Music

Girls, Girls, Girls, Etc.: Elvis Costello - "Night Rally" and "Radio Radio"

"Night Rally" is threatening and filled with devastating imagery, and "Radio Radio" -- while no less subversive in its subject matter -- is more upbeat, and most satisfyingly, contains a proper resolution.


Elvis Costello and the Attractions

This Year's Model

Label: Radar
US Release Date: 1978-05
UK Release Date: 1978-03-17
Amazon
iTunes

Costello's penchant for Nazi analogizing burgeons on "Night Rally", the twelfth and second-to-last track on This Year's Model, and an interesting foretelling of Armed Forces (which does the same sort of things with more precision). The cut has its moments, but it's the closest thing to a weak track on Model and its omission from some US pressings of the record isn't too regrettable (unlike "Chelsea"; but like "Chelsea", it was later included on the odds-and-ends compilation Taking Liberties). Aspects of the tracks are suspiciously similar to "Green Shirt" off the following record -- both songs' verses have the same clumping, quarter-beat feel, with anticipatory intervals in between bass and drums during the verses.

In the chorus the (always melodically-conscious) Pete Thomas plays snare hits in time with the vocal melody ("Night . . . ral-ly"). The cathartic choruses and Spector-esque bridge (which features a dramatic change of key) are the song's highlights. The lyrics' significance are sort of confined to their time, as Costello allegedly wrote the song in response to a sudden abundance of neo-Nazi rallies around London in the late 1970s. The refrain ("You think they're so dumb, you think they're so funny / Wait until they've got you running to the night rally") is a warning to the susceptible masses not to underestimate the viral ideology. An eerie feedback noise enters and ensnares the song during the fade-out, and Costello deliberately sings "night rally" in a slurred, off-kilter melody (a zombie impression?) to contribute to the cacophony. the song gets progressively louder, and then abruptly cuts off. It almost sounds like a technical glitch.

On original pressings of This Year's Model, "Night Rally" was the last song in the sequence, and thus, the end of the album. "Radio Radio" was tacked onto subsequent pressings due to its success as a single, and its inclusion changes the tone of the record immensely. "Night Rally" is threatening and filled with devastating imagery, and "Radio Radio" -- while no less subversive in its subject matter -- is more upbeat, and most satisfyingly, contains a proper resolution.

"Radio Radio" is one of Costello's most-discussed -- and most-loved -- compositions, and for good reason. The fact that it's become one of the most recognizable songs in the artist's oeuvre only adds to its weird, self-aware sense of irony. It's almost contrarian of Elvis to be railing against commercialization and censorship in a gorgeous, entirely consumable pop song (as far as straightforward power pop songs go, this is one of Elvis' finest). The song is said to have been inspired by the BBC's efforts to suppress the popularity of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen". Elvis debuted the song on Saturday Night Live months prior to This Year's Model's release (coincidentally, as a last minute fill-in for the Sex Pistols) in an incendiary act of his own: Elvis and his band were actually set to play "Less Than Zero" another political (but esoteric) song off My Aim Is True, and in an impulsive decision played "Radio Radio" instead. SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels claims that he wasn't outraged by the inflammatory subject matter, but rather Costello's decision to perform a song the camera crew didn't know the cues to.

The song is indelible off the bat -- Steve Nieve's keyboard intro is truly classic. Costello sings here in his signature sneer -- his vocal performance on "Radio Radio" is his "brattiest" on the record, a fitting culmination. In the pre-chorus ("I was seriously thinking . . .") Elvis alternates between two power chords, and the bass ascension gives them harmonic complexity. A vocal harmony enters in the chorus ("Radio, it's a sound salvation") -- the narrator is attacking the government for thinking that their jurisdiction over the radio is a reliable method of preventing insubordination, with the word "sound" being a clever reference to the song's topic, additionally. "They say you better listen to the voice of reason / They don't give you any choice, 'cause they think that it's treason" -- again, an explicit reference to the situation with "God Save The Queen".

In the bridge, Elvis acknowledges the incongruity in attacking the very thing that lets him eat, but his disdain for censorship is intractable: "I wanna bite that hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly / I wanna make them wish they'd never seen me". In the second verse, Costello sings about how the majority of people are manipulated by the media into being indifferent, that the people ("his friends") who care about what's being withheld from them are a splinter group: "Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead / Everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed"). The pre-chorus this time is different, jagged: the band cuts out, and briefly play syncopated hits on the beginning of each measure, with most of Elvis' vocals isolated. He manages -- just barely -- to fit "anesthetize" into the last line, one of his most ambitious lyrical plunges on the record. After a reprise of the chorus, Elvis sings, with burning, near-tangible sarcasm, "Wonderful radio / marvelous radio", The hilarious coda is itself a send-up of "God Save the Queen" -- as in, the British national anthem, not the Pistols song . . .

"Radio Radio" remains a staple in Costello's live set. The band plays it towards the beginning of a set or in an encore on his "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" tours even if it's not selected by the wheel. The song appears on both of his famous live albums from the period, too, Live at Hollywood High and Live at El Mocambo. "Radio Radio" is an interesting closing track in the sense that it deviates from the album's primary focus of unrealized romance. But somehow, maybe inexplicably, it fills its role better than any of the other selections of This Year's Model could have (perhaps because it's a breath of fresh air).


Previous Entries

*Introduction / "No Action"

*"This Year's Girl"

*"The Beat"

*"Pump It Up"

*"Little Triggers"

*"You Belong to Me"

*"Hand in Hand"

*"(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"

*"Lip Service"

*"Living in Paradise"

*"Lipstick Vogue"

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.