No.1 This Years Model
Elvis Costello & The Attractions
(Radar Records, 1978)
When the young and frankly nerdy Elvis Costello made his debut appearance on record in the closing months of 1977 on the fledgling Stiff label, few could have predicted the long and chequered career that would follow. Of course, the pedigree of songs such as Less Than Zero and Alison on his first, primitive collection (My Aim Is True, 1977) showed that he had all the right starting-points, a way with words and an increasing number of catchy hooks up his sleeve.
But the rest of that first long-player was only ok; it didnt set the world on fire immediately in the way that, for example, The Ramones, Television or even The Stranglers first-born had done. It was a healthy start, but that was all. So it was a shock to the system when in March 1978 the first single from his second album was issued. The track was I Dont Want To Go To Chelsea, a swaggering bully of a record.
Stuttering, funky, hideously complex drums kicked off the track in maverick fashion, followed by a descending guitar-riff that in turn introduced Elvis's vocal: a distinct change from the first records had clearly taken place, because the confidence here was sky-high and he spat out every word as if his very life depended on it.
The story seemed sinister, seedy and sarcastic, possibly even murderous (and all the girls that he's going to fix) before moving into the dark waters of the much-discussed misogyny (there's no place here for the mini-skirt waddle). Multiple crimes, layers upon layers - and this was a back-to basics new wave record! Elvis sneers at the shallow majority (capital punishment, she's last years model) snobs (they call her Natasha but she looks like Elsie) and psychotics (men come screaming dressed in white coats).
The inclusion of classically-trained keyboard musician Steve Nieve was a secret weapon of Elvis's fabulous Attractions, and on Chelsea he contributes one of his thrilling, 60's Farfisa-organ solos that seemed to bleed 40's film noir from the speakers. This exciting, literate and above all, catchy teaser, gave Elvis and his men a top ten hit in the UK and sent a shiver of anticipation for the new album throughout his embryonic fanbase.
When it arrived, it didnt disappoint. Nick Lowe's production was clean but not squeaky, the sound is full and rich. The punmaster in Elvis started here, on this classic album. On No Action, we have "every time I phone you, I just want to put you down" as an early appearance of these clever-clever couplets. The track, like so much of Elvis's 1977 to 1982 output, foams at the mouth with barely suppressed sexual jealousy. But the bile, whilst bitter, is also breathlessly exhilarating.
In This Years Girl Elvis returns to more of his alarmingly violent imagery, an endless tirade against the viper in every alluring female: "you want her broken with her mouth wide open". All this delivered at a spasmodic canter, speeding up on the middle-eight and played with marvellous bravado.
The opening lines of The Beat paraphrase Cliff Richard's wholesome early-sixties chart-topper Summer Holiday, a knowing wink that serves as an ironic broadside to any cynics who may have believed that this band were another bubblegum outfit in denial. The bass-playing on this venomous song is simply outstanding and memories of Macca's innovative bass-as-melody style on The Beatles 1967 recordings springs to mind. Bruce Thomas, a veteran from a string of late-sixties, early-seventies bands, obviously understood that with a songwriter as good as this, only his best would suffice.
The second big hit single from the album was the insane Pump It Up, an experiment by Elvis to see if he could write a song with only one or two chords. The result is a hypnotic tarantella of monolithic proportions, its slug-like coda of guitar and organ giving sway only once, before Elvis screams maniacally: "YEAH!" One of the most edge-of-the-seat moments in pop music history.
Elvis's country and western proclivities were a well-hidden secret from the then punk-dominated music press (which is why his magnificent Stranger In The House was reduced to a freebie 7" single with the album) but you can spot some of it in the opening tremolo-guitar riff on Little Triggers, an almost Roy Orbison-style ballad drenched in Costello's continuing paranoia: "strung up when you dont call up". Alliteration carries the day in this twisted mini-fable, and Pete Thomas on drums lays down some tasteful, restrained work on the tom-toms.
You Belong To Me follows, blatantly plagiarising the Stones' The Last Time with its identical guitar motif and quick-waltz timing. The jaw-dropping viciousness continues, this time with grimy sexual aberrations: "your eyes are absent, your mouth is silent, pumping like a fire hydrant, things you see are getting hard to swallow".
Hand In Hand begins with the ominous, womb-like sound of a backward vocal before a sort of open-letter unfolds, Costello producing some of his most excessive, nasty couplets: "don't you know I got the bully boys out, changing someones facial design?" Elsewhere he openly admits: "don't you know I'm an animal?" But despite these black and brutal moments, the melody and arrangement are impeccable, singalong power-pop of the first order.
Lip Service as a title is pretty startling and the song itself is a testament to the unstoppable brio of a band that has gelled from day one. The performance is terrific, running full-tilt through some rather arch observations (these are dangerous amusements) and out-and-out bitching: "dont act like you're above me, just look at your shoes". It is also representative of the songwriting talent that is at work - it is stuffed with hooks.
Living In Paradise returns us to themes that Elvis would revisit again and again: possessiveness and jealousy (Party Doll, The Comedians, I Want You, many others. "I dont like those other guys looking at your curves" he spits, as the Attractions fizz and whirr around his vocal with a fairgroundish display of tightly locked playing, the bass singing up and down the scale, interspersed with intelligent, varied drum patterns. "You're already looking for another fool like me" Elvis ironically laments.
This miserable, wounded air relentlessly carries on in the fantastic Lipstick Vogue, which follows: "sometimes I think that love is just a tumour, you've got to cut it out, you say I've got no feelings, this a good way to kill them". It begins with an explosion of powerhouse drumming, Nick Lowe capturing every boom and crack of the drumkit with astounding clarity - and a good thing too, because this a tour-de-force display by Pete Thomas. As the drums thunder, rumble, rattle and roll, the band respond to Thomas' vitality with an ensemble performance of thrilling, teasing excitement. In the middle section the pace slows to a skittering, tense beat, peppered with some atmospheric keyboards. This gradually builds and builds until all hell breaks loose, ushering in the final verse. Blimey!
The final salvo, Night Rally, is as its' title suggests: a warning to the ignorant that the National Front and all their ilk are not to be dismissed lightly: "you think they're so dumb, think they're so funny, wait until they've got you running to the Night Rally". The arrangement hints at the follow-up album, Armed Forces, by utilising marching, Fascistic military drums and sonorous keyboard-effects. It ends with Costello intoning the title in a narcoleptic blur, which suddenly and with withering intent (a brutal edit, here) cuts off dead.
In the NME in 1978, on its release, the legendary rock hack Nick Kent wrote a review of This Year's Model which was so fabulous that my brother put it in a frame and stuck it on his wall. That review concluded with a phrase which went something like: Elvis and the Attractions are so far ahead of the herd that they are far in the distance, trampling dust in the faces of all the snotty punk bands. I cant argue with that! This Years Model is one of my favourite albums of all time.
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