This month John Scott turns his attention to the UK singer songwriter Elvis Costello who rose to stardom in the first wave of punk rock and here looks at his album This Year’s Model recorded with his band The Attractions.
The punk explosion of 1976 famously encouraged anyone with three chords and a guitar to form a band. Punk’s DIY ethos also opened up opportunities for a shed load of musicians who had been slogging away in the pubs in and around London for years but getting nowhere fast. Pub Rock was an amalgam of American musical styles, mixing up rock and roll with rhythm and blues and country. As established and newly-formed record labels scrabbled around to sign up almost anyone with a guitar and a couple of tunes, bands like Dr Feelgood, Brinsley Schwarz and Kilburn and The Highroads seized the chance, either collectively or individually, to break out of the pubs and into the charts.
Amongst these pub rock hopefuls was a certain Declan McManus whose band Flip City had started working the pub scene in 1974. Having had no success, McManus had ditched the band in favour of full-time employment as a data entry clerk with cosmetics firm Elizabeth Arden but was still writing songs. McManus recorded some demos which came to the attention of Stiff Records who earmarked him as a staff writer, but were eventually persuaded that he had enough quality songs to record an album of his own. Taking sick days off from work, McManus recorded the songs that would become his first album, My Aim Is True, produced by former Brinsley Schwarz bass player Nick Lowe and backed by American band Clover. While not in any way punk, its stripped-down direct approach was a breath of fresh air from a British singer-songwriter and the album was an immediate critical success on both sides of the Atlantic.
The newly-named Elvis Costello now found himself in need of a band with which to perform the songs on tour. Keyboard player Steve Nason – rechristened as Steve Nieve by Ian Dury, drummer Pete Thomas from Chili Willi And The Red Hot Peppers and bassist Bruce Thomas – a session veteran who had played on albums by Al Stewart and been a member of The Sutherland Brothers And Quiver – were convened as The Attractions and would be Costello’s backing band for the next 12 years.
The band quickly developed into a dynamic live act, taking the songs from Costello’s debut album and giving them a driving garage band twist. The combination of Pete Thomas’ tight drumming with Bruce Thomas’ supple, intricate bass playing and Steve Nieve’s skilful and playful keyboards with Costello’s rhythm guitar provided a highly charged quick-fire exhilarating live experience; this was killer musicianship, pared down and stripped of all excess.
Costello’s new songs made the most of the band’s strengths. On My Aim Is True, Clover had played the part of anonymous session musicians backing a solo artist. Elvis Costello and The Attractions were, however, a single entity; welded together by the white heat of their performance. For producer Nick Lowe, the challenge was to capture the raw energy of the band’s live shows while providing a pop sheen that would reward repeated listening.
As its title makes clear, This Year’s Model presents a very different view of Elvis Costello. On My Aim Is True, his songs had portrayed the viewpoint of an angry outsider. On This Year’s Model, Costello is angrier than ever but he is speaking from a place inside the entertainment machine. He has seen the trappings of fame at first hand and is determined to keep his distance.
“I don’t want to kiss you, I don’t want to touch” spits an unaccompanied Costello a split second before the band pile in with an adrenaline rush that threatens to send opening song No Action tumbling head over heels. “I hold you like I hold that Bakelite in my hand” he sneers, feigning disinterest, but the second verse reveals his true feelings; “Knowing you’re with him is driving me crazy.”
Years before supermodels became a thing, This Year’s Girl castigates those who objectify the latest pinup but there is no sympathy shown either for the girl in question. Costello is pitiless in his derision: “You want her broken with her mouth wide open…Time’s running out, she’s not happy with the cost, There’d be no doubt, only she’s forgotten much more than she’s lost.”
The Beat ramps up the tempo with an ode to onanism. While the rest of the world goes out at night, Costello overdoes it at home: “Take it easy, I think your bending me.” Pump It Up raises tensions even higher before Little Triggers slows the pace briefly. Up until now Costello’s guitar has played second fiddle to Nieve’s organ but it takes the fore on the intro to You Belong To Me in a parody of The Last Time by The Rolling Stones.
Over the course of the album, Costello continues to cast a jaundiced eye over contemporary society. In the US, (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea, was dropped in favour of Radio, Radio. This was a re-write of a Flip City-era song called Radio Soul, a love letter to the radio that would not have sounded out of place on Van Morrison’s Moondance Album. Costello, realising on which side his bread was buttered, turned it into a punky anti-radio song in which he wants to bite the hand that feeds him, while no doubt relishing all the radio play that the song racked up.
The album’s masterpiece is Lipstick Vogue, during which Thomases Bruce and Pete relentlessly raise the tension to near-bursting point. Just in time, Bruce’s bassline eases off and Pete tamps down his tom toms to allow a bit of breathing space before the song explodes into life again.
With These Year’s Model, Costello captured the mood of the times while avoiding the right-on posturing of many of his contemporaries. This was, to borrow a phrase from his producer “Pure pop for now people”. Many of the songs from This Year’s Model still form the core of Costello’s live set and the album itself has lost none of its sparkle and excitement. If you are yet to discover it, This Year’s Model could be this year’s favourite.