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.