A New Wave Masterpiece Turns 40

Armed Forces further fuels Elvis Costello’s transatlantic invasion

Elvis Costello and the Atractions Armed Forces, CBS 1979

Following his remarkable one-two punch in the form of his groundbreaking first and second albums — My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model — Elvis Costello was clearly on the way to being identified as the singular most important insurgent to emerge among his punk peers in the heady era of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

There was competition, of course. And plenty of it at that, with Graham Parker and Joe Jackson also emerging as potent contenders. Yet the consistency and quality of Costello’s work made him an immediate standout, and established him as an artist with both a powerful punch and a way with words. It was a combination that rivaled the work of Dylan and the Band in both its sound and sprawl.

EC ’79 promo poster

If anything, Costello was a thinking man’s rebel, an artist whose efforts melded determination with defiance, and whose songs echoed a traditional template that boasted energy, emotion and clearly honed hooks. Along with the simmering emotion and tenacious treatment exemplified by such songs as “Accidents Will Happen,” “Oliver’s Army,” and “Goon Squad,” there was the  assertive instrumentation provided by the Attractions, an ideal backing band that was finally credited for the first time with equal billing. They made a formidable impression, and often appeared as equals in those early MTV videos, all accorded equal standing with Cstello himself. It was well deserved; indeed, the Attractions — drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and keyboard player Steve Nieve — were the ideal outfit to convey songs of such a visceral variety.

1979 EC concert poster for the Palladium NYC

Given that the overall theme of the album was militaristic in tone, a s expressed in several of the songs, the early working title Emotional Fascism seemed to make perfect sense. Notably though, on the U.S. and Canadian versions, the song “Sunday’s Best” was omitted to make room for a track that would become one of Costello’s most enduring anthems, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.” Originally written by Nick Lowe during his stint with his early band Brinsley Schwarz, it’s since served both men well, and still remains one of the more anticipated numbers in each artist’s live repertoire.

Elvis Costello and the Atractions Armed Forces, CBS 1979

Even so, it was apparent that Costello’s material was evolving towards an ever more aggressive posture. The tender tones of “Allison” were nowhere to be found, and while both “Accidents Will Happen” and “Oliver’s Army” were released as singles, it was clear Costello was no longer interested in immersing himself in the mainstream. That said, his next album, Get Happy!, would find him opting for more buoyant beats via ska, reggae and classic R&B. Not that Costello would shed his torrid veneer entirely, but it would mark a sound that was more mature as opposed to that earlier rowdy and rebellious phase.

For the moment however, Costello could celebrate a perfect trifecta, the third of three releases that immediately established him as a rebel to be reckoned with, an artist, and certainly among the best of his breed. Now, 40 years on, Armed Forces still remains the record that helped Costello conquer his skeptics and the rest of the world as well.

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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