Elvis Costello ‘Armed Forces’: What’s So Funny?

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Columbia Records’ “splatter” cover for the North American version of Armed Forces

What a difference an ocean makes. In the U.K. and Europe, Elvis Costello’s third album, Armed Forces, could be heard as a leap forward in songcraft and sonic ambition, a song cycle weaving the personal and political into a survey of “emotional fascism” in a showcase for the elegant interplay of Costello’s band, the Attractions, accorded far more studio polish than its full-length predecessor. Released on January 5, 1979, the LP also marked the first time the band enjoyed co-billing with its leader.

For many North American fans, the album’s legacy has been eclipsed by a last-minute swap that replaced a Costello original with a one-off cover of a Brinsley Schwarz song written by former front man and Costello producer Nick Lowe, the now anthemic “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” As a warmup for their own album, Costello and the Attractions bashed out a fast and furious cover of the Lowe song, pumping up the original’s rhythm guitar riffs into a virtual barrage against Costello’s howled vocals.

Watch the official video for “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

Like Costello’s prior studio work, the song was recorded live with minimal overdubs. Billed as Nick Lowe and His Sound, the track was cut as B-side to the pending single of Lowe’s “American Squirm,” stripping away Lowe’s tongue-in-cheek earnestness and power pop bloom to transform the song into a cri de Coeur of authentic, pissed-off rage.

The original cover art on Radar Records’ U.K. release of Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces

The performance is undeniably powerful—and conspicuously out of place in the sonic landscape and thematic context of the Costello album. But Columbia Records, his U.S. label, was anxious to seed radio airplay, and had already set precedent with its revised track sequences for both of Costello’s prior albums. In his superb memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello asserts executives were worried that some of the material was “too English” in its lyric references and cultural perspective. Thus, “Sunday’s Best,” a sardonic waltz echoing English music hall tropes and explicit homeland allusions, was jettisoned and “(What’s So Funny)…” was added as the LP’s last song.

The sonic gulf between the guitar onslaught of the Nick Lowe cover version and the rest of Armed Forces is sharply defined by comparison to the intricate arrangements and spacious mixes that dominate the rest of the album, starting with the opening “Accidents Will Happen.”

Related: The story behind Elvis Costello’s U.S. launch

“Oh, I just don’t know where to begin,” sings Costello before the Attractions kick into gear, a line that signals the singer’s frustration while offering a sly bit of misdirection. Apart from beginning the album, the statement belies the meticulous detail and verbal ingenuity heard throughout the dozen originals on the U.K. version. However angry Costello’s image may have seemed, the songs convey the musical imagination of a
wide-ranging pop magpie as well as word-drunk verbal acuity.

Watch the video for “Accidents Will Happen”

Both My Aim is True, Costello’s 1977 debut, and 1978’s This Year’s Model had been recorded swiftly, with producer Lowe cutting Costello live in the studio with minimal overdubs, trading live-wire immediacy for nuance. For the next album’s sessions, the team took six weeks, a luxury compared with the 24 hours needed to cut the debut. The power heard in the Attractions’ tough, sinewy playing on the second album meanwhile deepened; the band’s frequent touring had accelerated a learning curve. That enabled Costello and his bandmates to work out more intricate arrangements in which keyboard player Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) created interlocking parts. The thin, reedy signature of Nieve’s Vox Continental organ was now cushioned by lusher synthesizers and grand piano to sculpt a wide, orchestral space decorated with Bruce Thomas’ contrapuntal bass figures.

The pop instincts lurking beneath Costello’s aggression surface repeatedly across the albums, most explicitly on “Oliver’s Army,” a scathing and, yes, very English broadside against militarism and the class warfare underlying its history in Britain. With its name-check of Oliver Cromwell, its shout-out to the cannon fodder of “the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne,” and a snapshot of British soldiers in Northern Ireland, the track is stridently political, only heightening the irony of the music: Costello’s crooned vocals are set against a widescreen arrangement punctuated by Nieve’s exuberant piano flourishes, a touch Costello himself cheerfully cites as influenced outright by ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

Watch the video for “Oliver’s Army”

Add Costello’s soulful vocal tag on the fade, a note-for-note salute to Ronnie Spector’s ecstatic coda on Phil Spector’s Ronettes classic, “Be My Baby,” and it’s clear that Costello delighted in lifting ideas from a wider swatch of styles than new wave fashionistas might have bargained for, such as the dense chromatic vocal harmonies overdubbed on the title refrain in “Moods for Moderns.” At the same time, the material’s Anglocentric imagery and recurrent conflation of romantic and sexual encounters with British politics provide context for both the final album title and the “emotional fascism” initially considered and then relegated to an inner sleeve copy line. The concept is evoked precisely on “Green Shirt,” a song in which seduction and indoctrination mingle ominously.

Listen to “Green Shirt”

Musically, “Green Shirt” typifies the band’s nearly telepathic agility. Pete Thomas’ drumming is rooted in economy, subtracting elements in the service of skeletal riffs that push and pull against Nieve’s lean keyboard figures to provide a coiled tension the track. The lyrics’ title garment serves both as a totem of sexual desire and a play on the infamous “brown shirts” of Germany’s Nazi Party. Elsewhere, Costello invokes thug threats in “Goon Squad” and leans into a “final solution” as a provocative metaphor in “Chemistry Class.” And in the track that closes Radar’s British version of Armed Forces, the political and personal equation is spelled out in “Two Little Hitlers.” With Margaret Thatcher’s election as British Prime Minister in the months after Armed Forces’ release, Costello’s ominous preoccupations seemed prescient.

This ad for the album appeared in the Jan. 13, 1979 issue of Record World

While critics were nearly unanimous in hailing the musical growth heard on Armed Forces, there was less agreement about the material’s dark thematic heart, a pessimism verging on nihilism that Costello would himself later characterize as steeped in “paranoia.” That makes the bruised idealism of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” stand out even more boldly. The track became the U.S. album’s most recognizable moment, and with yet another cover, Curtis Stiger’s rendition on the hit soundtrack to The Bodyguard, not only extended its reach but revitalized Nick Lowe’s third act as a solo singer and songwriter.

BONUS VIDEO: Watch an all-star live performance of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” from the 2004 Vote For Change concert in Washington, D.C., featuring Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt and R.E.M.

BONUS AUDIO: Hear the original Brinsley Schwarz studio recording of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” featuring songwriter Nick Lowe on lead vocals.

Costello is on tour. Tickets are available here and here.

Sam Sutherland

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  1. Da Mick
    #1 Da Mick 6 January, 2021, 15:53

    As a classic rocker, I was initially resistant to the “New Wave” sound and many of it’s bands. From his, name, appearance and projection of a punk attitude, I mistakenly saw Costello and the Attractions as just another part of that scene, and didn’t initially pay much attention to his music, at first. Armed Forces was the record that brought me around. I had to then work my way backward through him first two records, and became a fanatic about his remarkable songs and recordings, especially their many masterpieces in the 80s.

    The performances of the songs and the sound of their recordings immediately melded in the mind as a sonic element of their own for all time. But one has wonder what “Armed Forces,” along with other Lowe–produced Costello albums might have sounded like with a more craft-like producer, as was the case with T-Bone Burnett’s pristine, and beautiful “King of America,” or even Geoff Emerick, who was the genius behind Costello’s all time masterpiece, “Imperial Bedroom,”

    In any case, whatever Lowe’s technical shortcomings as a producer might have been, the results of his efforts with EC gave us records that have a flat, warm quality that sound much like something that comes out of a mono car radio. They’re lovely, and imprint on the listener’s psyche as eternally memorable of a specific time when a new era of rock music took on a different sound and form, with Rock n’ Roll’s essential attitude of rebellion firmly intact. I’ve seen Costello countless times on all sorts of types of tours, I never miss an opportunity to catch him whenever possible, as, with his vast catalogue of material, he always offers interesting and entertaining shows that feature musical performances that are both eloquent and intense in equal measure, You never know what you’re in for at each show, but they never mail it in.

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