The Tor Guides

Defining pop – when Costello was important

In Classic pop on 27 April, 2011 at 11:06

Photographs of fancy tricks to get your kicks at sixty-six
He thinks of all the lips that he licks
And all the girls that he’s going to fix
She gave a little flirt, gave herself a little cuddle
But there’s no place here for the mini-skirt waddle

I´ve always been told that the period between 66-68 was the golden age of pop music. Surely, some great music was made during those years that outlined the future of pop music. But – wasn´t the last half of the 70s equally as formative in producing high quality defining pop music?

The British pub rock wave and the following punk wave took music back from the big arenas and the golden theatres. Suddenly the music was allowed to stand on its own legs, often with a simple but effective production. No nonsense was the mantra of the day. One of the more important links between the old and the new was Elvis Costello, with his one leg in the pub rock scene and the other aiming for the future. During some years he somehow managed to accomplish quantum leaps every time he entered the recording studio, in those years aided by fellow pub rocker Nick Lowe of Brinsley Schwarz fame.

His first album, My Aim Is True, was recorded and produced by said Lowe, with Clover as his backing band, assisted by Doobie Brother John McFee. The record, both then and now, sounds a bit too lame for my liking. Though I have often been told about the anger and the attitude of Costello on that specific album, I have always failed to understand that standpoint – to me, Dr Feelgood was always a lot more angry than the early Costello. However, there are no doubt some great music on that record and of course you can sense some frustration here and there but I´d say it has a lot more in common with the past than the future.

Initially Costello performed solo, with just his guitar, but soon found the need of a good backing. band Musicians were called to audion for him and, if I am not mistaken, they were all to play songs as Abba´s Knowing me, Knowing You and Damned´s Neat Neat Neat. Bass player Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas were already established musicians when they were engaged whereas the last quarter, keyboard player Steven Nason was virtually untried. Nason, who in true tradition with the times, adopted Steve Naive as his nom de guerre, was a classically trained piano player who unlike Costello and his fellow musicians lacked any deeper knowledge of popular music. That specific quality seemingly led to many a smile when the subject of classic pop songs was brought up. On the other hand, I am certain that his unorthodox take on Costello´s music was a key ingredient in spicing up the latter´s success.

The new trio, eventually christened Attractions,  would come to assist Costello for many a year in his quest through unknown musical territories and help define pop as we know it today. Nowadays Costello is well-known as a veritable lexicon of popular music – but that wasn´t the case around -77 or -78.

Costello´s best productions – in my own humble view – are his second album, This Years Model, the first with his new band Attractions, and its sequel Armed Forces, with its many layers of synths. However, before these albums were released, he recorded and released his final single for Stiff Records, his first label, namely Watching the Detectives. On that single he was assisted by Andrew Bodnar and Steve Goulding from Graham Parker´s band Rumour, with Naïve´s organ added on top. With its mixture of film noir and pop reggae it was a remarkable leap from the traditional playing on the first album. I have a clear picture in my head seeing Costello live on Swedish TV playing that very song, as I recall it, for the first time ever on TV.  The show ended with Costello playing Mystery Dance from his first album together with surprised folk rock combo Scafell Pike – an almost incredible combination. But, more was yet to come.

The first single from This Year´s Model was I Don´t Want To Go To Chelsea, released on a new label. The song was recorded between november -77 and january -78 in Eden Studios in London, once again with Lowe producing. Every one of the songs 189 seconds is oozing out classic! Already in Pete Thomas´ classic drum intro, you can sense that something extra-ordinary is about to happen – he kicks of in the one groove, just to change directions altogether after a few seconds, an lane-changing act the band was to repeat some time later when the single Radio Radio was finally played on American TV show Saturday Night Live.

Eventually bass player Bruce Thomas joins in with Costellos quirky guitar, with Naive doubling the bass line. When we´re all set for the refrain, Naive adds a ghost like synth pad, where after the whole mixture is drowned by his famous Vox organ. On the first album, Costello sung quite traditionally. Already on Watching the Detectives one could sense a great change but here, words on vanity and beauty fixation are spitted out in anger – he could almost have had a good career as an oi punk rocker – too!

During the summer of 79 I saw Costello and his Attractions live In Stockholm. It was a short and explosive show. I was seated on the third row and can still recall the definite unease when Costello, all lighted in envious green, fixated us with his angry eyes. Already at this stage, the song had been refined and was one of the cornerstones in the set list. As I understand it – I have now lost most interest in Costello the musician in favor of Costello the talk show host! – it´s still the same cornerstone in his set list.

All in all, a brilliant piece of music – you can get a taste of it below!



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