busy Bodies" uses the riff from Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman" to cast a characteristically jaundiced eye at the contemporary mating game, but "Sunday's Best" is a masterstroke which matches and even outstrips "Green Shirt."

The target of "Sunday's Best" is nothing less than the worst aspects of the British Way Of Life, an institution not exactly neglected by contemporary songwriters, but rarely assailed as expertly and sophisticatedly as Costello does here. Shooting from a decidedly different and less ambitious angle, John Cooper Clarke scored a direct hit on more superficial aspects of this malaise with "You Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express," but — charming though that piece is, it's strictly kid's stuff compared to "Sunday's Best."

Set to a merry 1940's merrygoround waltz-time Costello pinpoints what the British right sees as admirable in this country, the means that they take and will take to defend it, and the consequences of these actions with a deft acerbity that one applauds even as it chills. Like a colder, angrier U.K. partner to Randy Newman's "Rednecks" (with the emphases reversed) it demonstrates qualities of observation and analysis — as well as expression — that no British songwriter currently practising could match.

What follows is light relief of the best kind: "Moods For Moderns" (a title indicative of what we doctors refer to as Overexposure To Nick Lowe And Jake Riviera) is a charming pastiche of Booker T & The MGs overlaid with an oddly disturbing ghost of a song. "Chemistry Class" is dark fun, and "Two Little Hitlers" courts the ultimate horror: It Can't Happen Here happening here. "Two little Hitlers will fight it out until one little Hitler does the other one's will / I will return / I will not burn..."

Alex Harvey played this stunt as ghastly burlesque with his live "Framed" in the last days of SAHB: Bob Geldof played it for light crisp irony with the Rats' "I Never Loved Eva Braun"; but Costello plays it as pure icy horror.

Elvis Costello (aided by his indefatigable campaign manager) is — to switch metaphors in midstream — running for President with this album. It is not inconceivable that Costello could be President in the same way that Dylan used to be President, or that Bruce Springsteen could be President if he wasn't smart enough not to run. There are rock stars who are just blokes who do music for the hell of it, because they love doing it, and because they want to say some stuff, stir some shit and make some bucks, and there are others who do it for all of that — plus they want to be President. Bob Geldof would run for President if he had a platform other than himself and his band. John Lydon has a great platform but has gone to extraordinary lengths not to run for President: so it goes.

The trouble is that it's not an election year. There are times in which rock needs a President, or at least a government and this is not one of them. Costello can content himself with choosing between becoming a rock star or a rock anti-star or simply an astonishingly gifted writer and performer with a good organisation behind him and the chance to say some positive stuff via his music and his actions. Armed Forces is an album which contains what I suspect to be some of the best rock music you'll hear this year — and it's good to know that Costello feels compassion for the victims as well as terror and rage towards the criminals — but an uneasy feeling lingers that this album is intended to achieve considerably more than that. (Nick Lowe as Minster of Culture?)

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New Musical Express, January 6, 1979


Charles Shaar Murray reviews Armed Forces.


Paul Rambali reports on the first night of the Dominion Theatre stand, Monday, December 18, 1978, London, England.


EC is featured in News, T=zers, gig guide and an ad for Armed Forces.

Images

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Page scan and clipping.


Return of the prodigal

Elvis Costello And The Attractions
Richard Hell And The Voidoids / John Cooper Clarke
Dominion Theatre

Paul Rambali

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Welcome to the working week, seven nights of Elvis Costello at London's Dominion Theatre, virtually opposite the location of the Elvis musical.

Will the real Elvis please stand up?

The pace of the evening was such that there could be no mistaking whose night it was. As Richard Hell found out, this was Elvis' crowd almost to a man, or to a woman...

Strange how some members of the fairer sex are attracted to hide their misogyny (like Jean-Jacques). Much as I sympathise with Elvis' spiteful put-downs of girls who get suckered by the lipstick vogue, his worm's eye-view of human relationships elicits mostly pity.

Elvis, on the receiving end of so many crushing blows from so many callous females (an intrinsic part of his appeal to both camps) would make a great martyr for the Male Lib movement.

But I degress. Richard Hell And The Voidoids' set was short and frantic. And although their leader's leering dervish stage moves and off-the-wall between song repartee fell on mostly stony ground, he looked indisputably happy.

On all but three songs he detailed bass chores to one half of their new rhythm section recruits, who were audibly sweating to hold on to the recorded speed of more familiar cuts, and came close to dragging, "Blank Generation" to a relative standstill.

That, however, is a minor quibble. In truth the one moment that threatened to cut loose from the evening's orderly procession was when the Voidoids lurched through their howling and braying version of "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

Elvis came on stage at precisely 10 o'clock. Some 30 minutes later he smiled for the first time, making a sardonic dig at the crowd's disposition with "I feel like I ought to do me shirt and tie up." Which he did.

Costello and his never less-than-superlative sidemen spent most of '78 on the road, mostly in America, where his punky but chic persona and other favourable factors have combined to make him the new Bruce Springsteen. But for a market that was long ago sold, the benefits of all that rigorous touring are simply an added tightness and professionalism.

They work hard, perhaps too hard. The music moves faster than the records, missing old dynamics on, for example, "Red Shoes." Yet all thanks to the agility of the Attractions, inventing a new one for, in particular, "No Dancing."

A handful of songs from Armed Forces scattered in the set leave little impression. They're lost in the blazing attack of Elvis' gallery of established attractions. Say goodbye to the man who would belligerently defy expectations by playing virtually a whole show of unrecorded songs. There's scant sense of a person bursting with his muse. Instead there's a nagging feeling that the muse has become just a package: an addition.

The lights, for instance, were oh-so-cleverly orchestrated washes of op art colour that resembled a set of Warhol's Monroe silk screens. Towards the end, people were applauding these effects — always a bad sign.

A worse sign still was the audience-baiting augered by Elvis' remarks. "Let's have a riot!" he shouted at one point.

The next song was "Pump It Up." How ironic. But we did as we were asked. Through "Lipstick Vogue," through "Chelsea," through "Watching The Detectives," through "You Belong To Me," right through to the encore of "Radio Radio."

All this. But no surprises. And I was saddened.

Because whenever Elvis danced in that knock-kneed limb-flailing way of his, I couldn't help thinking he looked like a person trying to stand still on a conveyor belt.


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Photo by Pennie Smith.


Elvis Costello


Tzers

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...But back to the serious business of Christmas ligging and who should Tzers spot leaving the Todd Rundgren gig but the acid king's former sweetheart Bebe Buell accompanied by this year's model; young Elvis Costello who of course had a whole week's worth of his own shows to do. Indeed, during EC's let-it-be-said disappointing sojourn at Tottenham Court Road's Dominion Theatre the bi-focal'd wunderkind dedicated his version of Nick Lowe's "Peace Love And Understanding" to Todd whom he had met just prior to this dedication, the two apparently hitting it off something marvy, as Basher might say. And talking of Jesus Of Kippington Lodge, he and other Rockpile cronies were in the Dominion audience on Monday, with Lowe dressed in denims and sporting a slightly ludicrous cowboy hat...


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Photos.

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1979-01-06 New Musical Express page 40 advertisement.jpg
Page 40 advertisement for Armed Forces.


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Gig guide.


1979-01-06 New Musical Express cover.jpg 1979-01-06 New Musical Express page 03.jpg 1979-01-06 New Musical Express page 03 clipping 01.jpg
Cover, page scan and clipping.

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