The “Listen Again” series went over well enough that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some TV executives and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums but the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) five-star albums. In this edition we revisit Elvis Costello and The Attractions’ Armed Forces.
For those not up on their pop history, Elvis Costello—born Declan Patrick MacManus—on August 25, 1954, is a Brit singer-songwriter. He first surfaced in the early 1970s as part of the pub rock scene in London. He was also part of the UK new wave scene later that decade.
He founded his backing band, The Attractions, shortly after completing his 1976 premiere platter My Aim Is True. They would spend August and September in the recording studios. In August and September of 1978 they recorded the music for what would become his third release Armed Forces.
It would also be the second to feature The Attractions: Steve Nieve (piano, organ, synthesizer), Bruce Thomas (bass) and Pete Thomas (drums). Costello led the way, of course, on guitar and vocals. The end result would be twelve original new wave numbers composed by Costello.
Side one opens on “Accidents Will Happen”. This was a single off the album. The cover of the record was intentionally printed inside out in reference to the tune’s title.
Perhaps its greatest claim to fame would be its inclusion in the 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Here Elliott’s brother, Michael (portrayed by Robert MacNaughton), comes home from school singing the song. (Entertainment Weekly would vote it as one of Costello’s top 10 greatest tunes in 2004.)
The second selection is “Senior Service” which is perhaps all too quickly overshadowed by “Oliver’s Army”. This was also a single off the album. Costello confirms the controversial cut’s meaning: “The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing’. I don’t know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless.”
Also included on the first side are “Big Boys” and “Green Shirt”. These two tunes also revealed a bit more about both Costello’s politics as well as Nick Lowe’s production abilities. Side one closes on the fan favorite “Party Girl”.
The flip side opens on the fervent “Goon Squad”. It’s quickly followed by “Busy Bodies” as it becomes obvious that perhaps Costello has found his niche in terms of being a songwriter. In America the next number, “Sunday’s Best”, was dropped from the record in favor of tacking on Costello’s cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”, which had been put out previously as the B-side of Nick Lowe’s single “American Squirm”.
Also included on both versions were the songs “Moods for Moderns” and “Chemistry Class” which further fleshed out this collection of brief, energetic yet often intricate songs. Finally, another fan favorite, “Two Little Hitlers” was also included. Additionally, it was the closing cut on the original version.
Released by Columbia (in the US) in January 1979, the recording had a running length of over 40 minutes. It would hit number two on the UK Albums Chart and reach number 10 on the Billboard 200. Of the two previously-mentioned singles, “Oliver’s Army” would be the most popular. In fact, to this day it remains his most successful single, spending a month at number 2 in the UK.
The Initial pressings of the LP both in the US and the UK also contained a three-song promo single titled Live at Hollywood High. It included live versions of “Accidents Will Happen”, “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives”. It would be reissued in the UK in 1981 on the F-beat label.
The following decade there was a Rykodisc reissue in 1993. This would contain the original record and bonus tracks on a single CD. It would be reissued again in 2001 by Rhino Records and include 2 discs.
The first would contain the original UK version plus “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” The second CD included the bonus tracks. It would be reissued yet again on the Hip-O label in 3007. Rolling Stone would rank it at number 482 on their 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and promote it to number 475 on their 2012 list.
This album is both his most political yet one of his most listenable works as well. Perhaps this is due in part to the detailed, layered production here that was not found on Costello’s first two releases. The music on Elvis Costello and The Attractions’ Armed Forces/Col, JC-35709 is easily more accessible and the work still holds up today.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.