Elvis Costello’s first three albums are now part of legend, like Bowie’s Berlin trilogy or Dylan’s Highway/Bringing/Blonde set. Each one begins with the distinct sound of Costello’s voice without instrumental accompaniment, this one the shortest with just the “Oh, I…” of “Accidents Will Happen” sung solo. Franklin Bruno, the writer of the 33 1/3 series book on Armed Forces says of this repeated occurrence, “This, we understand, conveys his urgency: He’s too keyed up to wait for a downbeat, never mind a lengthy vamp.” Costello’s anxiousness plays to his advantage due to the material he has written. Armed Forces is, to no one’s surprise, overtly political.
Originally due to be called Emotional Fascism, a title which was struck at the last minute, the album has references to service, army, goon squads, and even Hitler. The lyrics within are some of the most pointed and incisive ever written. Around the time of the release of this album, however, Elvis almost lost a good portion of his fanbase by allegedly using the n-word in referring to James Brown and Ray Charles in a drunken interview. Knowing the cues he took from American music then, the ones he still does now, and his temperament since, it almost seems hard to believe at this point. Was success getting to Costello’s head? Possibly as a result, Costello recorded his successive album, Get Happy!! as somewhat of a tribute to American soul and rhythm and blues music.
Back to the album, Costello cheekily begins the first song with the lyrics “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin,” proving that his wit was still as sharp as on his two preceding albums, My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model. The opening song, “Accidents Will Happen,” name drops several classic songs namely his namesake’s “It’s Now or Never,” the Supremes’ “You Just Keep Me Hanging On” and Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore.” Besides the nods to songs in his past, Costello also has more requisite wordplay by switching the commas in “scares me so there’s,” and singing that “they keep you hanging on until you’re well hung.” “Senior Service” plays with different vocal pitches to great effect, all to longtime collaborator Steve Nieve’s new wave keyboards. It is worthy to note that this is Costello’s first album that bears the name “Attractions.” The band officially became his backers with this album, rating byline status. (Funny note: Nieve’s picture in the sleeve is of him standing in front of a Disneyland sign which reads, “Sorry — this Attraction is not in operation today.”)
For some reason, many reviews I’ve read which reference “Oliver’s Army” liken it to an Abba song. I suppose in some sense it does, especially the piano and keyboard flourishes after the choruses, but after Elvis’ now long career, it is hard to hear it as anything but vintage Costello, although Costello himself meant it to be “a grim heart in the middle of an Abba record.” That grim heart resounds throughout the record, with “Senior Service” being the beautifully written, “death that’s worse than fate,” the “Green Shirt” of the media representative / military official condoning state-sponsored violence, and the horrific and terrifying visions (i.e. “lampshade”) in “Goon Squad.” Somewhat surprisingly, Rolling Stone put Armed Forces, in my opinion his most fully realized and cohesive album, as the last of four E.C. records on the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Its three predecessors, while deserved, all place at least 300 places higher! Sure, it made the honorable list, but that’s such a large gap! Could it have been due to the controversy? Especially since he uses the n-word and the word “darkies” in the record? Or perhaps it was due to the pretty much ripped-off coda from the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money” at the end of “Party Girl.” After all, it would be twenty years until Oasis would make a career of the practice.
Of course, at the time, Costello recorded, pseudonomously, one of his biggest hits, which didn’t appear on early versions of the album, the now-famous “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” His producer, and great songwriter in his own right, Nick Lowe, wrote the song and released it as as a b-side to his own song, “American Squirm.” The singer and band were actually Elvis Costello & the Attractions, and the photo on the 45-sleeve depicted Lowe with dark Horn-rim glasses and Costello’s trademark Fender Jazzmaster with the name “Costello” inlaid in the neck. The fact that the most uplifting and somewhat hopeful songs on the album, at least the later versions, appeared on a single, completely separated from E.C., is an irony not lost on this writer. By the way, you know your song has stood the test of time when Bill Murray sings it karaoke style on the big screen.
Almost everything about Armed Forces is dualistic and asymmetrical. The dark themes mixed with Motown inspired new wave keyboard pop, the dual covers, one a primary colored Hockney-esque spatter, one a photorealistic painting of stampeding elephants, and the bleeding heart liberal image of Costello clashed with the drunken buffoon he became in one infamous moment in time. One thing that is not up for debate is the strength of the album. Armed Forces is not only the formal introduction of the Attractions, it is also the end of an astonishing and accomplished debut trilogy, bookending one of the best songwriting runs in pop history.