Someone should do a longitudinal study on the applicability of the phrase “third time’s the charm” to rock albums, starting with the hypothesis that it takes three albums for rockers to truly come into their own.
The third time was certainly the charm for The Rolling Stones (Out of Our Heads), The Who (The Who Sell Out), The Clash (London Calling), Blur (Parklife) and Radiohead (OK Computer). You could certainly make a credible argument that A Hard Day’s Night represented the artistic and energetic height of Beatlemania and add the Fab Four to the list. It’s debatable if the formula applies to David Bowie or Jethro Tull, but it certainly doesn’t apply to Oasis (whose third album was the definition of “disaster”). Top-of-the-head calculations like these won’t do the trick, though—we need someone who can design a large and complex database that connects albums to record sales and critical consensus while developing a sensible algorithm that gives appropriate weight to subjective and objective data.
In other words, someone with no life and no prospects of ever having one.
While we wait for that one person out of 7.3 billion willing to take on the task, we’ll consider whether or not The Jam’s third album fits the theory. As 80% of my reading audience hail from the United States, where The Jam and Paul Weller are virtual unknowns, permit me a few moments for a brief introduction.
The Jam first entered the public eye in 1977 as the media-designated leaders of something called the “Mod Revival.” They dressed in the tailored suits of the British Invasion while producing music reminiscent of a high wattage punk version of The Who Sings My Generation. The frontman of this three-piece ensemble was a young gent by the name of Paul Weller, who handled guitar, most of the lead vocals and nearly all of the songwriting duties; Bruce Foxton supplied the unusually powerful bass and supporting vocals while a fellow named Rick Buckler pounded the skins. The first album (In the City) showed promise, more than a little spunk and definitive proof the band could kick serious ass while handling the high velocities demanded by punk. This Is the Modern World (also released in 1977) was In the City redux and really didn’t add much to their legacy.
The problem they faced at this juncture was one of identity. Though The Jam had proved themselves more than capable of handling the back-to-basics aspect of punk rock—and while Paul Weller could certainly do the angry young man bit when the situation called for it—it simply wasn’t in them to fully embrace either the inherent nihilism (Sex Pistols) or the socio-political emphasis (The Clash) of early punk. The band’s temperament and talents fit better with the more diverse ethos of the Mod Revival, but to survive in that mode, they needed to figure out a way to distinguish themselves from the original mod rockers (The Who, The Kinks, Small Faces) and place their own stamp on the genre. Independent of artistic objectives, the pressure needle hovered in the red zone—the label had rejected their initial offerings for the third album, largely because Paul Weller was curiously detached and suffering from what amounted to writer’s block.
Only one way to get past that, mate: get off your bloody arse!
Modem World was a low point. You make your first album – basically, it’s your live set. It took about 10 days to record. All of a sudden, we’d used our 10 songs and you’ve been out on the road and you’ve got to sit down and write another album. Which we did, the same year – and it shows. But it didn’t happen. It was . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? ‘Shit! It was shit.’ I thought, ‘Am I going to let this slide or fight against it?’ My back was against the wall. It was a matter of self-pride. I had to prove my worth, sort of, ‘This is it.’
—Paul Weller, Interview with Uncut.
The result was All Mod Cons (a British idiom for “all modern conveniences”), one more piece of solid evidence supporting the third-time’s-the-charm theory. The seeds for success were planted a year before during a less-than-successful tour of the USA where Paul Weller managed to pick up several Kinks albums from the Golden Period, albums then unavailable in the UK (!). That bit of serendipity would not only result in one of the best Kinks’ cover songs ever but a way past his writer’s block. While Weller had dabbled in the socio-political arena on songs like “Bricks and Mortar” and “Time for Truth,” the approach was more meat cleaver than scalpel, little more than us-against-them. At his best, Ray Davies is the master of translating major socio-political issues into the real-life everyday experiences of living, breathing human beings. It’s one thing to talk about “urban renewal” or “displacement,” but when you hear someone sing, “They’ll move me up to Muswell Hill tomorrow/Photographs and souvenirs are all I’ve got/They’re gonna try and make me change my way of living/But they’ll never make me something that I’m not,” you begin to fully appreciate the human impact and the knock-on problems spawned by the people in grey and their inconsiderate policies. Weller’s work on All Mod Cons reflects this crucial shift in perspective, but it also helped that Ray Davies didn’t limit himself to socio-political themes and that the two songwriters shared a deep love for their country, its traditions and its culture. If nothing else, rescuing those old Kinks albums from the bargain bins likely helped Paul Weller realize that his potential playing field was much larger than either the punk or Mod Revival movements.
The title track kicks things off with a quick burst of exuberance and a reminder that Ray Davies wasn’t the only 60’s rocker to influence The Jam’s sound. Though the speed is decidedly within punk parameters, the melodies and harmonies reflect Pete Townshend’s compositional style. Townshend’s guitar attack clearly influenced the sound of their early works, but at this point The Jam has moved on from My Generation to The Who Sell Out, minus the whimsy of that masterwork. What is equally apparent is the band’s stunning tightness as they move through this stutter-stop piece with due precision. Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler form an exciting rhythmic duo, with Foxton also providing crucial thematic support and a brief bass solo. The lyrics deal directly with the troubles they were having with their once-adoring label masters and the pressure to produce profits or get tossed out on their bums:
And all the time we’re getting rich
You hang around to help me out
But when we’re skint, oh God forbid!
You drop us like hot bricks
Artistic freedom, do what you want
But just make sure that the money ain’t gone
I love that word . . . skint. It calls up images of a sallow-faced bloke in a worn tweed cap politely asking someone to stand him a pint. So much more evocative than the American “broke.”
Further indications of The Who’s influence appear in “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time),” where at certain points I could swear that Roger Daltrey has dropped in for a cameo. A delightful mix of melody, harmony and pure rock power with varying rhythms and dynamics, the story plays out in a first-person dramatic monologue with an unusual but meaningfully imbalanced structure, “To Be Someone” continues the theme of “If you ain’t got the money, you ain’t shit,” expanding the discussion to how our sick modern cultures demand you show evidence of success before you are granted an identity:
To be someone must be a wonderful thing
A famous footballer a rock singer
Or a big film star, yes I think I would like that
To be rich and have lots of fans
Have lots of girls to prove that I’m a man
And be No. 1, and liked by everyone
We can now officially change the lyrics of “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” to “You’re Nobody If You’re Not on the Screen, And That Means You—Teachers, Carpenters, Plumbers and Nurses.” An extended instrumental passage featuring a fabulous arpeggiated guitar and bass duet follows these opening verses, as if Weller decided we needed a few moments to fully digest the magnitude of our hero’s insecurity.
The break also allows Weller to fast-forward the film, where lo and behold, our hero has earned the identity of his dreams: “Getting drugged up with my trendy friends/They really dig me, man, and I dig them.” Hooray—-no, hold that hooray and get your accountant on the phone, pronto:
And the bread I spend, is like my fame, it’s quickly diminished
And there’s no more swimming in a guitar shaped pool
No more reporters at my beck and cool
No more cocaine it’s only ground chalk
No more taxis now we’ll have to walk
While it’s odd that our hero would follow in Webb Pierce’s footsteps with a guitar-shaped pool, what’s truly odd is that his first reaction is to make-believe that the roller coaster ride was worth it:
But didn’t we have a nice time,
Didn’t we have a nice time
Oh wasn’t it such a fine time
The first two lines are sung in unison with loud bravado, but on the third line Paul Weller drops off and allows Bruce Foxton to take it, a clear sign of second thoughts. The following passage is quite Who-like, the sweet but sad sound of a boy lost in the big, bad world:
I realize I should have stuck to my guns
Instead shit out to be one of the bastard sons
He gives the “didn’t we have a nice time” masquerade one more shot before ending the song right where he started: “To be someone must be a wonderful thing.” I hope “To Be Somebody” was the moment when first-time listeners back in the fall of 1978 realized, “Hey, these guys have really upped their game.” It’s a musical gas and a brilliant lyrical composition that clocks in at just under two-and-a-half minutes, economic rock poetry at its best.
“Mr. Clean” is an even more complex composition, featuring two key changes that also reflect changes in the narrator’s mood. The dominant opening passages dominated by an eerily quiet and dark Dm/Am combination reflect the have-not narrator’s rancid bitterness towards one of the haves, suddenly and explosively expressed in the lines, “‘Cause I hate you and your wife/And if I get the chance I’ll fuck up your life.” This passage is reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker’s revenge fantasy in “I Spy,” though Cocker’s plans for revenge are much more elaborate and sophisticated. The second passage opens with Em7 but resolves to the C chord root of the third passage. These passages describe British class dynamics—a curious mix of resentment, acceptance of one’s lot in life and a sense of latent systemic danger:
Surround yourself with dreams
Of pretty young girls, and anyone you want, but
Please don’t forget me or any of my kind
‘Cause I’ll make you think again
When I stick your face in the grind
Rather than call for revolution, though, the lower classes find comfort in poking fun at the loathsome habits of the uppers, just as the uppers find solace in their disdain for the lowers:
Getting pissed at the annual office do
Smart blue suit and you went to Cambridge too
You miss Page 3, but the Times is right for you
And mum and dad are very proud of you
The snob may or may not take a peep at the tits on Page 3 of The Sun, but such things are not spoken of in polite company. “Mr. Clean” should have been served as a warning bell that classism in the U. K. was metastasizing into a cancer, but the British do cherish their traditions and decided to let Maggie Thatcher run the show the following year.
The Jam’s version of “David Watts” takes that Davies classic and imbues it with greater rock sensibility by giving the guitar the lead position in the opening passage and balancing the piano in the verses with a stronger and more assertive bass. Performed to a slightly higher tempo than the original, the Jam’s decision to give Foxton the lead vocals on the verses and Weller the lead vocal on the bridges adds to the obvious excitement the band brought to this number. While The Jam add a few embellishments, this is a faithful and (dare I say) loving tribute to the original—and one of the strongest rockers on the album.
You could make a good argument that the most important song on the album is “English Rose,” an acoustic ballad that was not listed on the album cover. Some sources say Paul Weller had it whacked from the cover because he was embarrassed by its emotional honesty; others claim he left it off because the words didn’t make sense without the music. An interview with Mojo in 2010 pretty much settled that debate:
It was me emotionally naked, speaking openly about being in love. I was aware it was something that blokes from my background didn’t do. They didn’t reveal their feelings, their sensitive side.
What puzzles me is that he had to have known that people would hear the song when listening to the album . . . so . . . what was the point?
Guys are so complicated.
The song lends itself to both patriotic and romantic interpretations, and though the quote above argues strongly for the latter, the latent sentiment for Jolly Olde England certainly didn’t hurt the song’s acceptance in the home country. As a seafaring empire, long separations between man and love interest were common occurrences over the centuries, so the longings of a rock musician for his girl while on tour in the USA likely evoked sentiments deeply embedded in cultural history.
Paul Weller certainly did not betray his origins by writing the song in a rustic style, a lyrical choice most vividly demonstrated by the use of the female subject pronoun where proper grammar demands the object: “I will return to my English rose/For no bonds can ever keep me from she.” Whether it was his intent to elevate woman from object to subject is unknown, but as a human being who has spent most of her life living under the stigma of objectification, I deeply appreciate his choice.
Girls are so sensitive.
However you choose to interpret “English Rose,” it is a tender and touching song expressing emotional humility and human fragility. While there are a billion songs with the line “I need you,” I’ve rarely heard a song that expresses the need for another as sincerely as this one. Although he seemed loth to accept it, writing the song allowed Paul Weller to access his sensitive side, further expanding his songwriting possibilities.
“In the Crowd” starts as a breezy little number filled with echoes of both The Kinks and The Who. The melody and chord structure of the transitional verses (the first is marked by a shift to G and begins with the line “And everyone seems just like me”) bears more than a striking resemblance to the transitional passages in “Johnny Thunder,” and the power chords in the extended jam at the end of the song are pure Townshend. The lyrics are in the form of a semi-conscious meditation on the automation of routine life occasioned by Paul Weller taking a spin through the supermarket. Feeling alienated by the regimentation of the modern shopping experience, he imagines a common bond with his fellow shoppers:
And everyone seems just like me,
They struggle hard to set themselves free
And they’re waiting for the change
Remember that double entendre—yes, they’re standing in line waiting for the clerk to give them their change, but Weller also opines that they’re longing for comprehensive social change as well. As he proceeds blindly past the “walls of ice cream,” still lost in meditation about social conditions, he realizes that the challenge is far greater than he imagined:
And everyone seems that they’re acting a dream
Cause they’re just not thinking about each other
And they’re taking orders, which are media-spawned
And they should know better, now you have been warned
And don’t forget you saw it here first
The tragic impact of this massive brainwashing effort is communicated through the change of a single consonant as Weller realizes that his fellow shoppers have no stomach for shaking up the routine:
And life just simply moves along
In simple houses, simple jobs
And no one’s wanting for the change
Though more than a little derivative, the very pleasant music fits nicely with the theme of induced happiness, and the melody is one of the catchiest on the album. Kudos to the band for this full version with the extended fade, which exceeds the arbitrary three-minute barrier of early punk dogma by a solid two-and-a-half. It sounds fucking great.
Paul Weller argued that “Billy Hunt” would make a great single; Polydor disagreed; hooray for Polydor. While I appreciate the exposure of the “nobody messes with me” chip-on-the-shoulder that many young men in subordinate positions carry with them on their journey through life–and the clever integration of the “superhero-wish” manifested in Billy claiming the power of Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man—-the repetitive onslaught of “Billy Hunt, Billy Hunt, Billy Billy Billy” drives me fucking insane. I find suitable relief in the classic mod number “It’s Too Bad,” a mid-60’s boy-has-problem-with-girl tune that might have hit the Top 30 back in ’64 or ’65 (though Bruce Foxton’s marvelously powerful bass runs would have blown out the speakers on the transistor radios of the era).
“Fly” is a more complex expression of love for a woman, though the soft-LOUD dynamic weakens the intimacy of the piece. I’m somewhat befuddled by the couplet “Let’s disappear love, let’s fly away/Into the demi-monde, into the twilight zone.” Whoa, wait a minute there, sonny! The demi-monde “refers to a group of people who live hedonistic lifestyles, usually in a flagrant and conspicuous manner,” while the twilight zone is one weird place with Martians running diners and hiding their third eye under a chevron cap. As a hedonist, I am seriously wounded and deeply offended by this juxtaposition! If they’d dropped that couplet and stuck to an acoustic arrangement, I would have given the song a thumbs-up.
“The Place I Love” could have been subtitled “The Refuge of the Introvert” or “My World and Stay the Hell Out of It,” as the song deals with the search for a private world separate from the competitive, back-stabbing universe of modern existence. Holding onto one’s identity in a world that constantly attempts to shape it into standard issue is a challenge for introverts and extraverts alike; here the refuge isn’t the loving relationship sought in many a rock song, nor is it a return to nature, strictly speaking. The safe house where the narrator makes “a stand against the world” is instead one where nature encroaches on the trappings of civilization, a place where people aren’t so manic about imposing order but instead seek to peacefully integrate human presence with the natural environment:
The place I love is overgrown now
With beautiful moss and colorful flowers
And goldfish that swim in a pool, there’s a small brick wall
With neon lighting controlled by lightning
The introductory riff seems to have been borrowed and modified by Blur (albeit with more notes and greater speed) in the song “Bank Holiday,” and I hope they acknowledged the influence as honestly as The Jam acknowledged theirs.
“‘A’ Bomb on Wardour Street” may have taken its cue from the discovery of a WWII bomb on the day when The Jam were to sign their contract with Polydor, but if so, it’s merely a starting point for a full-frontal assault on British hooliganism. Since discovering a buried Nazi A-bomb is an historical impossibility, it follows that Weller used the term “A-Bomb” to identify a destructive force that spreads beyond the initial point of detonation, i. e., hooliganism. While Wardour Street was the home to the British film industry and a few recording companies, it also hosted the punk venue The Vortex Club during the punk heyday, where violence was part of the show:
I’m stranded on the Vortex floor
My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour
Through the haze I can see my girl
Fifteen geezers got her pinned to the door
I try to reach her but fall back to the floor
‘A’ bomb in Wardour Street
It’s blown up the West End, now it’s spreading throughout the city
Waller sings this piece in an early Joe Strummer sneering growl over a straightforward rock riff integrating distorted guitar, thumping bass and steady drums (though they do throw in some Townshend-esque power chords and mod riffs). The anger comes through as righteous rather than frothing, balancing outrage with reason. The passage that rang most true for me involves the linking of violence to a loss of freedom—something the gun nuts in the States are too stupid to comprehend. What the fuck good is freedom if you’re dead?
Law and order takes a turn for the worst
In the shape of a size ten boot
Rape and murder throughout the land
And they tell you that you’re still a free man
If this is freedom I don’t understand
‘Cause it seems like madness to me
To seal the deal, Waller closes the circle by linking the thirst for violence to football hooliganism with the reference to “Dr. Martens’ A-P-O-C-A-L-Y-P-S-E,” the favorite shoes of sodden football fanatics. Dismissed by Stuart Mason of AllMusic as “the sound of a band saying goodbye to an ill-fitting suit of clothes,” I would suggest that the listener look beyond the punk trappings and view the song as a timeless protest about a recurring human problem that remains unresolved.
Any doubt that Paul Weller had taken his songwriting to a higher level is completely obliterated by the experience of “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” The power of this horrifying story of a man of a different color brutally attacked in the Underground by a pack of skinheads lies in the choice to present the tale as a first-person narrative from the victim’s point of view. This device serves to give the poet some distance from the subject matter, reducing the possibility that the poet will be tempted to shape the story or introduce their own emotional baggage. It also humanizes the experience to the nth degree.
The story begins with the man headed for the subway around midnight, probably a guy who has just finished the late shift at a restaurant or similar service establishment. On his way down to the tube he notices the day’s refuse, in particular a stale morning paper filled with “Headlines of death and sorrow, they tell of tomorrow/Madmen on the rampage.” When he recites the closing line of the verse, “And I’m down in the tube station at midnight,” we automatically connect his situation to the headlines and share his sense of foreboding. Still, he proceeds through the turnstile, probably telling himself that he’s made the trip hundreds of times before without incident.
I fumble for change, and pull out the Queen
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Whispers in the shadows, gruff blazing voices
“Hey boy” they shout, “have you got any money?”
And I said, “I’ve a little money and a takeaway curry
I’m on my way home to my wife
She’ll be lining up the cutlery, you know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
His innocent response seems to be an attempt to find common ground with his likely attackers by sharing a common human experience, thereby presenting himself as harmless. It doesn’t work; it was never going to work.
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and wormwood scrubs
And too many right-wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
Once they’ve had their fun, he struggles to maintain awareness of his surroundings, storing memories that will later seem absurdly trivial before realizing that these thugs may go after the person he loves most and there is nothing he can do to protect her:
The last thing that I saw as I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British rail poster read, “Have an away day, a cheap holiday Do it today.”
I glanced back on my life, and thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys, and she’ll think it’s me
The music has an ironically breezy urban feel to it, a soundtrack that seems weirdly dissonant and weirdly appropriate at the same time–as if to remind us that life goes on, lah-dee-dah, another gruesome tale for the headlines, now get back to the daily grind. Since right-wing thugs have made a comeback in Europe and the USA, “Down in the Tube at Midnight” has tragically earned status as a timeless piece of art, but I’m absolutely positive that Paul Weller would have traded that honor in exchange for an end to such brutality.
p. s. Fuck the BBC for banning this song and fuck Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn for complaining that, “It’s disgusting the way punks sing about violence. Why can’t they sing about trees and flowers?” It’s that kind of idiotic denial that allows the twin cancers of racism and hate to flourish.
With a hot songwriter leading the way, The Jam would go on to produce a series of successful albums before Paul Weller decided to move in a different direction with a new band called The Style Council. Eventually he would embark on a solo career that further cemented his status as one of Britain’s leading songwriters. While I think Weller would have found a way to the forefront even if The Jam had collapsed before the recording of All Mod Cons, his moment of truth paved the way for one of the most engaging listening experiences of the era. The third time was definitely the charm for The Jam.
What a difference a band makes.
The Clovers were the hired hands supporting Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True, hitting the notes and beats but not adding much in the way of excitement. Elvis Costello carried that record pretty much all by his little old lonesome, and that’s a pretty heavy burden for any performer. What he needed for his next record was a real band with high quality, multi-dimensional musicians who could deliver the rock ‘n’ roll goods and had the ability to respond to Costello’s lyrical displays with playfulness of their own.
Enter The Attractions.
There are two things that stand out for me when I listen to This Year’s Model. First, Elvis Costello sounds more confident and relaxed in his vocal delivery because he doesn’t have to compensate for the comparative lack of energy and innovation from the band. He can relax and ride the wave, knowing that the band has his back and then some.
The second thing is . . . I can’t take my ears off that drummer.
Can you say that? Is that a legitimate colloquialism in the English language? Well, fuck if I care, it’s the truth—I cannot take my ears off Pete Thomas. Because he may not have the cachet of Starr, Moon, Bonham or Bevan, you might think my passion for his stick-and-foot work might just be one of this crazy broad’s personal quirks. Au contraire! I am not alone in my lofty opinion! Tom Waits called Pete Thomas “one of the best rock drummers alive.”
Damn straight, Tom, damn straight.
The other two Attractions were pretty darned good, too. Bruce Thomas (no relation) proved to be a solid bassist with melodic flair, and though he and Elvis would eventually do battle with one another in an on-again off-again feud, at this early stage there was none of that silliness in play. Steve Nieve is an exceptionally talented keyboardist and composer, and one of the few organists I can listen to with unbridled pleasure.
Things kick off with a character suffering from that dire combination of bruised ego, denial and desire for petty revenge. Well, shit, no wonder he gets “No Action!” He spends the first verse lying to himself and to the woman whose life he garnishes with near-prank phone calls:
I don’t wanna kiss you
I don’t wanna touch
I don’t wanna see you
‘Cause I don’t miss you that much
I’m not a telephone junkie
I told you that we were just good friends
But when I hold you like I hold
That Bakelite in my hands
There’s no action (3)
Ooh–I hope he’s not whipping his skippy with his other hand. Ah, apparently not—he’s too busy displaying his moxie:
And the things in my head
Start hurtin’ my mind
And I think about the way things used to be
Knowing you with him is driving me crazy
Sometimes I phone you when I know you’re not lonely
But I always disconnect it in time
Elvis plays the role of gutless wonder to perfection, and the addition of harmony and call-and-response from Elvis and the boys in the band adds an exciting dimension to the overall sound.
I realized just how ab-fab Pete Thomas is the first time I heard “This Year’s Girl.” He opens the song establishing the base pattern, and what you notice most of all is how precise he is in terms of the force applied to each part of the kit—toms, bass, snare, high hat. His rock-solid performance during the intro allows gives each of the other members a chance to shine in turn, with Elvis getting his licks in first, Bruce filling in the bottom and Steve delivering the dominant figure on the keyboards. I love the way this tiny overture all comes together at the end, with Bruce cueing the close with a pair of declining runs, Steve holding the chord on the organ, Pete cooling off with soft high-hat beats then POW-POW-pa-PA-POW! Take it away, Elvis!
See her picture in a thousand places ’cause she’s this year’s girl
You think you all own little pieces of this year’s girl
Forget your fancy manners
Forget your English grammar
‘Cause you don’t really give a damn about this year’s girl
No, you really don’t. This year’s girl, next year’s girl—just another objectified piece of ass you can own by plunking down the dough for the magazine. The brilliance of the song comes through in the second verse and bridge, where Costello exposes the strange fantasy-driven “relationship” between viewer and object. The viewer wants this year’s girl to have some class in order to raise his status (see “trophy wife”) but when the lights go out he wants to break that bitch and shove his member down her throat. Although the scenario is completely unreal, the feelings feel real to the viewer; meanwhile, the girl in question wishes she’d been born ugly so she might have a shot at a real life, knowing that beauty fades as surely as a camellia in hot sun:
Still you’re hoping that she’s well-spoken ’cause she’s this year’s girl
You want her broken with her mouth wide open ’cause she’s this year’s girl
Never knowing it’s a real attraction
All these promises of satisfaction
While she’s being bored to distraction being this year’s girl
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
Costello opines that these strange connections between man and fantasy likely have their origins in male insecurity resulting from superficial “manliness” and the curse of erectile dysfunction (“Those body-building prizes/Those bedroom alibis”). The truth is that absurd expectations for both genders have poisoned the well since . . . well, since forever. The line quoted above appears in the closing verse, and I have to confess that I get so focused on what Pete is doing—particularly the sudden break from the pattern, a brief caesura and then varied lengths of pow-pow-pow on the toms—that it takes a superhuman effort to not tune out Elvis Costello’s lead vocal. And it’s one of his best! A perfect expression of justifiably righteous disdain!
Fortunately, “The Beat” is dominated by Costello’s vocal and Nieve’s organ, so I can concentrate on musical design and lyrics. The alternation between major and minor keys in verse and chorus is interesting, but isn’t accompanied by an obvious lyrical shift from “happy” to “sad.” As for the storyline, I’ve read various theories ranging from Oedipus complex to Onanism to garden-variety sexual inadequacy on the part of an awkward, un-cute boy (allegedly Costello himself). I’d be careful interpreting Costello’s lyrics as autobiographical, but the awkward boy theme is one of his sweet spots and likely has its origins in personal experience. I read the song as a stew of teenage/early-twenties insecurities in relation to sexual matters—a kitchen-sink exposé of young male neuroses. Musically, the song isn’t all that interesting, and “The Beat” is certainly not one of my faves.
“Pump It Up” certainly is, a perennial entry on my fuck playlists because when you’re horny you couldn’t care less about Costello’s anti-hedonistic lyrics as long as that thumping combination of drums and bass shakes every nerve “down in the pleasure center, hell-bent or heaven-sent.”
Now, Costello must have known that the music to this song is as sexy as fuck, so “anti-hedonistic” is a somewhat misleading label. He wrote the song on a fire escape in Newcastle while touring, feeling that his bandmates were more focused on the coke and the groupies than the music and the meaning. It seems to me that he was railing against artificial or dishonest means of pumping up the hormonal levels—drugs, image, presentation, projected identity. The chorus reads “Pump it up when you don’t really need it,” calling out the epidemic of human fragility that tricks us into believing we need drugs, a sexy dress, an attitude or being in with the in-crowd to give us confidence in our relations with others.
This Year’s Model continues the pattern of My Aim Is True in its faithfulness to the style of rock produced between 1958 and 1963. However, despite bearing a superficial resemblance to the songs of the early 60’s girl groups (I’m thinking Rosie and the Originals here), “Little Triggers” features chordal and rhythmic changes that violate the formula, and that kind of a thing was a no-go during that heavily conformist period. The triggers in question have to do with the ambiguous mating signals transmitted by a woman who hasn’t figured out that “I want/I don’t want to fuck” is the only sensible way to go. This broad triggers a rise in testosterone through a combination of sarcastic laughter, tongue teasing and temporary access to her body, only to force poor Elvis into an icy shower. It’s obvious that both parties need to grow up and get real. I adore Steve Nieve’s piano on this piece, executing the arpeggio usually assigned to guitar with professional eloquence.
If you’re the kind of person who would look forward to hearing The Stones’ “The Last Time: The Sequel,” you’ll love “You Belong to Me,” especially the opening riff and the verses where you can easily sing “I told you once and I told you twice” in place of Costello’s lyrics. Stones fans will also pick up on the use of the phrase “under his thumb” later in the song, and the loonier of the lot may be tempted to conjure up a conspiracy theory that Mick Jagger secretly left the Stones in a desperate attempt to save his marriage to Bianca, had major plastic surgery and turned himself into the younger, more self-effacing Elvis Costello.
Fuhgeddabout it. Elvis Costello has always been honest about borrowing bits, pieces and maybe a bit more from rock songs through the ages. The thing about “You Belong To Me” and most Costello compositions is that the lyrics tend to be much more interesting than the original, just as Shakespeare is a lot more fun to read than Plutarch. Here he expresses frustration with young ladies who take pride in being “owned” by this or that cute boy, imbuing the relationship with importance enhanced by secrecy, even if it means a trip to the doctor to take care of a little problem growing in the womb. Musically the song feels a bit choppy, and the organ a bit overwhelming, but I do find myself singing along to either Costello or Mick.
“Hand in Hand” breaks from early rock patterns with a vocal intro more than a little reminiscent of mid-period Beatles, especially the backward vocal on “Rain.” That intro leads to a song about man and woman locked in a power struggle arguing about who’s the toughest of them all. Sorry, but this one doesn’t really click for me.
“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” is also more about the music than the lyrics. Pete Thomas wanted to make his mark with an opening intro comparable to “Watching the Detectives,” and boy, did he ever, with a dazzling syncopated performance that paves the way for the herky-jerky rhythmic feel of the song. Much of that rhythmic feel is driven by the contrasting rhythms from Bruce Thomas on bass, which according to Costello, saved the song from becoming a “just a poor relation to ‘All of the Day (and All of the Night)’, ‘I Can’t Explain’ or even ‘Clash City Rockers.'” The result bears only a faint resemblance to those classics, and though the lyrics are little more than a brief vignette of the phony flash that marked the Chelsea of that era, I will always cherish the line, “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie.”
“Lip Service” is an absolutely delightful rocker marked by jangly guitar strums, heartfelt harmonies and a terribly exciting melodic bass line from Bruce Thomas that gives me the shivers, especially when he goes high on the fretboard during the chorus. I would love to hear a bass-only recording of this piece, as the combination of his rhythmic drive in the verses and the fabulous counterpoint melodies serve as a master class in how to own that instrument. “Lip Service” is an unusually uplifting piece from Costello from a musical perspective, but fear not, his disdain of interpersonal bullshit is fully expressed in the brief set of lyrics. It’s followed by “Living by Paradise,” a tune that mixes a touch of the Caribbean with classic rock in an arrangement that feels a little too busy and disjointed.
Pete gets another shot at a memorable intro in the frantic world of “Lipstick Vogue,” rolling those toms and whacking that snare like there’s no tomorrow. The intro establishes the starting point for the double-time rhythm that follows, which turns out to be a passageway to one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. The musicianship on this piece is breathtaking; in addition to Pete’s stunning energy, Bruce continues to zip around the fretboard and Steve does yeoman’s work on multiple keyboards. The piece has a true cinematic feel, with moods shifting from tension-filled to flat-out eerie, dynamics flipping from loud bash to carefully attenuated anticipation, like the classic set-ups in horror films. The structure of the extended instrumental middle, moving from full band madness to a passage featuring full intensity drums and organ sustain on comparatively low volume is absolutely killer, and the tension created is so palpable that when Elvis re-enters with his vocal, you don’t know whether to feel relief or hold on to your suspicions a little while longer. Though the band has already shown signs that they’re more than your average rockers, “Lipstick Vogue” tells you that these guys have the capacity to cover a wide range of musical ground.
“Night Rally” was omitted from some of the U. S. releases for a variety of reasons, one being that the subject matter was uniquely British. Morgan Troper of Pop Matters accepted that decision, but I think Troper might want to revisit some of the comments entered into the record, given recent developments in human history:
The lyrics’ significance are sort of confined to their time, as Costello allegedly wrote the song in response to a sudden abundance of neo-Nazi rallies around London in the late 1970s. The refrain (“You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally”) is a warning to the susceptible masses not to underestimate the viral ideology.
Well, I never thought Charlottesville could happen just like I never thought the American people were dumb enough to put such a painfully obvious racist and con man in the White House. I agree with Troper that the music isn’t much, a choppy version of girl group and who-knows-what-else, but the lyrics have tragically proven their value over time.
“Radio Radio” was tacked onto the album following its success as a single, delivering a final burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy before we say good night. What I love right off the bat is how it sounds like a classic radio hit with that bright carnival organ, kind of like Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” with a hundred times the power, thanks to the rollicking rhythms from Pete and Bruce. On cue, the band tones it down to give Elvis plenty of space to lay down the love part of his love-hate affair with the medium:
I was tuning in the shine on the late night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
These first four lines are from the song’s source, an early Costello composition called “Radio Soul.” A few years ago he told an audience, “Before I got into show business, I thought radio was great. So I wrote a song about celebrating it—the thrill of listening to it late at night. This was my imaginary song about radio before I found out how foul and twisted it was.” The ironic twist is that the audience in question consisted of the stock analysts and industry bigwigs attending the launch of Apple Radio. Don’t interpret the irony as evidence that Elvis Costello is a hypocrite—he’s just another artist in long line of artists who perceive a fundamental conflict between artistic and commercial considerations and can’t find a way to square the circle. This is a conflict of long historical standing; the only difference is that the patrons aren’t the landed gentry of the Renaissance, but large corporations focused on P&L.
It is said that the updated version of the song you hear on the album was triggered by the BBC’s banning of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” so the first two lines of the chorus form a double entendre: “Radio is a sound salvation/Radio is cleaning up the nation.” Costello can sing those lines with sincerity, having experienced the salvation of great music of pirate radio, but he is also fully aware that the BBC and other censors believe they’re doing just that by “curating content.” Elvis finds himself in quite a quandary, forced to supply the bastards with hits if he wants to be heard and hating himself for giving the man what he wants. He tries to buck himself up with a revenge fantasy he knows will never come to fruition:
I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me
What makes the song special for me is the third verse, where Costello displays remarkable prescience concerning the impact of controlled media on the populace, particularly its power to induce conformance, apathy and a feeling that all is well in normal-land even when it’s not:
Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up; they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel
Part of the reason I broke contact with all things American had to do with the outrage I felt at the anesthezation-normalization of Trump by most of the major news organizations, constantly asking Trump Troopers to appear on shows or in print without challenging the obvious falsehoods and outrageous claims spewing from their mouths. The same is true of pop music today—it’s feel-good formulaic crap designed to help you whistle your way through another pleasant day of existential boredom and forget about a world falling to pieces all around you.
The enthusiastic performance you hear from all band members in the repetition of “radio, radio” in the fade probably reflects the fact that they were born during a time when staying up late and listening to great music from great DJ’s made for the most exciting and cherished moments of the day. I grew up too late to experience that particular form of excitement; by the time I was scanning the digital dial for new music, great DJ’s were pretty much a thing of the past and corporations had remodeled ratio after the chain store. The enthusiasm of Elvis Costello and the Attractions expressed in this particular song serves as a reminder of the vital role music plays in our lives and the joy we derive from listening to it.
But if you don’t have access to a time machine and can’t go back in the past to hear Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack or Tom Donahue spinning the discs, listening to This Year’s Model will produce the same kind of joy.