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.
Two things 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 was 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 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 the 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, uncute 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 about 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 in 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 a man and a woman locked in a power struggle arguing about who’s the toughest of them all. Sorry, but this one doesn’t 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 a delightful rocker marked by jangly guitar strums, heartfelt harmonies and an 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 for 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 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 a 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 DJs 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 DJs 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.