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2020 Album Draft- Round 3 Pick 4- Music City Mike- Selects- Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Armed Forces.

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“Armed Forces” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

In the winter of 1977, my life was never the same again after hearing My Aim is True , the first album by the man born Declan MacManus. One of the greatest debut albums on just about everyone’s list, it was another bold statement first proclaimed by Graham Parker with Joe Jackson next in line. There was a place for the singer-songwriter in the dawning age of Punk and New Wave.

My passion for Elvis Costello’s music was set in motion and I soon found myself to be one of those whose favorite artists were Costello and Bruce Springsteen. I discovered that there were many of us and we relished not only their artistic brilliance but the fact that both were great live performers who toured frequently and were uber-prolific when it came to composing songs. In this regard, each also loved to test out unreleased songs from their next LP in their live set.

While Aim was Costello meets Pub Rock and The Band, his 1978 sophomore release, and first with his crack band The Attractions, This Year’s Model , was a mashup with the musical brashness of The Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones. For a future box set reissue of his first three LPs that would be named Two and a Half Years , this remarkable trilogy was complete with Armed Forces with EC & the A’s moving to a poppier sound, influenced by bands they secretly loved like Abba.

Costello also made it fun back then to be a record collector. As pictured above, the UK and US releases had different covers. Not only did the American version replace the big elephant for an arty title sleeve, they dropped the song “Sunday’s Best” thinking it sounded too British, and instead tacked on EC’s UK single covering his producer Nick Lowe’s “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” This was also a time when across the pond they issued great picture sleeve 45s with unreleased B-sides that we would score as imports for the then hefty price of three bucks.

Armed Forces begins with the immortal line “I just don’t know where to begin” that for years after was playfully the first words Costello sang in concert. “Accidents Will Happen” is a brilliant ear-catching opener with a rich Power Pop sound. I love getting silly and singing along with its repeated refrain of “I know.”

The march through this record continues with nary a dud amongst its explosive tracks. Costello’s lyrics were still pun-heavy back then and Nick Lowe’s production bashed out a simple, but full lush Pop sound. They called him “The Basher” since he worked quickly, but Lowe was without a doubt the Phil Spector of the new musical era that was upon us.

A working title for the LP was Emotional Fascism , and this political/military theme was in full force in “Oliver’s Army,” the biggest UK hit of his then short career. Although loved over here in the Colonies, it too was a bit British and wasn’t radio-friendly with its bold use of the “N” word. Steve Nieve’s keyboard frills are a respectful nod to Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” a song the band reportedly played regularly on the tour bus.

Although it wasn’t a mega-hit stateside like it should have, Columbia Records made a good call to include “PL&U” on the LP in the USA. While Lowe’s sentiment in the original version with his Pub Rock band Brinsley Schwarz may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s message nonetheless closes out the record on an optimistic note. ​

In his version, Costello took the Brinsley’s slow-tempo romp through Lowe’s lyrics and turned it into a powerhouse Rock anthem. It is perhaps the most remarkable reworking ever of a pop song, so much so that Lowe would even adopt this new arrangement in his own live version. While Costello reigns as one of my generation’s best songwriters, it’s rather ironic that my favorite song of his is “PL&U” and not one that he himself wrote.

Alongside its three singles, Armed Forces also hosts several other classic Costello tracks. For some really clever lyrics go to “Chemistry Class.” Your tender but brutal love ballad is “Party Girl.” And if you are looking for some magnificent musical maneuvering, listen to Pete Thomas’s syncopated drumming on “Green Shirt” or the jazzy flourishes of “Mood for Moderns.” Attractions Nieve, Thomas and bass player Bruce Thomas all are worthy of their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and were collectively creative in the Pop sounds they together crafted with Elvis on this record.

Costello rarely made a bad LP and picking my #1 from his catalog has never been easy. However, if I think back to the time when Armed Forces came into being, it was the record that convinced me that my elevation of him to the top of my musical hierarchy was indeed justified. Added to the fact that I’m forever one of the “Pure Pop for Now People,” this one easily makes its way to the top for me and finds its way to the desert island.

Armed Forces Elvis Costello w/ep Still sealed | #77818955


  1. When you combine the Stones, Sex Pistols, and Abba, it’s bound to be at least interesting if not good. Costello moves back and forth from good to great in my book. Nice write up, Mike.

  2. some good tracks on it for sure! And nice to see something in the “punk to new wave” category represented… really only Tears for Fears are close to that category in ones people have looked at so far. I always think of him with Joe Jackson – similar at the time and both emerged approximately the same time and took punk to a slightly new, more accessible terrain.

  3. The man was so prolific…he had the rare gift of quantity with quality of 3:00 minute songs. You got your money’s worth with his albums and more.
    Great review on a one of a kind artist.

  4. It was a treat to listen to those two tracks just now. They will never get old, imo. I love EC’s music from that time. I didn’t realize we Americans got a special version with ‘What’s So Funny’. I would have loved Sunday’s Best, too. Great draft pick and review.

  5. Good choice Mike. I remember getting the 45 in the album when I bought it. Elvis and the boys filmed the video ‘Peacle Understanding’ where I was living at the time. It was such a great time for music.with all those folks you mentioned. Still sound good today.

  6. Another great review and for the second day in a row- one of my Top dozen picks were taken! Darkness On The Edge of Town and now Armed Forces. The great thing as Mike pointed out- Elvis hasn’t made many bad ones- and he does have a strong top 10 so hopefully I will snag an Elvis later on. Love the sound of Armed Forces. ELVISISKING!

  7. Mike, you did a great write-up on this. Hans is the one that turned me into an Elvis Costello fan, and I was able to borrow so many of his albums from the library — but not this one as they don’t have it. I do recognize both of the selections you chose. Excellent choice for the draft!

  8. This album sounds great. Every time I hear or read about Elvis Costello I realize I nearly know enough of his music. I also had no idea about his infatuation with Abba, though I’m actually not really surprised. You can think of Abba whatever you want, their songs were very well crafted pop tunes!

    • I don’t know if at the time of Armed Forces- his third album that the world knew what a big music fanatic Elvis is- yet. I remember at the time reading about the Abba influence on the album and being a little shocked….but knowing what we would later know about EC- not surprising.

  9. In December 1977 SNL booked Elvis Costello as a last minute replacement for the Sex Pistols. Costello was told to perform Less than Zero, a few bars in he blew SNL minds when shouting “stop, stop”, launching instead into Radio, Radio – securing a place in rock history. It was SO GREAT! A few months later I paid $5 for Costello live at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. (Rolling Stone rates the Commodore as one of the 10 best live venues in North America – only Canadian venue on the list) Sigh.

    • I wasn’t- by that time I had lost interest in SNL- I watched every week from the beginning until maybe 1984 then I felt the show went south. I did of course see the ‘highlights” of Sinead’s appearance but not the live show.

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