At the beginning of this feature, I briefly mentioned what I described as “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”‘s (henceforth, simply “Chelsea”) “indefensible omission” from the original US pressings of This Year’s Model. Columbia’s argument that “Chelsea” was “too British” for consumption by American audiences, despite its success as a single in England, was fallacious: certainly the song is no more British than “Less Than Zero” (which references the British fascist Oswald Mosley in its first line) or the majority of cuts off Armed Forces, which are all chiefly English in nature. (Did you know that “Senior Service” is a UK brand of cigarettes, preferred by sailors, or that the “Green Shirts” was an abridged name for the Social Credit Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Neither did the “big boys” at Columbia Records, I’m guessing.)
Perhaps it’s the song title that set off the alarm, though. Chelsea is a decadent region of West London, occasionally associated with prostitution, which seems to be “Chelsea”‘s pivotal focus. Regardless, the fact that most American audiences didn’t hear the song until its surreptitious appearance on the b-sides and assorted curios compilation Taking Liberties is a tragedy — it’s quintessential Attractions. Costello himself admits that the song was more or less a Who ripoff until Pete and Bruce Thomas’ jagged contributions, and Pete Thomas’ drum intro is definitely one of the song’s highlights (it might be his flashiest moment in his recorded history with the group).
“Chelsea” is the most multilayered song on the record (assuming yours isn’t the original US pressing). It’s overflowing with countless interpretations — likely deliberate, considering Costello’s lyrical genius and dexterity. The narrator seems almost voyeuristic, observing the tawdry contemptibleness occurring in Chelsea from a concealed vantage point (imagine the invulnerable narrator being the photograph of Costello behind the camera on the album cover — it’s helpful, and frightening). “Photographs of fancy tricks / To get your kicks at 66 / He thinks of all the lips that he licks / And all the girls that he’s going to fix” — the man referenced here could either be a “customer” or the woman’s “procurer”, the latter interpretation being more compelling. Perhaps he is trying to “recruit” last year’s models? “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie” — the woman retains the exotic name Natasha, but has entirely let herself go; in Costello’s own words, she presently resembles Elsie, the Borden Dairy mascot. “I don’t want to go to Chelsea . . .”, Costello reflects at the top of the chorus
The second verse is even more disturbing than the first, as Costello tries to established some relation between modeling, the subsequent resorting to prostitution or some occupation of equivalent shadiness once the industry no longer needs you, and the inevitable, resulting insanity that occurs from being a wash-up (in a sense, this song could be taken as a “sequel” to “This Year’s Girl”). The ex-model is admitted to a psychiatric ward (perhaps the Hanwell Asylum, which was situated in West London), presumably (“Everybody’s got new orders / Be a nice girls and kiss the warders / Now the teacher is away / All the kids begin to play”). Once the kids begin to play, “men come screaming, dressed in white coats / Shake you very gently by the throat / One’s named Gus, one’s named Alfie” and when Elvis sings “I don’t want to go to Chelsea” he means something totally different this time, that he will never succumb to this. Costello reprises the first verse for the end of the song, but this time sounds exhausted when he’s singing the end of every phrase. For the pre-chorus, Pete Thomas starts playing a more frantic beat on the drums, while Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve continue to play the same jagged figure on the bass and keys, respectively.
Costello’s vocals in Chelsea are almost as crystal-clear impressive as they are on his vocal standout on Model, “Little Triggers”, but it’s that baseline and ingenious rhythmic figure, in addition to the lyrics, that really drive the song home. It would be interesting to hear Costello’s original arrangement, although based on his description, it’s probably not nearly as good as the finished product (unlike the Merseybeat version of “Everyday I Write the Book”, where the opposite is the case). It’s almost not worth listening to Model unless it’s a version that contains “Chelsea”, as the song’s presence is essential to This Year’s Model‘s overall impact.