"Hey Clockface, keep those fingers on the dial," Elvis Costello implored on the jaunty, jazz-flavored title track of his 2020 album. "You said you'd be a friend to me, but time is just my enemy and it is hurting me so..." Despite his pleas, time has been rather good to Costello's artistry. Though initially branded an "angry young man" - and indeed, he channeled the punk zeitgeist early on with his fast and furious compositions - Costello has been able to travel wherever his muse takes him. That spirit has led him to acclaimed collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, Paul McCartney, The Brodsky Quartet, and The Roots, not to mention adventuresome solo work incorporating country, bluegrass, classical, and soul. Despite all of those seeming changes, Costello's aim has remained true. Indeed, many of the themes on Hey Clockface have direct antecedents in the early part of his discography. Its mordant observations on militarism, fascism, and violence all bring to mind 1979's Armed Forces - not a concept album, per se, but a collection of sharp, thematically-linked songs from a singer-songwriter with plenty to say. Late last year, Armed Forces was revisited by Costello and UMe in a jaw-dropping new vinyl box set consisting of three 12-inch LPs; three 10-inch LPs; and three 7-inch singles. We recently had the opportunity to review this collection which threatens to render the tag "super deluxe edition" as simply inadequate.
Oh, I just don't know where to begin...
Armed Forces (released January 5, 1979) was the third studio album from Costello and second with his band The Attractions (pianist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas, no relation). It was originally conceived under the title Emotional Fascism, which says a great deal about the artist's state of mind while writing and recording. Much was made at the time about Costello moving away from the punk sound of its predecessors and embracing the so-called "new wave," but (then as now) genre tags were simply reductive when it came to Costello's oeuvre. He brought a deep and abiding love of pop, rock, and R&B in all their forms to Armed Forces, working with producer Nick Lowe and engineer Roger Bechirian to craft a sound that was more intricate than that of his first two albums but still immediate and direct in its power and aggression.
Costello was inspired to craft some of his most enduring compositions for the album. They're lyrically dense, sharp as a rapier, sometimes punning, and musically tight. These compact, biting nuggets (the longest is "Busy Bodies," at barely over three-and-a-half-minutes in length) blurred the lines between the political and the personal. They included "Oliver's Army" (anchored by Steve Nieve's ABBA-inspired keyboard riff), a powerful and lyrically provocative anti-war broadside inspired by the Troubles in Northern Island; the tense, paranoid "Green Shirt;" and elegant, haunting "Accidents Will Happen," inspired in part by Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and Randy Newman's "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore." (A highlight of Costello's later concerts with and without Bacharach has been a rearrangement of "Accidents" in dramatic, orchestrated style.) One of the LP's most famed songs wasn't on the original U.K. issue, however. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" was introduced by Nick Lowe's band Brinsley Schwarz in 1974. Costello's biting rendition was added to the U.S. version of the album where it replaced "Sunday's Best." All thirteen songs are present on the album presentation here, remastered by Bob Ludwig and Costello with subtlety and detail. Crank, er, pump it up!
And you must find the proper place for everything you see...
Various configurations of Armed Forces have been released over the years with different artwork and bonus material, of which this is handily the biggest and most comprehensive. Early pressings included a three-track EP, Live at Hollywood High, with a live version of "Accidents Will Happen" as well as "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" from the California show which counted Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, and Mackenzie Phillips among the appreciative audience. The 1993 CD of Armed Forces, released by Demon in the U.K. and Rykodisc in the U.S. and based on the original U.K. sequence, appended "What's So Funny" and the EP plus five additional bonus cuts. The 2002 deluxe edition, released by Rhino in the U.S. and Edsel in the U.K., significantly upped the ante with an entire bonus disc of 17 selections including all of the Ryko bonuses and a generously expanded Hollywood High boasting nine songs. In 2007, Universal's Hip-o imprint controversially restored Costello's catalogue to its original form on CD, meaning that Armed Forces lost all additional material other than "What's So Funny." In 2010, the June 4, 1978 Hollywood High show received its first standalone release from UMe on CD with 20 songs in total. Here, Hollywood High is presented on a 12-inch LP comprising the 9 songs included on the 2002 edition plus that CD's addition of "Chemistry Class" from an earlier show at Washington, DC's Warner Theatre.
The second major show represented on a 12-inch LP is the previously unreleased Europe '79: Live at Pinkpop. It was recorded at the Pinkpop Festival held in Geleen, The Netherlands on June 4, 1979 (one year to the day after the Hollywood High gig). Other performers on the eclectic bill included Peter Tosh, Rush, Dire Straits, The Police, Average White Band, and the Dutch band Massada. In such company, it's no surprise that the band played as if they had something to prove.
In addition to earlier songs from My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, four tracks from Armed Forces ("Goon Squad," "Green Shirt," "Big Boys," "What's So Funny...") are heard here. It's an energetic, gutsy, and altogether visceral set. Led by "Professor" Steve Nieve's sinuous and hypnotic organ lines, The Attractions and their snarling frontman oozed swagger, confidence, and attitude as they plowed through the galloping "Green Shirt," forceful "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," and reggae-tinged "So Young," a cover of a tune by Australian band Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons. (The Attractions' studio version was first released on the 1987 collection Out of Our Idiot.)
The band looked ahead to 1980's Get Happy! with the ironically bright "Opportunity." It makes for a particularly felicitous inclusion on this set with lyrical imagery such as "I'm in the foxhole, I'm down in the trench/I'd be a hero but I can't stand the stench." Another Get Happy! highlight, "High Fidelity," was played at Pinkpop in its original, Station to Station-inspired slow version. For the subsequent studio recording, Costello and co. upped the tempo and nodded more explicitly to Motown (Diana Ross and The Supremes' 1968 single "Some Things You Never Get Used To" is even referred to in the song's opening line). This concert version might be familiar to listeners from its inclusion on the Rhino expansion of the Get Happy! album.
While it's very much the Costello show, there are ample Instrumental showcases for not only the virtuoso Nieve - who fleetly veers from sheer elegance to swirling carnival craziness, sometimes in the course of one song - but the thunderous Messrs. Thomas on bass and drums. The songs are flexibly extended from their studio counterparts with arguably even more palpable rage and tension due to the connection between audience and performers. There are also brief glimpses of Costello's wry humor in this freight train of a show. Live at Pinkpop has been remixed by Costello's recent collaborator Sebastian Krys and engineer Alvaro Cadavid for sound that's present and engaging.
Three 10-inch albums continue the Armed Forces story: one of studio takes and two of live tracks. Both mini-live sets rewind to December 1978. Riot at the Regent was captured at Sydney, Australia's Regent Theatre and is handsomely housed in a sleeve recalling that other Elvis' debut LP. As presented here, it's a compact six-song set (three songs to a side) superbly mixed by Krys. The Riot title isn't unintentional. An angry audience, frustrated by a short, 50-minute setlist and no encore, proceeded to trash the Regent auditorium by tearing out seats and throwing the seat cushions and other objects onto the stage from distances as far as the balcony. The damage was said to total 2,000 Australian dollars; a ticket cost a mere $9.50. Alas, Elvis had already left the building. None of that mayhem is evident on the crisp selections here including a storming "Oliver's Army," intense "Waiting for the End of the World," and fiery "You Belong to Me" in which the singer worked up the crowd. The album sleeve reprints a few reviews of the concert. One posited that "many observers have suggested that the whole incident was a ruse, an attempt...to generate as much publicity as possible..." Another critic notes that "the last half of the set was a continuous, tension-building segue." As the whole concert isn't included here, these tantalizing samples leave us wanting even more than the riled-up audience at the Regent did.
An arguably less eventful show was staged a few weeks later at London's Dominion Theatre (the home until COVID struck of the musical The Prince of Egypt) on Christmas Eve, with The Attractions headlining a bill also featuring Richard Hell and The Voidoids and punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Christmas in the Dominion features four songs from the festivities (out of eighteen performed that night) remixed by Krys including a driving cover of the soul oldie "I Stand Accused" (a studio version of which would appear on Get Happy!) and a new wave-styled "No Dancing," a relative hidden gem off My Aim Is True in which Costello paints an unflinching portrait of a crumbling relationship. Another My Aim Is True cut, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," gains a new dimension with Steve Nieve's flashy but organic work on the keys while a peppy romp though "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" boasts a cameo from Nick Lowe. The jacket features two photos of the impressive exterior of the theatre decked out for Costello's appearance.
The third and final 10-inch disk is Sketches for Emotional Fascism, collecting eight previously issued odds and ends relating to Armed Forces: outtakes, alternates, demos, and a soundtrack cut. These showcase the different sounds with which Costello and the band were experimenting. "Clean Money" is amped-up British Invasion pop with The Attractions on harmonies (an unusual event, indeed); "Tiny Steps" was built around a guitar figure Elvis has attributed to the style of The Animals or Them. "Wednesday Week" veers from urgent punk to melodic pop in slightly over two minutes. Among the treasures reprised here is "My Funny Valentine," originally released on the flip of "Oliver's Army" and on a promotional 45 distributed at a Valentine's Day 1979 concert. The artist stripped Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's 1937 ballad to its essence, crooning it earnestly
Three 45 RPM seven-inch singles in picture sleeves complete the audio assortment. Elvis sang background vocals on Nick Lowe's 1978 single "American Squirm." (Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas also appeared alongside Lowe's Rockpile bandmate Billy Bremner.) The B-side was, surreptitiously, the first appearance of Elvis and The Attractions' rendition of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" as credited to Nick Lowe and His Sound. The original U.K. 45 is replicated here with its cover photo of Lowe in a pair of Elvis' glasses wielding a Jazzmaster guitar with "Costello" emblazoned on the neck. Original U.K. Armed Forces singles "Oliver's Army" and "Accidents Will Happen" gain new B-sides here: a demo of "Big Boys" and an alternate of "Busy Bodies," respectively. The demo was first issued on the 1993 Rykodisc/Demon CD of This Year's Model and the latter is a holdover from the 2002 Rhino/Edsel Armed Forces.
I'll face the music, I'll face the facts...
Elvis Costello championed super deluxe editions long before the phrase was in vogue. The Rhino/Edsel reissues were lavish affairs, with lengthy and comprehensive liner notes from the artist, full lyrics, credits and discography, rare photos and memorabilia, and more. This presentation of Armed Forces marks his first box set dedicated to one album, and it's unsurprising that he's super-sized every component from his standard CD reissues.
Attention to detail is a hallmark of the box set design by Coco Shinomiya-Gorodetsky with Arthur Tingley. The original U.K. LP had the "elephants" cover, while the U.S. edition had Barney Bubbles' "splattered paint" artwork. The box set cover has the latter image while the Armed Forces album within has the former. Happily, Bubbles' unusual sleeve design for the album has been retained with its many fold-out panels. The three 12-inch LPs reside atop two splattered paint folders (held in place by a piece of foam): one with a whopping seven booklets and another with the 10-inch and 7-inch records.
The booklets are of varying shapes and sizes and are modeled after tawdry paperbacks, pulp magazines, and comic books. The art (by Todd Alcott) and design elements (appropriately aged, with stains and handwriting on the covers) are wonders to behold, with each booklet titled after a Costello song. Two consist of traditional liner notes: one adapted and updated from Costello's 2002 essay and another, longer one filling in more of the story. Written in Costello's droll and inimitable voice, these pithy and sometimes-laugh-aloud-funny notes juxtapose tales of youthful hedonism with incisive insights into the songwriting and recording process. Lyrics are printed in one of the volumes and another is dedicated to the credits. The remaining ones reprint various original notebooks of the artist's, with handwritten lyrics and song sketches.
Among the treasures reprinted is Costello's playlist on San Francisco radio station KSAN stationary from November 16, 1977. The songs chosen include Andy Williams' "Can't Get Used to Losing You," Randy Newman's "Gone Dead Train," The Sex Pistols' "No Feelings," Dusty Springfield's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," The Mothers of Invention's "Who Needs the Peace Corps," and NBRQ's "Howard Johnson's (Got His Ho-Jo Workin')." Postcards recreated from the original Armed Forces LP package and a poster are also included in the folder.
The most controversial aspect of this release has been the lack of a CD version. In an interview for Australia's ABC Radio National, Costello made clear that he didn't regret the decision not to release the box set on CD, viewing the vinyl set as an objet d'art ("something beautiful") and the digital/streaming iteration as filling the on-the-go role that the CD once played ("the instantaneous, portable version that you carry with you"). He later slightly backpedaled, telling Rough Trade that the lack of a CD version "wasn't my decision."
Why the decision not to release on CD? One consideration might have been that all but 23 live tracks from this box have been previously issued in the format, and it's likely that cries of double triple quadruple quintuple-dipping might have greeted a costly CD box set. That said, an Armed Forces companion CD with those 23 tracks would go a long way in satisfying the appetites of that format's fans (a still not inconsiderable number). It's also possible that the three truncated concerts (Pinkpop, Regent, Dominion) could be presented in complete or extended form on CD; a slightly longer Regent set and a full Dominion show have previously circulated among fans.
For those willing or able to shell out high coin for "this year's model" of Armed Forces, this super deluxe edition shouldn't disappoint. The vinyl platters are quiet, the sound superior, the packaging immersive, and the music incendiary. The swag is to a minimum and the printed content to a maximum. It all furthers one's appreciation of the original 40-minute LP and well worth an "add to your collection."