Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Armed Forces - Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Armed Forces
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Columbia JC 35709

I initially thought that Elvis Costello was a punk.  I first saw him on "Saturday Night Live" delivering a blistering version of "Radio, Radio" and in a promotional video for "Pump It Up" which featured him spastically stomping his way through the song apparently seething with anger.  "Aha," I thought, "so this is punk rock."  Of course if I had heard his debut album "My Aim Is True" first, I would have realized how wrong I was - he may have been angry but he was no punk.  EC was a classic power popper just like his comrade Nick Lowe which I found out when I bought this shortly after its release in 1979.  This album is just as scathing and bitter as "Never Mind the Bollocks," but EC's commitment to pop craftmanship is evident throughout - no 3 chord primitivism for him.  For me that is a good thing, I listen to this more than my Ramones, Sex Pistols or Damned records.  It never gets boring.  "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" was the hit single, but if you changed the words to be about romance, it is not all that removed from the music of the Ronettes or Bruce Springsteen, dramatic mainstream pop delivered with a wall of sound.  My favorite song on the album is "Green Shirt" with it's sustained tension and drumbeats that rattle on my skull like a billy club.  The underlying violence in the song reappears throughout the album whether involving romance in "Accidents Will Happen," geopolitics in the brilliant "Oliver's Army," careerism in "Senior Service," or education in "Goon Squad."  The flip side to all this hostility is that Costello's attitude towards love and human relations is decidedly misanthropic, bordering on misogynistic.  The original title of this album was "Emotional Fascism" which would be an apt title for a record that so blatantly views relationships in terms of power and control.  Costello's sardonic perspective is pretty harsh even for a pill like myself, but it is easy for me to cut him some slack because he writes such amazing lyrics, his love of word play and his sarcasm are enormously appealing to me.  I consider him the best lyricist of his generation.  This is a gloomy record but it is also lots of fun and musically it is very compelling.  It is my favorite Elvis Costello record and one of the very best records of the late 1970s.  It was the record that got me excited about the New Wave.  I didn't believe in punk, I liked the excitement but thought it was regressive and a dead end.  Listening to "Armed Forces" in 1979 I recognized that it was a departure from the 1970s AOR stuff I was used to hearing - Boston, Aerosmith, Eagles, and so on, yet it was not all that different than the Beatles - Costello even quotes the closing riff from "You Never Give Me Your Money" at the end of "Party Girl."  Costello was taking the musical values of the 1960s and building on them with a modern sensibility.  This was progress and it got me interested in modern music and the future of rock again.  Recommended to sociopathic Paul McCartney fans.           

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