As an 11th grade student contemplating an impending post-high school fate, I quickly learned to dread the unsolicited phone calls of the Army recruiter. Sure, I was ready to entertain any option that would rescue me from the clutches of my claustrophobically small town, but in no way would I give in to the blockheaded parasite who felt compelled to harass me on a routine basis.
“Hey Zeth,” he’d positively chirp like he was part of Ed McMahon’s prize patrol, boasting an opportunity of unparalleled excellence, “I’m going to be in your neighborhood tomorrow afternoon, so how’s about I swing by to chat? Does 4:00 sound good to you?”
I would roll my eyes, politely decline his invitation for the upteenth time, slam the receiver in its cradle and quickly find refuge in Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. Yeah, I’d think to myself, you’ll take me in your office and tell me very carefully the ways that I can benefit from death and disability. Tell me what it’s like to be like the big boys, how it feels to wear your green shirt with its impeccably shiny buttons. If only I could work up the gumption to repeat Costello’s lines to him over the phone, wouldn’t that be liberating? On some days, unusually inspired by my repressed anger and resentment, I would contemplate defacing my Army t-shirt (bought and worn with ironic intent) with the words “Don’t Join” emblazoned in black Sharpie on the back, in homage to Costello’s promotional photo where he stood angling a machinegun barrel down his throat. Armed Forces was really the first record with which I ever felt an inexplicable connection; beyond the attainable beauties of melody and harmony, here was a record that spurred me into figuring out exactly who I was, and why. Some of it I wouldn’t entirely understand until years later, but these deep complexities were simply another reason to revisit the record on a weekly basis.
As I got older and continued to obsessively amass a collection of Costello’s records, Armed Forces remained my hands-down favorite. As I matured, so did my perception of the album, which I have come to view as a collection of musings on human nature and relationships, bolstered by the pervasive military metaphors (the album’s telling original title was Emotional Fascism). It’s a bold, highly ambitious effort that chastises the misguidance of conformity, the transparency of phonies and the follies of those that fall for them, and the inflated insanity of machismo (but it’s never righteous, as its willingness to dissect could be self-inflicted attacks upon Costello himself). As Costello’s third record (second with one of the most thrilling backing bands in rock history, the Attractions — Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums, Steve Nieve on keyboards), Armed Forces represented a giant leap from flawless predecessors My Aim is True (1977) and This Year’s Model (1978), two landmark masterpieces in their own right.
But neither record could match Armed Forces‘ acidic intellectualism, a majestic batch of pop tunes steeped in punk attitude. Armed Forces would put in place an eclectic blueprint of restless genre hustling that Costello would continue to exploit throughout his storied career. Written almost entirely while the band was touring America and Costello’s first marriage was unraveling, Armed Forces was informed by a steady diet of eclectic contemporary music: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, ABBA, Kraftwerk, and the Beatles. Crafted as a reaction to the influx of contemporary pop, it’s a sobered look at inebriated actions, eyes locked in a judgmental gaze in mirrors and through windowpanes, as mouths flap, libidos throb and egos flail:
“Accidents Will Happen”: Classical elegance in a pop song. Nimbly orchestrated with sophistication beyond Costello’s then 24 years, this song is a whirlpool of effervescent wordplay (“They keep you hanging on / Until you’re well hung”) and spiraling metaphor (“There’s so many fish in the sea / That only rise up in the sweat and smoke like mercury”). Costello’s narration is equally accepting and distraught, reflected in Bruce Thomas’ leapfrog bass lines and Nieve’s skirting, nervous keyboard twitches. The cascading cymbal heaves and deeply reverbed vocals, trailing off in the song’s pregnant wave of a fade-out, is a giant sigh of inevitable grief. Few albums start with a song as strong; fewer songwriters can address infidelities with such poise and resonance.
“Senior Service”: Costello’s fascination with ABBA and Bowie shines through on this upbeat track chiding the wafer-thin hypocrisy of the military. Can’t you just visualize all the green-suited soldiers dancing in tandem on a sparkling disco floor? That’s Costello in the second-floor DJ booth, one ear of his headphones cocked to the side of his skull, booming on the mic in eerie slapback echo to the uniformed masses below: “I want your company car / I want your girlfriend and love / I want your place at the bar / Because there’s always another man / To chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket”.
“Oliver’s Army”: A different kind of British Invasion, emphasis on Invasion. Who else but Costello could write a song about the British occupation of Ireland and turn it into one of the most deliciously subversive pop nuggets in recent history? “Oliver’s Army” is a shining example of what he does best: wrap provocative ideas of perpetual relevance in the ornamentation of undeniable hooks. Costello condemns imperialism and viciously mocks those who engage in power-mongering (though it would not be given the chance to succeed as a single in the US, due to the most controversial line of Costello’s career, in which he compares England’s treatment of the Irish to white America’s discrimination towards African-Americans: “All it takes is one itchy trigger / One more widow, one less white nigger”). All the antibacterial soap in the world can’t wash the song’s potent melody and message off your body.
“Big Boys”: Cold synths give way to robotic rhythms in this ode to misguided machismo. “You try so hard to be like the big boys,” Costello sneers over the drum kit’s incessant stomps, allusive of masses marching in place. The impeccable rhymes come dripping from his mouth and speak volumes with little effort: “So you take her to the pictures / Trying to become a fixture / Inch by inch trying to reach her / All the way through the second feature / Worrying about your physical fitness / Tell me how you got this sickness”.
“Green Shirt”: The very best, or possibly only, harpsichord-infected pressure cooker. “Better cut off all identifying labels / Before they put you on the torture table” could be cautionary advice to a soldier entering combat or a lover entering a relationship. With a rhythm pulsating like a hospital heart monitor and layers of synths rippling with Brian Eno’s influence, “Green Shirt” takes on the distorted manner in which news and communication are disseminated. The verbal gymnastics run like Olympian speed trials; try saying “Cause somewhere in the Quisling Clinic / There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes” five times fast.
“Party Girl”: Some have hypothesized that Armed Forces‘ one true ballad was written for notorious centerfold/groupie Bebe Buell, a theory Costello would later deny. Still, it’s a sobering look at the public’s interpretation of private relationships, laced with trademark droplets of wit: “Starts like fascination / Ends up like a trance”. The song boasts a thrilling slow fade-out of piano crescendos, peppered by Costello’s voice shredding the torchy melody with exasperated urgency: “Give you anything but! — tiiiiiime”.
“Goon Squad”: Paranoia sets in. Ominous, like an approaching thunderstorm of cinematic proportions, “Goon Squad” is your worst fear realized. “Mother, Father, I’m here in the zoo,” Costello warily begins, like an animal backed into a corner, “I can’t come home ’cause I’ve grown up too soon / I got my sentence / I got my command / They said they’d make me major if I met all their demands”. The music is intentionally cavernous and bleak, reflecting oppressive rites and rituals enforced by a society that rewards domination over meekness. When Costello shouts in defiance, “You’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me”, it’s both with self-respect and utter fright. This is how people go crazy.
“Busy Bodies”: The man who once begged to be informed of the “mystery dance” has grown sick of its worn-out premise and failed promise. This tune’s examination of the perils of compulsive lust (specifically, “becoming automatic”) could have fit nicely on This Year’s Model. Costello wryly notes how the desire to dominate can be met with unaffected ambivalence and defeat: “Now you’ve given your performance / Though the matinee was idle / And you find that a wave of her right hand / Could seem so tidal”. Does anyone write better couplets? The chorus of harmonies that build at the song’s end, repeating “nowhere”, is a tranced-out Zen mantra on the futility of it all.
“Sunday’s Best”: Deemed “too British” by Columbia Records, “Sunday’s Best” was cut from the line-up of the US release. Played as a drunken circus waltz, the song addresses social reliance on artifice and fashion (similar in tone to XTC’s “Respectable Street”). Too bad Columbia saw fit to remove “Sunday’s Best”, as the song offers an expose on truths beneath the surface, its lyrical ambition just as masked as the subject it encroaches.
“Moods for Moderns”: Could be interpreted as a fresh epithet for Costello’s failed marriage: “Soon you’ll belong to someone else / And I will be your stranger just pretending”. The joyous spring in the Attractions’ step, the snapping fingers, the tightly knit harmonies: all suggest a carefree pop tune gone horribly wrong. Costello smiles through the pain, like a mod Top of the Pops tunesmith who’s just been informed of a tragedy mid-song.
“Chemistry Class”: This could be a not-so-distant cousin to This Year’s Model‘s “Night Rally”; both songs address a proliferating complacency in the public consciousness. “You’ll be a joker all your life,” Costello scathingly laments as sheets of rich acoustic guitars lull and coast, “A student at the comedy college / People pleasing people pleasing people like you.” Again, in “Night Rally”, he alludes to Nazi Germany as he addresses the object of his disaffection: “Are you ready for the final solution?”
“Two Little Hitlers”: In which Costello equates the rifts within personal relationships to warring factions of fascism. Potentially Armed Forces‘ most audacious track; its aim is so lofty, almost to the point of being preposterous. The political-emotional analogies reach their breaking point, but Costello is so deft that he pulls it off. Lines like “She’s my soft-touch typewriter / And I’m the great dictator” and “You call selective dating / For some effective mating” are so wickedly loaded and tongue-in-cheek that one can simultaneously nod in recognition while being tickled by their black humor.
“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”: Written by Armed Forces‘ producer Nick Lowe, and originally issued as a UK B-side to Lowe’s single “American Squirm” (misleadingly credited to him as well), this song was tacked on to the end of the album’s US version. Why it wasn’t included on the original UK version is baffling, as it’s a worldly encapsulation of the preceding songs’ ideologies. If you think it’s not cool to like this song, think again. While it was possibly intended as ironic when it originally dripped from Lowe’s pen, the Attractions baptize it by fire and issue forth the ultimate punk anthem. It’s a poker-faced antidote to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” (twice as venomous and bereft of that song’s mindless rhetoric), wrapped in electric guitars that ring like church bells, a swift bass line that won’t sit still, and Costello’s deep vocal register, more guttural than he’d ever been before (or would ever reach again, for that matter). And these days, “Peace, Love and Understanding” is really the perfect song for the maniacal off-balance world we inhabit. It’s a declaration of confusion, a bid for harmony not out of naivety, but out of the belief that things should be better — it’s just plain to see — and, as Costello says in the liner notes to the recent Rhino reissue of the album, with the obvious notion that “no one knew the answer to the question that the song posed”. The song’s also a bit of a shock, because it possesses none of Costello’s dense verbiage or trademark chord complications; instead, it’s simple, direct, forceful as all hell, and remains the most memorable song within Armed Forces‘ esteemed track list.
Armed Forces is full of double meanings, from its very title right down to lines hidden deep within its verses; Costello employs this strategy to capably connect world politics with internal politics, the macrocosm with the microcosm, the amateur snapshot with the professional big picture. At our core, we’re all little dictators, capable of causing accidents, inflicting personal agendas, acting like big boys when we’re actually bratty adolescents, more problematic in each other’s lives than we care to admit. But we’re also capable of thinking for ourselves, of transcending the dull uniformity, and acting humanly compassionate even when the cultural climate instructs us otherwise. Armed Forces is a distinguished insight to these complexities of human nature, treading its territories — both ambiguous and definite — with a big stick and a big mouth.
When I think back to my days as a teenager, I now realize — with the luxury of hindsight — that my reaction to the recruitment cold calls was just as off-base as the calls themselves. I was initially provoked into thought and dissent by Armed Forces, but throughout years of listening, have subsequently acquired a more informed, rounded view of what motivates and moves people. Ultimately, that’s one of the greatest things art is capable of achieving.