Elvis Costello Armed Forces SDE

As a follow-up to the agitation of “This Year’s Model,” 1979’s “Armed Forces” might have had even more rage to it — but it was better disguised, as Costello, his band the Attractions and Lowe committed to putting more of a pop sheen on the songs, trading organ for synths or, on the politicized “Oliver’s Army,” a piano sound they borrowed from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

“By the time we got to ‘Armed Forces,’ we had the idea we wanted to make an actual studio record,” Elvis Costello recalls. “And that was our version of what a studio sounded like. We played cassettes in the station wagon driving around America for the first time, of the same four or five records round and around. Little wonder that became our language for that next record, things that we were listening to in that moment — including ABBA. We put aside the rock ’n’ roll, Small Faces/Rolling Stones references of ‘This Year’s Model’ and into it came the synthesizer, which came from those David Bowie and Iggy Pop records — ‘Station to Station,’ ‘Low,’ ‘Heroes,’ ‘The Idiot,’ ‘Lust for Life.’” Then, considering more stripped-down techno influences, he adds, “I don’t think we thought we were making a Giorgio Moroder record, but we liked the mechanistic sound of Kraftwerk, even if we weren’t going to make records that were that austere. I wanted the emotion in them.”

Guitar music figured in — barely. “Certainly ‘Party Girl’ has a reference to the Beatles, obviously in the arpeggio at the end. There are some Cheap Trick songs that sound like that too, though, and we loved Cheap Trick. So were we ripping off the Beatles, or were we just ‘Hey, Cheap Trick — I like them’?” He hears us chuckle at the idea he might’ve been influenced as much in the moment by Rick Nielsen as George Harrison. “You’re laughing,” he says, “but I’m deadly serious!”

Columbia Records added a cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” recorded for another project, to the album. “They thought it sounded more rock ’n’ roll than many of the other things, and that’s what they wanted. This record didn’t suit them at all.” Although Costello says of the song that “in my mind, it’s not even on this album” (and it wasn’t, on the original U.K. version), he’s not unhappy that it became so wildly popular that fans have expected to hear his version of Lowe’s tune closing out most of his shows for 40 years now.

“I think there was a little irony in the way Nick recorded it originally,” Costello says, recalling that Lowe first had the idea of gently satirizing hippie sentiments with “Peace, Love and Understanding.” “But if you’ve ever heard him perform it in recent years, he sings it very much like the lament that it deserves to be. I think both approaches to the song are really appropriate. I like all the versions of the song that I’ve heard. Sometimes it takes you a moment to hear it again in a different way, but I’ve had reason to sing it as a ballad, as a rocker and somewhere in between. I’ve heard Bruce Springsteen sing it and Chris Cornell sing it, and Josh Homme sang it with Sharon Van Etten. I mean,  there’s some really good versions. Nick’s version with a choir earlier this year was beautiful. You know, it shouldn’t be needed now, but we still have to sing it. How long, how long must we sing this song — as Bono said, you know?”

The “Armed Forces” boxed set is coming out on vinyl as well as digitally with several extra LPs’ or EPs’ worth of live material from ’79. He picked out only the performances he thought were great from that period, he says. “I appreciate the Grateful Dead fans really want all those ‘Dick’s Picks’ releases and want the differences between each show, but I don’t really think there’s a lot of difference between the performances over the course of one year of the Attractions. It’s more about the atmosphere of some of those shows. One is from a show in Sydney where there was a riot. You can hear the show just about to go out of control. I love records that fade out just before it goes somewhere; that one fades just before it goes somewhere, but nowhere good. ‘Live at Hollywood High’ has a great atmosphere because we were in this high school gym, and it slightly ironic that there were no high school students at that gig, just some 35-year-old divorcees dressed like teenagers, and record executives. And Linda Ronstadt apparently was at that show. I’m really thrilled to know that she actually heard ‘Party Girl’ at that show for the first time, and then went ahead and recorded it. Not that I was particularly grateful as my younger, very snotty self.”

Costello’s biggest project yet for 2020: a deluxe 9-disc vinyl “Super Deluxe Edition” ofArmed Forces with three 12-inch LPs, three 10-inch LPs, and three 7-inch singles including 23 previously unreleased live tracks and the complete contents of the previous Rhino/Edsel deluxe edition. It’s due from UMe on November 6th.

Armed Forces was the third studio album from Elvis Costello and second with The Attractions, arriving in January 1979. It was originally conceived under the title Emotional Fascism, which says a lot about the artist’s state of mind while writing and recording. Much was made at the time about Costello moving away from the punk sound of its predecessors and embracing a new wave style, but (then as now) genre tags were simply reductive when it came to Costello’s oeuvre. He brought a deep and abiding love of pop, rock, and R&B in all their forms to Armed Forces, turning in some of his most beloved compositions including “Oliver’s Army” (anchored by Steve Nieve’s ABBA-inspired keyboard riff) about the Troubles in Northern Ireland; the tense, paranoid “Green Shirt”; and elegant, haunting “Accidents Will Happen,” inspired by Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” One of the LP’s most famed songs wasn’t on the original U.K. issue, however. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” was introduced by Nick Lowe – the producer of Armed Forces – by his band Brinsley Schwarz in 1974 and re-recorded by Costello, The Attractions, and producer Lowe in 1978 credited to “Nick Lowe & His Sound.” Costello’s biting rendition was added to the U.S. version of the album where it replaced “Sunday’s Best.”

Various configurations of Armed Forces have been released over the years. The original U.K. LP had the “elephant stampede” cover, while the U.S. edition had the “splattered paint” artwork. Early pressings included a three-track EP, Live at Hollywood High, with a live version of “Accidents Will Happen” as well as “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” Rykodisc’s 1993 CD issue based on the original U.K. sequence appended “What’s So Funny” and the EP plus five additional bonus cuts. The 2002 deluxe edition, released by Rhino in the U.S. and Edsel in the U.K., upped the ante with an entire bonus disc of 17 selections including all of the Ryko bonuses and a generously expanded Hollywood High boasting nine songs. In 2007, Universal’s Hip-o imprint controversially restored Costello’s catalogue to its original form on CD, meaning that Armed Forces lost all additional material other than “What’s So Funny.” In 2010, the June 4th, 1978 Hollywood High show received its first standalone release on CD with 20 total songs.

After the disappointing string of early releases in the wake of the superlative Rhino/Edsel series, UMe has thrown down the gauntlet with this presentation of Armed Forces. The set has been personally curated by Costello. It’s housed in a slipcase bearing the Barney Bubbles “splattered paint” artwork and in effect expands on the 2002 Rhino/Edsel deluxe edition in the vinyl format. It contains:

  • New remaster by Bob Ludwig and EC of Armed Forces from the original tapes, “with the sonic fidelity matching the original 1979 U.K. pressing”;
  • Sketches for Emotional Fascism 10-inch, with four previously issued bonus tracks;
  • Riot at the Regent: Live in Sydney ’78 10-inch, with six previously unreleased live tracks;
  • Europe ’79: Live at Pinkpop 12-inch, with 13 previously unreleased live tracks;
  • Christmas in the Dominion: Live 24th December ’78 10-inch, with four previously unreleased live tracks;
  • Live at Hollywood High and Elsewhere 12-inch, with the 10 live tracks included on the 2002 Rhino/Edsel deluxe edition of Armed Forces;
  • “Oliver’s Army” b/w “Big Boys (Demo)” 7-inch single;
  • “Accidents Will Happen” b/w “Busy Bodies (Alternate)” 7-inch single;
  • “American Squirm” b/w “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” – Nick Lowe & His Sound 7-inch single.

In addition to the nine vinyl platters, the box also includes seven notebooks including updated liner notes by Elvis (nearly 10,000 words in length) and his handwritten lyrics, plus a replica of the “grenade and gun” poster and original postcards of Elvis and the Attractions: keyboard maestro Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Bruce Thomas.

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