Elvis Costello Armed Forces

Elvis Costello’s ‘Armed Forces’ Remains a Potent Critique of Power

Forty-five years after Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces first arrived in record stores, its commentary on fascism is extremely relevant to today’s politics.

Armed Forces
Elvis Costello
Radar / Columbia
5 January 1979

Rarely does a new artist arrive with a vengeance and then manage an unbroken track record of artistic success across multiple years and albums. By the time Elvis Costello‘s Armed Forces arrived in stores in early 1979, he was in the midst of that kind of run. Whenever this winning streak ended, Armed Forces was its commercial peak, and perhaps its artistic one, despite the considerable merits of This Year’s Model (1978), Get Happy!! (1981), and Imperial Bedroom (1982). Both lyrically and musically, Armed Forces sees Costello and his (relatively new) band, the Attractions, rise to the next level. 

My Aim Is True (Costello’s debut) and This Year’s Model (its follow-up) won him a reputation as a clever lyricist writing songs about revenge and guilt in personal relationships. Though these albums briefly touched on politics, they did so sparingly. Not until Armed Forces did Costello fully address both the personal and the political, intertwining the two in sophisticated and thoughtful ways. Costello told Variety in 2020 that this record was about “the corridor from the war room to the bedroom”, noting that “flirting between countries and ideologies is like some sort of sick romance, some codependent need”. After recording My Aim Is True with the band Clover, Costello brought together the Attractions for This Year’s Model, where they bashed through song after song with admirably ferocious, Punk-like energy. They then hit their stride on Armed Forces, showing much more versatility, subtlety, and inventiveness.

Before his label rejected the idea, Costello planned to give Armed Forces the name Emotional Fascism. In the 1970s, fascism in the UK was resurgent, with the National Front marching in the streets and drawing a surprisingly high number of votes. Though all that goes with the idea of emotional fascism seems crucial to understanding most of the songs on this record, Elvis minimized its significance in his liner notes for the 2002 reissue:

Two or three half-formed notions collided uneasily in that title, although I never would have admitted to having anything as self-conscious as a “theme” running through the songs. Any patterns that have emerged did so as the record was completed or with the benefit of hindsight. Personal and global matters are spoken about with the same vocabulary; maybe this was a mistake. Betrayal and murder are not the same thing. The first of them only deadens the soul. Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naive; it is full of gimmicks and almost overpowers some songs with paradoxes and subverted clichés piling up into private and secret meanings.

This self-criticism seems at least somewhat fair, but it downplays how well this album works — something many fans and critics agree on, both then and now. Elvis Costello succeeds in connecting the dots between his personal life, his society, and dark, fascistic qualities that unfortunately remain all-too-relevant today: machine-like conformity informed by the military-industrial complex; cold, calculating callousness; and hatred of people unlike oneself, such as immigrants and people of other races or genders.

Five songs on the album don’t connect very explicitly with the idea of fascism, though they’re pretty bleak nonetheless. “Accidents Will Happen” leads off the album and was released as its second single, peaking at #28 in the UK. Musically, the song has a smooth pop sheen that was noticeably absent on Costello’s first two albums, and it sounds almost like a processional performed at a wedding. Out front with Costello’s voice, bassist Bruce Thomas’s slinky, sliding bass lines and Steve Nieve’s chiming keys provide its melody. Lyrically, it’s about Elvis – young and newly famous – sleeping with other women while married to his first wife, Mary Burgoyne. As the song’s title indicates, he doesn’t want to accept responsibility for what he has done, as if it was inevitable, not his choice or fault. At the same time, he repeats, over and over, that he knows what he’s done and the “damage” it has caused. He gets that the “many fish in the sea” are actually poisonous “like mercury”. That said, he can’t help but “add” all these women to his “collection”, and he “doesn’t want to hear” people criticize him for it. 

A number of tracks later in Armed Forces’ running order address sex and infidelity in similar ways. Driven by Pete Thomas’ stomping beat and Bruce Thomas’s massive basslines, “Big Boys” sees Elvis trying to be like the guys who sleep with tons of girls, but these “provocative” and “temporary” liaisons are mostly “overrated”. They’ve become a “sickness”, and he’s “caught in the suction”, feeling both “pride and pity”. Amongst all the girls on his “list,” there’s one he’ll “wish” he “held onto,” but by the time he realizes it, it’s “too late”.

“Busy Bodies” takes the theme a step further, pointing to how little Elvis Costello is actually connecting to the women he’s with. Romance is supposed to be fun, but “everybody’s getting meaner”, and it’s feeling about as safe as “playing with the traffic”. Bodies are “very busy” but are heading “nowhere”, and all of this hooking up has gotten to feel “automatic”. Costello’s ringing guitar, Nieve’s keyboard washes, and Bruce Thomas’ fluid bass stand out.” Moods for Moderns”, another song on this topic, is the one misfire on Armed Forces. Trite lyrics and tacky synth lines make it sound more like a long-forgotten contribution to a budget New Wave compilation than something created by one of the genre’s standard-bearers.

Of all the tracks on Armed Forces addressing romantic encounters, the ballad “Party Girl” is an outlier, as it’s this record’s most tender musical and lyrical moment. Elvis explains his inspiration as follows:

This song was written for an art student that I barely knew. I found our meeting reported in the tatty gossip of a Mid-Western newspaper. I was handed the improbable role of “rock star” and certain assumptions were made about the character of the girl in the title. Some small kindness and tenderness passed between us, I could do no more than resent the portrayal and offer this apology. The song is not so much “hopelessly romantic” as simultaneously romantic and without hope.

Amidst all the venom that courses through this album, Elvis Costello here tries a little gentleness. For once, Costello readily admits he’s the “guilty” one, not this young woman who’s wrongfully accused of being “just like a million more” party girls “all over the world” who will settle for “anything in disguise of love”. As he passionately sings repeatedly, the one thing Elvis wants to give her – but can’t – is his time. After the opening, arpeggiated riff on Costello’s guitar, the verses are a soft conversation between his vocals and Thomas’ supple bass, which then duets with Nieve’s piano in an even more poignant bridge. Powered by Nieve’s glissandos, the dramatic coda brings the track to an emotional conclusion that resembles “Carry That Weight”, a song penned by Costello’s friend Paul McCartney.

The remaining eight tracks on Armed Forces more directly connect with the theme of fascism. “Senior Service” is named after a now-defunct brand of British cigarettes that took its name from a nickname for the Royal Navy. Costello’s character is trying to take the place — through violence — of his superior. On its face, this seems to be about Costello’s personal relationships with colleagues in the corporation where he works, but it feels more like an account of his quest for advancement in a cutthroat military organization (corporations and the military have been intimately linked in fascist societies).

Stewing in “junior dissatisfaction”, he forcefully declaims that he wants his senior rival’s “seat”, “check”, “company car”, “girlfriend”, and “place at the bar”. This echoes the way fascist states “disappear” people, giving all they have to someone else as if they were never there to begin with. “I wanna chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket,” Costello sings. Nieve’s quirky synths herald the dominance of similar sounds in the New Wave of the years following this album’s release. Elvis has noted that on the tour leading up to the Armed Forces sessions, the band regularly listened to contemporary albums by David Bowie and Iggy Pop recorded in Berlin, and that shows on this track.

“Oliver’s Army” was Elvis Costello’s biggest-ever hit single, selling half a million copies and spending three weeks at #2 in the UK (just as Armed Forces performed better in the UK than any other Costello album, reaching #2 and achieving Platinum certification). It’s a lyrical iron fist in a musical velvet glove. Nieve’s catchy, chiming piano riff is an earworm that anchors this pure pop singalong. It’s no shock that he and Costello have admitted the strong influence of “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, a #1 UK hit released a few years earlier. Like so much of Costello’s early work, this track also refers to the pop sounds of the early 1960s; here, specifically, are echoes of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. 

While the sound is light, the subject matter could hardly be more somber. The song points out that, like fascist countries, Britain too has been militaristic and attacked those it sees as different. The lyrics were inspired by Costello’s first trip to Belfast the previous year. From an Irish Catholic family, he reported that seeing British soldiers on the street (as a result of “the troubles”) led him to “visions of mercenaries and imperial armies marauding around the world”, causing him to reflect on how working-class folks are the ones typically sent to war. This is the poor cannon fodder that’s “out of luck or out of work”, seeking “an occupation”, and lied to by the government, which tells them “there’s no danger” in joining the military because “it’s a professional career.” In the line of fire on the “murder mile”, Costello sings in their voice, “I would rather be anywhere else but here today.” 

“Oliver’s Army” is named after the English army led by Oliver Cromwell, which invaded Ireland in 1649 following the English Civil War. That invasion was driven by anti-Catholic sentiment and fear that the Irish would help royalists restore the monarchy. The song’s most controversial description of anti-Irish sentiment is its mention of a “white” N-word, which is what an English soldier called Costello’s Irish grandfather when he was in the British army. After more than three decades of airing the song uncensored, the BBC began bleeping the phrase, which drew criticism from those who pointed to the song’s antiwar, antiracist intentions. Costello has said he prefers radio not to play the song at all if it will be censored, and he has ceased performing it live.

Sadly, this wasn’t the only controversy surrounding this album and Costello’s use of the N-word. This is especially disturbing in light of Armed Forces‘ focus on fascism, though it’s quite clear that Elvis didn’t mean to promote that ideology. In March 1979, in Columbus, Ohio, during the tumultuous tour supporting the album, a drunk Costello got into an argument with Bonnie Bramlett, then singing backup for Stephen Stills. In the course of this bar fight, he apparently used, along with other slurs, the N-word at least four times, including in reference to Ray Charles and James Brown. At a press conference following the incident, Elvis claimed not to be a racist and that he made those comments to be as outrageous as possible, just to drive Bramlett and Stills away. Whatever the case may be, Armed Forces subsequently sank like a stone on the American chart.

“Green Shirt” brings a twisted, fascist lens to sexual relations. Elvis Costello has said the song describes the “bedroom eyes that lead to tyranny” and described it as something of a “Boys from Brazil-style fantasy”, referring to the 1978 film about cloning Hitler. It’s perhaps the album’s most terrifying, dystopian track, and that’s saying something. In the song’s Orwellian police state, a woman on a screen is watching Elvis at home, someone is listening in on a phone line, and “everyone is under suspicion” by “the big investigation”, which is “picking out names”. Then, there’s a woman who teases and flirts with Costello while shining the buttons on her green shirt (Hitler’s paramilitary were known as brownshirts, and Mussolini’s as blackshirts).

Costello drove by a clinic named Quisling while on tour in America, but here, the one he imagines is more like one that could have been named for the Norwegian fascist leader Vidkun Quisling, something Dr. Mengele could have run, with a “torture table” where “somebody’s gonna get it”. Elvis sings about cutting off “all identifying labels”, as the Nazis did to concentration camp inmates, who were identified by nothing but numbers tattooed on their arms. The vocalizing takes a back seat to the lyrics, with Costello speaking more than he’s singing. Nieve’s quaint, harpsichord-like keyboard parts belie the song’s vicious lyrical content, but his line at the song’s coda, sounding like a horn playing reveille, is more in keeping with its militaristic intent. Pete Thomas’s four-note snare figure perfectly fits the mood, resembling the prelude to a firing squad or the rat-a-tat of a machine gun.

In “Goon Squad”, Costello plays a young paramilitary member, maybe the male equivalent of the woman shining the buttons on her green shirt. Inspired by the violence he witnessed at so many rock shows in that era, it’s a nightmare mirror image of Allan Sherman’s 1963 hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp)”. Instead of a pleasant summer camp, Elvis is trapped in a fascist training facility, a “zoo”, it seems he’ll either be promoted out of or end up dying in. If he obeys, he could become “major”, “a corporal into corporal punishment”, or, again, drawing the connection between fascism and corporate life, “the general manager of a large establishment”.

Ready to wield the truncheon if that means he won’t get hit with it, he’s keen to avoid his colleagues giving him shock treatment or making “a lampshade” out of him (referring to accusations that the Nazis made lampshades out of the skin of their concentration camp victims). Elvis Costello’s character knows this is an eat-or-be-eaten scenario, that if the goon squad wants you to “come out to play”, you’d “better say goodbye,” as you won’t be coming back. Bruce Thomas’s rolling bass propels the track forward, backed by Pete Thomas’ ferocious drum fills and jazzy taps on his ride cymbal. The song’s most powerful musical moment is an unusual breakdown in the final verse, when the guitar and keys drop out, leaving just bass and drums, plus Costello’s vocals, in the right channel. 

Left off the American release of Armed Forces because it was thought to be too British, “Sunday’s Best” paints a compelling picture of working-class British people finding life both rough and predictably boring – and, as a result, how fascists could find an audience among that population. These folks read sensationalist tabloids, put too much stock in the small items they buy and wear, and have money “in the minus”. The “whiners” in this group feel everything’s going “to the dogs and down the drains”, and they have to “get it off their chest” by beating up “strangers who talk funny” and taking their “greasy foreign money”. Their leaders call these working-class folks “decent people” but treat them “just like sheep”, as they put them in “boots and khaki” (a British military uniform) and “blame it all upon the darkies”. It’s unusual for a rock band to record a waltz in triple time like this one. The song’s feel is woozy and lilting, thanks mainly to Nieve’s accordion-like keys and Costello’s bent, discordant guitar figures. 

According to Elvis Costello, “Chemistry Class” was “a reaction to the complacency of some of the university campuses that we visited on those first trips to America”, where he found “uncomprehending hedonism or braying superficiality”. If fascism arrived in the United States, he couldn’t see the kids he met putting up a fight. The lyrics describe a twisted college romance with heavy fascist overtones. Metaphorically speaking, in this chemistry class, his mind is mixed up with hers; she’s getting “chopped up” and thrown out; and she’ll be burned in an electrical experiment. Then, there’s the punch line – “Are you ready for the final solution?” – referring to the solution to a chemistry problem, the solution to this relationship’s problem, and, of course, the Nazis’ plan to exterminate the Jews. The verses feature just Costello’s voice, Pete Thomas playing his tom-toms, and Nieve’s intermittent, mechanical piano riff. For each chorus, the band kicks in with walking bass, snare drum, and Costello’s guitar, which is drenched in tremolo. 

Costello has said “Two Little Hitlers” is just metaphorically about Hitler, evoking his name as a way to describe each member of an unhappy, hateful couple. They “fight it out” until one “does the other one’s will”, though even if he’s on the losing side, he pledges to “return” and “not burn.” She “might drown” crying for “lost souls” and feels she’ll “never know him,” and he’s surprised she hasn’t “had enough by now”. He doesn’t want her to feel pleasure, just to know “the names of all those he’s better than”. Costello describes him as “an unnatural man” and “the great dictator”, references to Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 Hitler satire. Perhaps the most musically diverse track on Armed Forces, the track is split into three distinct sections. The verses are light ska, previewing the work Costello would do as a producer for the Specials later in 1979. Bowie’s influence appears again in the chorus, which features the riff from “Rebel Rebel” laid on top of an open-hi-hat disco beat. Full of Latin flavor, the bridge is built on a Tresillo rhythm. 

The album concludes with a surprisingly bright ray of hope, a song that has become a bit of a standard: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding”. Unlike “Sunday’s Best”, this track wasn’t included in the British version of the album, only the American one, and in fact, it wasn’t originally intended to be on the album at all. It’s much more like the aggressive rock of Costello’s first two albums than any other track on Armed Forces. Absent or buried in the mix through much of the album, his guitar here leaps to the fore, including a jangly solo reminiscent of the Byrds, and drummer Pete Thomas plays explosively, launching a barrage of furious fills.

The song conveys a positive message but may originally have been written with a somewhat different intent (by Costello’s producer, Nick Lowe, who recorded it with his band Brinsley Schwarz in 1974). Costello has said he assumes Lowe meant it to be tongue-in-cheek – maybe a bit like Spinal Tap’s “Listen to the Flower People” – and that Lowe really didn’t mean what he sang in this song. Costello turns the tables. For him, this song is as serious as a heart attack, and there’s actually nothing at all funny about peace, love, and understanding. 

Throughout this album, Elvis acknowledges just how awful things have been and could be, but here, he shares a desperate reminder that they don’t have to be that way. In this “wicked world” during “troubled times”, Costello sees the “darkness of insanity” along with “pain”, “hatred”, and “misery”. Elvis wonders if we’ve lost all hope of finding “the strong”, “the trusted”, and “sweet harmony”. If this powerful performance is an indication, he isn’t giving up hope for a better tomorrow. 

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” provides a welcome, uplifting message that’s perhaps more relevant than ever. Unfortunately, 45 years after Armed Forces first arrived in record stores, its commentary on fascism is, too.