NEW YORK — Armed Forces, the third album by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, enters RW's Album Chart as the Chartmaker Of the Week at #42 bullet as the artist who scored 1978's first left field hit (RW 1/14/78) becomes 1979's first bona fide success story. Reported as the #1 lp at some retail outlets and listed as a breakout throughout the country, according to RW research, Armed Forces secured the position of Salesmaker Of the Week, and is further bolstered by significant action on the Album Airplay listing.
What can be attributed to the development and breakthrough of Costello's cult stance? According to retailers and Columbia Records personnel, the enthusiastic reception to Armed Forces is largely a result of the public exposure Costello gained from his last two lps, but the factors of merchandising the product with an ep and releasing it at a time when there is a conspicuous absence of new records were also cited as contributing to the success of the album. Radio airplay was also noted to be a significant factor in stimulating immediate retail response.
While the scope of Costello's initial success with Armed Forces may have been a surprise to some, it did not come entirely as a surprise to others at Columbia. The album, which entered the U.K. chart at #2, was the subject of an in-depth marketing and merchandising campaign here engineered by Costello's manager, Jake Riviera, and Dick Wingate, who at the time was Columbia's associate director of east coast product management. An important factor in the album's out of the box success, according to Wingate, must be attributed to the inclusion of the free Live At Hollywood High ep in the first 200,000 copies of the lp.
"Jake has been the prime innovator behind the packaging of Elvis' records and it was his idea to give away the ep as a limited edition. They're all going and they might even be gone by now." Wingate explained that the three songs on the ep were "leaked" to radio a month in advance of the release of the album as a 12" disc which succeeded in stimulating airplay and renewing interest in the artist.
Ben Karol from King Karol in New York admitted to being very surprised by the huge retail response Armed Forces generated, particularly since it became his #1 selling album in its first week of release. "We were very pleasantly surprised," he said "when we started getting calls for the album a week before it came out. The calls just kept on accelerating to the point that when the record came in, it took off like a beetle. In the first day, we sold over 600 copies. We haven't seen anything like this in years." Karol stated that including the ep in the album package had a definite impact on moving the album." When the new orders come in without the ep, it will be interesting to see if sales slow up." Karol further commented that radio airplay was the most significant factor in immediate sales. "It's too soon to really understand what is contributing to the success of the album," he said, "but I can say one thing from experience: Whatever they're playing on the air made instant contact with lots of new fans for Costello."
According to Norman Hunter, new release buyer for Record Bar, the 80 store chain, the timing in which Armed Forces was released may have been responsible for the album's immediate success. "The only word to describe the movement of this record is 'phenomenal.' I'm afraid that I under ordered because everyone sold out the first day. Perhaps one reason the lp did so well is because it just so happens that there isn't a plethora of product competing for the consumer's dollar. This is a good time for establishing artists who are trying to establish themselves. The public is always hungry for new product, and from what I've heard, there aren't many releases due in February either." Regarding the lp's future success, Hunter said, "I would like to speculate that the public has realized what a major new artist Costello is, but I can't say that until I see whether sales hold up. Costello is a bona fide cult hero, and I think it was common knowledge among Costello fans that an ep was going to be enclosed in the first shipment of the album. Because of this, I think people trampled each other into the stores to get the album with the ep. I hope sales aren't hurt when people come in to buy the lp and find out there isn't an ep."
In addition to the advance airing of the ep, another benefit Columbia enjoyed was having "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" available as the B-side of Nick Lowe's import single, "American Squirm," a month before the release of the album. "Since it was only credited to Nick Lowe's Sound, with no mention of Elvis Costello, it caused quite a bit of conversation," Wingate said.
The song, which coincidentally is being released in about a week as the first single from the album, is the first number Elvis recorded that he did not write (it was penned by Nick Lowe about four years ago) and was an eleventh hour inclusion to the album in this country. Armed Forces differs throughout the rest of the world in that "What's So Funny..." is replaced by a track titled "Sunday's Best" which will be on the B-side of his single.
"We felt 'What's So Funny...' would add a lot to the album," Wingate said. "It was the overall opinion of the company that lyrically and as a straightahead rock song, it would work in the context of the album and it was not like we decided to tack on an odd track."
A major TV campaign is also part of the overall marketing strategy, according to Wingate, who concentrated the ads in Elvis' strongest cities, New York and Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent in Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston and San Francisco.
A two-month tour will start in Seattle on February 6, three days before the airing of ABC-TV's Heroes Of Rock and Roll, a documentary about the evolution of rock music in which Elvis will appear in the closing segment.