Elvis Costello on Turning His 1979 Tour De Force, ‘Armed Forces,’ Into 2020’s Snazziest and Splashiest Boxed Set
Very few music boxed sets aspire to going beyond being gussied up digital repositories to becoming actual physical pieces of pop art. But opening up the new vinyl set from Elvis Costello, “The Complete Armed Forces,” feels like getting several Christmas mornings all at once, with a suitable-for-fondling nine records, seven paperbacks and various other ephemera intended to bring back the color explosions of 1979 as well as invoke other visual styles from the pulp-fiction ‘50s to the present. At the center of the “super-deluxe” set, enveloped in elaborate, Barney Bubbles-designed origami packaging, is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s fairly undisputed masterpieces, “Armed Forces,” a semi-concept record that reinvented Costello’s style three albums into his career and made “emotional fascism” sound like great, brow-furrowed fun.
But how many artists would have the chutzpah, more than 40 years into a career, to release a new studio album almost simultaneously with an elaborate shrine to one of their original glories? Although he ascribes the timing more to the whims of different record labels than his own plotting that’s what Costello has done in allowing this “Armed Forces” set to come out within a week of his brand new studio album, “Hey Clockface,” all but daring critics and fans to make comparative declarations that he’s lost a step since ’79. That hasn’t happened: “Clockface” has drawn its own merited raves as a very unnostalgic, sonically original dive into peace, love and modern misunderstandings.
The singer-songwriter Zoomed with Variety recently for a feature story that explored both “Hey Clockface” and “Armed Forces,” but there was much that didn’t make it into that piece about both subjects. More of what Costello had to say about his present and future will be featured in an upcoming episode of our Soundboard video interview series. In the meantime, here’s more of what he had to say about the 1979 album — including not just the forces that led to its creation, but questions fans might have about the boxed set. Like: Does it cost too much? (The higher-priced color variant can be had for 30% off right now at Sound of Vinyl. But would you like free? Is free good enough for you? That exists, too, at streaming sites like Apple Music and Tidal, minus, obviously, the pop-art and coffee-table components.) Also: Why no CD version? (He says that wasn’t his choice, but, since we asked, he’s okay with compact discs going the way of the Dodo bird.)
And, as a preview of our Soundboard video interview, we have the debut of an exclusive performance of “Party Girl,” marking the first time he’d ever played the 41-year-old classic on an acoustic guitar.
VARIETY: This boxed set of “Armed Forces” came as a surprise, in some ways. Because when we talked with you a few years ago and mentioned fans’ hopes that there would be more archival releases, you seemed not that interested.
COSTELLO: I’m still not, in the sense of like everything unedited. I appreciate that the Grateful Dead fans really want all those “Dick’s Picks” releases; they want the differences between those (individual live shows). But I don’t really think there’s a lot of difference between the performances over one year of the Attractions. It’s more about the atmosphere of some of those shows. “(Live at) Hollywood High” (one of the discs in the new set) has a great atmosphere because we were in this high school gym, and it was like slightly ironic that there were no high school students at that gig. There were just some like 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 in my younger, very snotty self.
But the other (live) records that are in this box are snapshots, you know. Two of them are 10-inch records, really because the shows they come from don’t stand a lot of scrutiny beyond the four tracks that we put on. One is a riot in Sydney. You can hear the show just about to go out of control. I love records that fade out just before it goes somewhere; that fades out just before it goes somewhere, but nowhere good. And the other one is a Christmas show from London. We’d been around the world and arrived back, and they’ve got a giant picture of me on top of a marquee, like I’m Elvis Presley or somebody. And it’s a moment of vanity.
How do you see this boxed set, versus other deluxe editions?
I think you’ve got to think of it all as an art piece. This whole boxed set is to do with Barney Bubbles’ artwork as much as our music. It’s not to do with whether you’ve got that rare version of “Two Little Hitlers.” Who cares? Five people care about that. They’ve already stolen all of that music 20 times over. I don’t care. I’m not in that business. I’m not in the nostalgia business. This is an object. It’s expensive if you’re buying your music by the pound. But honest to goodness, this is what it costs to make something this good. You open it up and then tell me it’s not worth the money. It’s nine pieces of vinyl, lots of books with words and pictures …. If you can make it cheaper, you call me up and tell me how to do it. It’s not my business anyway. You know, they’re making 12 of these boxes at Universal — and probably giving most of them away.
The music is all available very soon in the stream, or in download. The thing that doesn’t exist in this one is CD. That’s a decision they’ve made, but it’s one I am particularly sympathetic about, with the demise of the CD. Because in terms of artwork, it’s an appalling medium. I don’t even think it sounds better than vinyl. I know that some people say, “Oh, yes it is. I’ve got it on my oscilloscope here. I can prove it to you.” I don’t care. I don’t care if you audiophiles go and tune your amps. I’m not looking at the meters. I’m looking at the music. The music definitely sounds better on vinyl. … I’m not looking at the music, by the way. I’m listening to it.
You did set off a bit of a controversy the other day, when someone asked you about the set not coming out on CD and you said you were fine with CDs going away, saying it’s an outmoded medium.
It is. You know what? I would rather see cassettes come back than CD survive. And it didn’t really cause a controversy — eight people on Twitter said that, probably, like everything else. If you’re not looking, it stops happening. … You know, if you believe that CD’s better, great. Knock yourself out. You just won’t be able to buy this record. Why not just listen to the downloads? Then you can move around your house all you like.
It does sound, though, that with this you’ve realized there is demand for archival sets and there may eventually be more on the way like this.
I think there will. I don’t know what they’ll look like. They might be in pill form, for all I know. It might take so long that you’ll swallow the pill and you’ll hear the music in your imagination. … I don’t know whether you remember, but some of my records came out on 8-track. But is anybody crying any tears about that? Now, cassettes, I like. They were very handy for keeping your thoughts. You could post (mail) one to somebody very easily. You’re much less likely to destroy a cassette in transit than you are a CD, frankly.
I mean, the thing about CDs that ticked me off I think most of all was the lie that the record companies told about them being expensive to manufacture. So they made the audience pay a lot of money for them, and they paid us less royalties. That was the first of the same swindle that they worked with download and streaming. So if you want to know why music has not regenerated itself, it’s because these supposed technical innovations and delivery systems have actually been a backward step in the equity of all of this towards the artists and towards the audience. You know, when recorded music first appeared, it was like magic. Then radio developed and almost crushed the record business. So this thing has happened a few times.
I personally have lots of very much-loved 78s, which put me in some way closer to the moment in which that music was made. And there’s certain types of record I wouldn’t hear any other way. You can give me a cleaned-up version on download or filtered and put on a CD, but I don’t love it more than hearing “Rip It Up” by Little Richard on a 78. It just sounds great and feels more visceral and closer to what it must have been like to be in the room. It doesn’t matter that it’s all scratched, because your mind fills in the rest. It’s like radio being better than television. It just is, because it’s all happening in your imagination, and you’re participating. It’s not passive.
So I stand by what I said. “Hey Clockface,” by the way, is coming out on CD, because that’s what that record label wants. I don’t make these decisions. You know, I, strangely enough, do not run the world. I know, it’s a shock! I don’t even run my own life. I just say, “This is what I would like,” and sometimes people agree with me, you know? It’s a strange thing. When you start wanting to rule the world in show business, that’s when you know you’re in trouble. You just should have fun. It’s just all so silly to worry about. Aren’t there some more important things we could get upset about? I’m sure there are.
Comparing “Hey Clockface” to “Armed Forces,” it may be a stretch, but there are points of comparison. The new album doesn’t sound anything like its predecessor; it definitely won’t be winning a Grammy for traditional pop, like “Look Now” did this year. And thinking back to 1979, making the jump from “This Year’s Model” to “Armed Forces,” you had Steve Nieve’s organ transitioning to mostly piano and synths, and as you’ve said, with something like “Oliver’s Army,” you had been listening to ABBA cassettes on tour, and on your third record were coming up with sounds that would never have fit on your first or second.
I think because a lot of people that copied music without much imagination to make a new thing of their own were much more literal-minded than we were. I mean, I think even “This Year’s Model” has something in common with the sampling culture that came much later, when the sampler became dominant, except we were just playing those quotations — we weren’t actually getting the clips from the records. Our way of arranging was often just to get a figure from one record and jam it together with the rhythm of another record, and I’d sing a rhythmic flow of words that was borrowed from yet a third record. And after a while, we forgot where we took the things from, because they became original songs. They weren’t very obviously indebted — some of them more so than others, perhaps.
On the first record that I made (“My Aim Is True”), I didn’t know anything about the studio. I’d only ever been in a recording studio a couple of times before I made that record. So I was very lucky to have such a capable band as Clover backing me. And as much as they understood what I was referring to in those first songs, we managed to make this record that — maybe because of my attitude, more than the actual playing — seemed to fit in with what was going on (with punk or new wave). Once we formed the Attractions (in between the first and second albums), we were still really just playing in the room with a few little bits of detail added later. We didn’t really use the studio as an instrument. I mean, I think “Watching the Detectives” (from the first album) was a more overt use of the studio as part of the sound than anything on “This Year’s Model.” “This Year’s Model” was just us playing in the room, and Nick Lowe caught that moment, and Roger Bechirian mixed it for the British radio. It’s actually not that much of a rock ‘n’ roll record. It’s a pop record with rock and roll (leanings). So we were still in this moment of being part of the pop scene in England. We hadn’t yet broken through in America in any meaningful way. We’d come a couple of times, (meeting) originally a little bit of curiosity in some towns, indifference in many others. By the third tour, by the time we got to the summer of ‘78 when we made “Armed Forces,” we definitely had people’s attention, up to a point. And we just used the studio the way it should be used.
So “Armed Forces” was our version of what a studio record sounded like. It incorporated a bunch of things that we were listening to in that moment — which were ABBA, and obviously the references to the Beatles that three of us certainly shared. [A fourth, the classically trained Nieve, has said that he’d never listened to the Beatles much prior to that time.] We put aside the rock ‘n’ roll, Small Faces/Rolling Stones sort of references of “This Year’s Model.” And into it came the synthesizer, which came from like (David Bowie’s) “TVC-15” and things like that. Things like [Bowie’s and Iggy Pop’s] “Station to Station,” “Low,” “Heroes,” “The Idiot,” “Lust for Life.” …. We played cassettes in the station wagon driving around America the first time, the same four or five records round and round and round. Little wonder that became our language for that next record. …. I could point you the way to all sorts of records you wouldn’t expect that in some way influence one sound or other, one guitar sound or one little turn of phrase, but none of it much matters because it jumbles up. And by the time we had done it our way, it became some kind of original, I guess.
Most of the “Armed Forces” songs are keyboard-oriented, as you often let Steve take the lead, but “Party Girl” has a great guitar sound to it. Was that something that you were writing on the guitar?
I probably wrote all of the songs on the guitar. I didn’t have a piano. Any piano was one I found somewhere. I think I might’ve gone to the piano to look at some of the things on “Accidents Will Happen.” And certainly once Steve got his hands on it… It was originally, as you know, first performed as a piano ballad (as heard on “Live at Hollywood High”); we did it with a much slower tempo and more deliberately. But once the band played it, it just sounded to me like a pop record. That’s what it was supposed to be, anyway. Pop means a different thing now, but I still use the word “pop music” as distinct from like just turning up the guitar and letting it fly. You know, you’re putting some things in determined places in the mix, however unusually or originally, or from a blueprint that you’ve borrowed from some other place. But certainly “Party Girl” has a reference to the Beatles, obviously in the arpeggio at the end. I don’t think it’s the same arpeggio. There’s some Cheap Trick songs that sound like that too, and we loved Cheap Trick. So were we ripping off the Beatles? Or were we just, “Hey, Cheap Trick — I like them”? You know? You’re laughing, but I’m deadly serious!
In your memoir, you’re very open about which songs you took influences from in writing and arranging your own… which is something that probably scares people now, because everyone’s so sue-happy. But you said that one of the songs on “This Year’s Model” was taken a little bit from the feel of (Tom Petty’s) “American Girl,” which was not an obscure, old reference.
It was also sort of like five different Byrds songs. I’m sure Tom (Petty) would have acknowledged it — I know he did, because obviously Roger McGuinn recorded “American Girl.” Tom must’ve been delighted, as I was when Roger cut my song (“You Bowed Down”) much later. But the first time I heard Petty, I thought, “Oh, that’s a Byrds idea.” I felt the same way the first time I heard R.E.M. I mean, for that matter, the two or three records by the Smiths that I can stand to listen to all sound like the Byrds to me. I think a lot of people took cues. Even the Beatles took cues from the Byrds. They were a very influential band, not just because of the vocal blend, but because of their use of the guitars, with wide-open kind of folk chords with heavily amplified, open strings ringing like that. It’s a very good sound.
Where did something as unusual-sounding as “Green Shirt” come from?
[He plays a bit of it on his acoustic guitar.] See, it would have just been like an old folk song if we’d done it like that. Probably that’s how I played it first when I played it to everybody. And then Steve had. I think. a mini-Moog of some kind, this very unpredictable instrument, and we managed to jam it in playing this repetitive loop. I don’t think we thought we were making a Giorgio Moroder record, but to our mind, this was the stuff that we liked about the mechanistic sound of Kraftwerk. We weren’t going to make records that were that austere, though. I wanted the emotion in them. And the lyric was obviously a combination of the suburban view of the same thing as is in “Watching the Detectives,” where you’ve got the tension between a woman watching the detective show and the guy trying to get her attention. It’s a simple rivalry.
I mean, oddly enough, I mean, “Hey Clockface,” the song, is about the same idea. It’s sung maybe more whimsically, but it’s about the idea that the clock is your romantic rival, because it constantly steals time from your lover; it moves slow when they’re going to turn up and it moves fast when it’s time to leave. I often animated objects like that. I think that “Watching the Detective” has that tension in it. “Green Shirt” obviously does, because it goes from things that I could have only viewed watching the television in England to the Quisling Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, which I’d never seen before. It’s a real place. In my mind, it went off like an alarm bell because of the association of the name Quisling to the fascist collaborator in Norway. So I imagined dark, sinister things happening. That’s what this song was trying to summon up, this feeling of the ordinary becoming threatening.
And a lot of the songs on “Armed Forces”… As you know, it was originally called “Emotional Fascism,” because it was about — I think I’m quoting myself here — the corridor from the war room to the bedroom. So the couple aspects of life are conducted like a war. And the reverse is also true. Some of the flirting between countries and ideologies is like some sort of sick romance, some codependent need. That all seemed very clear to me in my heightened, youthful state when I wrote these. I was 24 when I wrote these songs, so things were moving very fast. And I sped ‘em up as fast as I could, with lots of gin, and other things. And made a cocktail where you shake that up and you get “Party Girl,” you get “Two Little Hitlers” — which is not even about one Hitler. You know, it’s about two people that are just hateful.
So there’s a lot in there, but it’s as close to a diary as I ever kept. I have all my notebooks, and photographic facsimiles of a lot of them are reprinted in the “Armed Forces” set that’s coming out. If anybody wants to read the unhinged scrawl that led to these songs, that’s there for them. They can see the verses that I didn’t use, the rhymes that didn’t pan out; the locations that I couldn’t place in the songs, , or the very different way a couple of songs might’ve gone if I had stayed with my first idea. I recognize in looking at them again that I even had an editorial method that really only consisted of me writing the lyrics out in sequence from song to song so that I could see what the overall story of the record was. There’s one notebook which is totally scrawled and very hard to decipher, and there’s another with close to a neat hand, which is a first draft of the original running order of “Armed Forces,” with “Clean Money” as the opening track. We didn’t even have “Accidents Will Happen.” That was the way it was originally conceived, with a rocker at the top. [[It was eventually cut from the album, showed up a year later as part of the “Taking Liberties” odds-and-ends collection, and appears on the new set as part of an EP titled “Sketches for ‘Emotional Fascism’.”]
So you said, “Oh, you were moving away from ‘This Year’s Model.’” Well, we weren’t moving away that fast. We’d already cut “Peace, Love and Understanding,” which in my mind is not even on this album. It’s a song that we made for a Nick Lowe B-side. It was added by Columbia Records to the album because I guess they thought it sounded like more rock ‘n’ roll than many of the other things, and that’s what they wanted. They didn’t really want this record. It didn’t suit them at all.
You surely had not the slightest idea or could have imagined that “Peace, Love and Understanding” would be something that you would ending shows with most of your career.
Certainly, I think when Nick wrote it, he was writing it with an irony about Tin Pan Alley and Love Generation anthems. I don’t think he was writing it as the totally stricken, desperate song that it sort of sounds when we play it. I think there was a little irony in the way he recorded originally. 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. You know, 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 other people sing it in very many different ways. I’ve heard Bruce Springsteen sing it, Chris Cornell sing it; Josh Homme sang it with Sharon Van Etten. I mean, there’s some really good versions. Nick Lowe’s version with a choir earlier this year was beautiful. So I mean, 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?
It’s amazing how venerable it’s been, that your audience really doesn’t want to leave until they’ve heard that.
Well, it’s become a closer on many nights. It won’t always be in that place. Maybe someday we will be able to play it in a different way. I don’t know whether we will. But you know, we have a lot of songs always to consider, and you want to put some emphasis on the newest material. By the time we venture out again, the way things are looking, that new material could be something entirely different than even this record. You know, I haven’t stopped writing songs. So the next show could be 15 songs you’ve never heard before, for all I know.
That’s a way to look at it, anyway. I think we should look to the future with as much hope as possible. It’s not always easy to do that, the way it is at the moment, but I’m encouraged that some people are attempting to connect in the different ways they feel they can, whether it’s over these devices, or try to play in some sort of way that seems coherent. We’ll see what the new year brings.
I just went to my first drive-in concert, but that doesn’t seem like something you’re be in a hurry to try out for a gig.
Do they turn on headlights for an encore? That’s what I’ve been imagining. The windscreen wipers mean “Get off, you’re rubbish,” and the headlights mean “Encore.” The hooter (car horn), too, to say “more.”… Or if you hate the show, you could always just listen to the radio — maybe that’s the good thing about it. If you hate the show, you can just sit there and listen to the radio. At least nobody’s going to spill their beer on you, except you.
As you look back on yourself in 1979, the man who made “Armed Forces,” are you more struck by the similarities to or differences from the you of today?
I was who I was, for better or worse. But as a musician and as a man — a young man admittedly, but that’s no excuse — doing the things I did and didn’t do in ’79… I just don’t see the comparison. What I see is the possibility that life gives to you. You know, the people I still love that I loved then; the people that I don’t have in my life anymore that I don’t miss. The people that we’ve lost this year, that I miss very, very much. I try not to make that anybody else’s fault; it’s just terrible fortune.
And I will say, I’m very grateful for my friendship, which becomes deeper and more valuable to me, with Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas, and also Davey Faragher — who’s now been in a band with us (the Imposters), albeit on and off, over the last 20 years. That’s twice as long as the Attractions existed, so get over it, you know. That band is never coming back. That band was in the past. It’s a great band that made those great records. If that’s what you want to hear, knock yourself out. Here’s a box that’s celebrating this band at one of their high points. They had several; they had two or three. But the band now is a functioning group in the right now, and I mean, right now, that’s doing stuff that will blow people’s minds when they hear it. And I mean that. I’m very, very excited about being in collaboration with those guys — not just with Steve on “Hey Clockface,” but what the future brings (for all of the Imposters playing together), and that’s a pretty good feeling.
So there is more recording going on?
I think we took everybody by surprise by delivering an album when everybody said it was impossible to make an album. But I had a head start, didn’t I, because I had started in February. So of course you can mix in isolation very effectively, but you can record in isolation if you want to. I’ve made several recordings that haven’t come out yet that I’ve made for other people. There’s one really good record that I think Rodney Crowell is putting together that must be coming out soon that I contributed to. I wrote with and for Tommy McClain for a record that my friend C.C. Adcock is producing that’s coming out hopefully soon.
But a lot of records have struggled to finish the work that they began, because some people need to be in a room with other musicians in order to get it done. We’re not those people. I can put Pete Thomas down in his basement, where he has a drum kit, and we can do anything we want.