PopMatters, September 4, 2012

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Night Rally and Radio, Radio

Morgan Troper

Girls, Girls, Girls, Etc.: "Night Rally" is threatening and filled with devastating imagery, and "Radio, Radio" — while no less subversive in its subject matter — is more upbeat, and most satisfyingly, contains a proper resolution.

Costello's penchant for Nazi analogizing burgeons on "Night Rally," the twelfth and second-to-last track on This Year's Model, and an interesting foretelling of Armed Forces (which does the same sort of things with more precision). The cut has its moments, but it's the closest thing to a weak track on Model and its omission from some US pressings of the record isn't too regrettable (unlike "Chelsea"; but like "Chelsea," it was later included on the odds-and-ends compilation Taking Liberties). Aspects of the tracks are suspiciously similar to "Green Shirt" off the following record — both songs' verses have the same clumping, quarter-beat feel, with anticipatory intervals in between bass and drums during the verses.

In the chorus the (always melodically-conscious) Pete Thomas plays snare hits in time with the vocal melody ("Night ... ral-ly"). The cathartic choruses and Spector-esque bridge (which features a dramatic change of key) are the song's highlights. The lyrics' significance are sort of confined to their time, as Costello allegedly wrote the song in response to a sudden abundance of neo-Nazi rallies around London in the late 1970s. The refrain ("You think they're so dumb, you think they're so funny / Wait until they've got you running to the night rally") is a warning to the susceptible masses not to underestimate the viral ideology. An eerie feedback noise enters and ensnares the song during the fade-out, and Costello deliberately sings "night rally" in a slurred, off-kilter melody (a zombie impression?) to contribute to the cacophony. The song gets progressively louder, and then abruptly cuts off. It almost sounds like a technical glitch.

On original pressings of This Year's Model, "Night Rally" was the last song in the sequence, and thus, the end of the album. "Radio, Radio" was tacked onto subsequent pressings due to its success as a single, and its inclusion changes the tone of the record immensely. "Night Rally" is threatening and filled with devastating imagery, and "Radio, Radio" — while no less subversive in its subject matter — is more upbeat, and most satisfyingly, contains a proper resolution.

"Radio, Radio" is one of Costello's most-discussed — and most-loved — compositions, and for good reason. The fact that it's become one of the most recognizable songs in the artist's oeuvre only adds to its weird, self-aware sense of irony. It's almost contrarian of Elvis to be railing against commercialization and censorship in a gorgeous, entirely consumable pop song (as far as straightforward power pop songs go, this is one of Elvis' finest). The song is said to have been inspired by the BBC's efforts to suppress the popularity of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen."

Elvis debuted the song on Saturday Night Live months prior to This Year's Model's release (coincidentally, as a last minute fill-in for the Sex Pistols) in an incendiary act of his own: Elvis and his band were actually set to play "Less Than Zero" another political (but esoteric) song off My Aim Is True, and in an impulsive decision played "Radio, Radio" instead. SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels claims that he wasn't outraged by the inflammatory subject matter, but rather Costello's decision to perform a song the camera crew didn't know the cues to.

The song is indelible off the bat — Steve Nieve's keyboard intro is truly classic. Costello sings here in his signature sneer — his vocal performance on "Radio, Radio" is his "brattiest" on the record, a fitting culmination. In the pre-chorus ("I was seriously thinking ...") Elvis alternates between two power chords, and the bass ascension gives them harmonic complexity. A vocal harmony enters in the chorus ("Radio, it's a sound salvation") — the narrator is attacking the government for thinking that their jurisdiction over the radio is a reliable method of preventing insubordination, with the word "sound" being a clever reference to the song's topic, additionally. "They say you better listen to the voice of reason / They don't give you any choice, 'cause they think that it's treason" — again, an explicit reference to the situation with "God Save The Queen."

In the bridge, Elvis acknowledges the incongruity in attacking the very thing that lets him eat, but his disdain for censorship is intractable: "I wanna bite that hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly / I wanna make them wish they'd never seen me." In the second verse, Costello sings about how the majority of people are manipulated by the media into being indifferent, that the people ("his friends") who care about what's being withheld from them are a splinter group: "Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead / Everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed."

The pre-chorus this time is different, jagged: the band cuts out, and briefly play syncopated hits on the beginning of each measure, with most of Elvis' vocals isolated. He manages — just barely — to fit "anesthetize" into the last line, one of his most ambitious lyrical plunges on the record. After a reprise of the chorus, Elvis sings, with burning, near-tangible sarcasm, "Wonderful radio / marvelous radio." The hilarious coda is itself a send-up of "God Save the Queen" — as in the British national anthem, not the Pistols song.

"Radio, Radio" remains a staple in Costello's live set. The band plays it towards the beginning of a set or in an encore on his "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" tours even if it's not selected by the wheel. The song appears on both of his famous live albums from the period, too, Live at Hollywood High and Live at El Mocambo. "Radio, Radio" is an interesting closing track in the sense that it deviates from the album's primary focus of unrealized romance. But somehow, maybe inexplicably, it fills its role better than any of the other selections of This Year's Model could have (perhaps because it's a breath of fresh air).

Tags: Night RallyRadio, RadioThis Year's ModelArmed Forces(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaTaking LibertiesGreen ShirtPete ThomasThe Sex PistolsSaturday Night LiveLess Than ZeroLorne MichaelsMy Aim Is TrueSteve NieveThe Revolver TourSpectacular Spinning SongbookLive At Hollywood HighLive At The El MocamboPower pop

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PopMatters, September 4, 2012

Morgan Troper reviews "Night Rally" and "Radio, Radio".


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