On January 31, 1979 Joy Division recorded four songs for John Peel's show. They were broadcast on February 14, 1979. Thee songs were "Exercise One", the band's future debut single "Transmission", and two forthcoming Unknown Pleasures tracks "Insight" and "She's Lost Control".
Peel had first played Joy Division in March of 1978 but he wasn't as wild about them as he was about other bands. "I didn’t at the time think that Joy Division were a band that I was going to prefer above any other," he told author John Walters. "They were just one of a whole handful of bands whose work I was quite enjoying at that time."
The band grew on him. Peel would play Joy Division 34 times in 1979 . In 2000 he would declare the single, "Atmosphere", the #1 all time song among his Festive Fifty, ahead of the song he was best known for championing, The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks".
On January 30, 1979 The Members, a British punk band out of the sleepy London suburb of Camberley, celebrated their first and only single to enter the U.K. Top 40. "The Sound of the Suburbs" would peak at U.K. #12.
Founded by insurance salesman turned singer Nicky Tesco in 1976, The Members went through numerous line up changes before touring with Devo and signing with Virgin Records in 1978. Steve Lillywhite produced "The Sound of the Suburbs", which would sell 250,000 copies in its first three months I guess lyrics about watching dad wash his car really hit home with young record buyers.
On January 29, 1979 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on children arriving at Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego from her house across the street, killing two men and wounding eight students and a police officer. Principal Burton Wragg was attempting to rescue children in the line of fire when he was shot and killed, and custodian Mike Suchar was slain attempting to aid Wragg.
Spencer used a rifle her father had given her as a gift. As to what impelled her into this form of murderous madness, she told a reporter, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
The quote inspired Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats to write the #1 smash "I Don't Like Mondays".
Geldof has heard about the shooting at a radio station in Atlanta when the telex machine started printing up wire copy about the shooting.
“I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said 'Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload.’ I wrote that down.”
“And the journalists interviewing her said, 'Tell me why?' It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it.” “It wasn't an attempt to exploit tragedy,” That hasn't prevented comedian Russell Brand from joking about the Live Aid organizer:
"Bob Geldof...no wonder he's such an expert on famine, he has been dining out on 'I Don't Like Mondays' for thirty years"
Brenda Ann Spencer is eligible for parole in 2019.
On January 28, Blondie hit #1 on the U.K. charts with "Heart of Glass", a million selling single that had yet to be released in the United States. The disco-friendly single wasn't without controversy. What was a new wave cult band doing playing disco music ? What's interesting is that the musicians didn't put up the same walls as listeners. Both Blondie and Talking Heads were fans of dance music and Blondie had even played a cover version of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" with Robert Fripp sitting in on guitar.
There was also an issue with the lyrics, as Deborah Harry explained to The Guardian:
"At first, the song kept saying: 'Once I had a love, it was a gas. Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass.' We couldn't keep saying that, so we came up with: 'Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.' We kept one 'pain in the ass' in – and the BBC bleeped it out for radio."
Harry says "Heart of Glass" was one of the first songs Blondie wrote.
"We'd tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked. At that point, it had no title. We just called it "the disco song".
Below is the 1975 version, which has a laid back feel not unlike "Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation.
A few laters, the band rocked it up. Parallel Lines producer Mike Chapman liked what he heard.
He liked it – he thought it was very pretty and started to pull it into focus. The boys in the band had got their hands on a new toy: this little Roland drum machine. One day, we were fiddling around with it and Chapman said: "That's a great sound." So we used it.
Chris Stein fills in more of the details:
It was (keyboard player) Jimmy (Destri) who brought in the drum machine and a synthesizer. Synchronizing them was a big deal at the time. It all had to be done manually, with every note and beat played in real time rather than looped over. And on old disco tracks, the bass drum was always recorded separately, so (drummer) Clem (Burke) had to pound away on a foot-pedal for three hours until they got a take they were happy with....Jimmy had a lot to do with how the record sounds, too. Although the song eventually became its own thing, at first he wanted it to sound like a Kraftwerk number.
The songs would be a #1 around the world, topping the charts in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Austria, New Zealand and Switzerland.“
Chris Stein just shrugged the whole thing off. "We didn't expect the song to be that big," he told Circus magazine for an article entitled "Why Are Rockers Going Disco?"
"We did it as a novelty item to put more diversity into the album. We thought 'Picture This' and 'Pretty Baby' would be big hits in the States. Naturally, we were proven wrong ... I suppose we should be concerned with the disappointment of our fans. But if they're that strict that they'll get concerned because we do a song like 'Heart of Glass,' I can't have much sympathy for them. It's not selling out. It's only one song.”
On January 27, 1979 Amii Stewart's disco version of Eddie Floyd's 1966 hit, "Knock On Wood", entered the Billboard Hot 100 at US #85. By April it replaced The Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes" as the number one song in the land. Raised in Washington DC, Stewart had the singing and dancing chops to star in the Broadway production of Bubbling Brown Sugar which brought her to London and face to face with producer Barry Leng. He produced the futuristic disco version of the old Stax single and got her signed to a German label. This is first rate disco cheese, made all the better by Stewart's headgear.
"Knock on Wood" might have been very good to Stewart but she wasn't really a fan of disco. She told the author of Billboard Book of Number Ones "I've never bought a disco record in my life and I don't want to buy one. When I go home and close the door I don't want mu brains to be blown out. I go home and listen to Donald Fagen, Nik Kershaw and Phil Collins."
On January 26, 1979 Bauhaus recorded a nearly ten minute version of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" in their very first studio session. The result is what has often been called the first gothic rock record and for the decade that followed, no college radio DJ could avoid getting requests for the song unless they stopped answering the phone. Especially true after their appearance in the 1983 David Bowie movie Hunger.
But back to 1979. 5000 copies of the original single, difficult to find until recently, were released in August on London's Small Wonder records. That Summer music fans met the lanky Peter Murphy ghoulishly singing “The virginal brides file past his tomb/Strewn with time’s dead flowers/Bereft in deathly bloom.” Brothers Kevin Haskins and David J set the mood on drums and bass with guitarist David Ash running all the instruments through his delay pedals. J tells Songfacts he wrote the lyrics after watching a few vampire movies.
"I came up with that first line, 'White on white, translucent, black capes back on the rack.' And it was like, 'Oh, this is interesting.' It's so descriptive - it is about the vampire. It's also about the actor - it's about retiring from the part, but then he sort of plays with the idea. A vampire can never retire from being a vampire, because that's for eternity."
It came out very quickly. It was that night that we had the rehearsal and I just handed that sheet to Peter. We all just launched into it as if it was pre-formed, and it was pretty much as it is on the record. We recorded it a couple of weeks after that first run-through.
On January 26, 1979 the People Unite label released the debut single by The Ruts, "In A Rut" b/w the anti-heroin song "H-Eyes". John Peel would champion "In A Rut" which would sell 20,000 copies. Enough to be a UK #1 these days, but too few to break into the Top 75 in '79. Its chorus "If you're in a rut
You gotta get out of it, out of it, out of it" would especially resonate a year later when Malcolm Owen was found dead in the bathroom of his parents' house in Hayes, from a heroin overdose at the age of 26.
Here's one John Peel favorite I missed from late '78 by the Birmingham band Fashion Music. In 1979, they would shorten their name to Fashion, sign to IRS and release their debut album Product Perfect. But this is the best thing the band ever did. I get a little latter day English Beat vibe from this tune.
On January 26, 1979 The Kinks released "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" b/w "Low Budget" in the U.K. Ray Davies says the A-side was inspired by the 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve.
I've always admired Superman comics. I went to see the film when it came out at Christmas ... I was overwhelmed ... I thought it was so true to the comic books and I wanted to write kind of a rock disco cause I hate disco music as a rule ... but now we've got a sort of mix with a rock and roll backbeat and it works real well.
The disco beat was Arista Records boss Clive Davis's idea. He wanted something that could be played in the clubs. ( Arista would release a six minute version for discos). Brother Dave thought it was a bad idea and now says only the humorous lyrics kept the single from being a big mistake for the band.
Though "Superman" failed to chart in Europe, it peaked at US#41, and would be the Kinks' last American hit until "Come Dancing" broke into the Top 10 in 1982.
If 1978 belonged to Bruce Springsteen ( Darkness, Patti Smith's "Because the Night", The Pointer Sisters' "Fire", some of Southside Johnny's Hearts of Stone), 1979 belonged to Chic ( "I Want Your Love", Risque, three Sister Sledge hits, "Rapper's Delight" and Sheila + B. Devotion's "Spacer").
On January 22, 1979 Sister Sledge released We Are Family, the third album for the then virtually unknown quartet of Philadelphia siblings. They got a whole lot of help from their RCA label mates. All of the songs were written by Chic masterminds Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers who once said "pound for pound, I think We Are Family is our best album hands down." That's despite the fact many of the songs were written before the Chic team ever met Sister Sledge.
The title track, sung in one take by 19 year old Kathy Sledge, is one of the most memorable songs of the 1970's, and can still liven up any wedding reception. The Pittsburgh Pirates made "We Are Family" their theme songs on the way to a 1979 World Series victory. The song topped the US R+B chart and peaked at #2 in the US pop chart.
The first single from the album was "He's the Greatest Dancer", my favorite on the album and one that might have charted higher than US #9 had Atlantic Records not released "We Are Family" right on its heels. Edwards and Rodgers wrote the song for their own band, but gave Sister Sledge the song. The production values are top notch, featuring some classic Rodgers guitar lines.
The critically acclaimed album sold in multi-platinum numbers. Rock critic Robert Christgau gave the album a B+ The disco disc features identical versions (at 8:06 and 6:04) of the two side-openers--the title track, a magnificent, soul-shouting sisterhood anthem that could set straight cheerleaders and militant lesbians dancing side by side, and "He's the Greatest Dancer," a seductive tribute to a fellow who gets to doff his designer clothes in the presence of countless panting women. (I wonder if I would have been so amused by the boy from New York City in 1965 if I'd known that in 1979 he'd be taken seriously.) All that's missing from the album is "Lost in Music," that one-in-a-hundred I-love-you-know-what song that illuminates its subject. Plus a couple of useless slow ones and some chic riffs. So the d.d. would be your buy--if you could buy it.
On January 21, 1979 Wire's new re-worked single, "Outdoor Miner" b/w "Practice Makes Perfect", entered the UK charts at #51, the highest chart position of any of the band's singles, beating Andy Gibb's new single by 18 spots. The BBC approached the label about getting Wire on Top of the Pops. But by February 11th, "Outdoor Miner" would drop off the charts while Andy Gibb's Top 10 US hit, "(Our Love) Don't Throw It All Away", would eventually peak at UK#32. Donny and Marie Osmond took Wire's place on the tv programme.
That's what happens when a catchy song turns out to be not about love but about an insect known as a leaf miner.
Face worker, a serpentine miner A roof falls, an under-liner Of leaf structure, the egg timer
The single version of "Outdoor Miner" is more than a minute longer than the version that appears on Chairs Missing. Producer Mike Thorne adds some piano. NME reviewers Charles Sharr Murray was unimpressed, writing:
"This record is white and shows the dirt. Its surface is injured but rarely hurt. Guitars twang, keyboards ching, a voice intones. It is 3.55, your reviewer groans. It sounds soft and squishy, I can't hear the words. Time passes, how absurd. This group are overrated your correspondent demurs ... sod it I'm bored."
The #1 song in the U.K. on this date: Ian Dury and the Blockheads "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick".
On January 20, 1979, the #1 R+B song in the land was Parliament's blast of funk "Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)", from the album Motor Booty Affair. The song would stay parked in the top spot for four straight weeks. In his memoir, George, George Clinton reveals the song came together in the same was as "Give Up the Funk" and "Flash Light":
“It has a burbling bass line that (keyboardist) Bernie (Worrell) translated from a classical cello part, and crazy bird calls that I was doing (from the old Tarzan movies—they all had the same bird). “Aqua Boogie” is about Sir Nose refusing to swim; even though it’s pleasurable, he sees it as another form of dancing, something that interferes with his perpetual cool. “Ahh, let go of my leg,” he says, almost screaming. “I hate water."... “Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop” dwarfed “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis.” Was it the longest word ever in a hit song title? “Not quite, since it’s exactly the same length as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” from Mary Poppins, and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” from Isaac Hayes. Great minds think alike, and think along.”
On January 19, 1979 The Undertones released "Get Over You", a UK#57 hit and their first release for Sire Records. The Derry power-punk band first got the attention and undying devotion of BBC 1 DJ John Peel with their "Teenage Kicks" EP on the Belfast based Good Vibrations label. Peel helped the band score a UK#31 hit with the title track. The new single, a teenage love song, came out of sessions for the debut album coming out in May.
Also on this date Blondie hosted The Midnight Special. The band performed Parallel Lines tracks "One Way or Another", "Hanging on the Telephone", "Sunday Girl" and a lip synced version of "Heart of Glass", the single that would top the UK charts by the end of the month and top the US charts at the end of April.
On January 18, 1979 BBC Radio 1 aired Gang of Four's sessions for the John Peel Show, giving listeners a preview of four songs from the band's debut album Entertainment!, which wouldn't be released until September. The performances are rawer and raunchier than the ones that would appear on the album. In fact, at the time, the band was still seeking out a record deal. Regarding their sound, Andy Gill told Sounds Magazine "The avant-garde way is to reject everything so that you can be seen as totally different. Cutting out everything that sounds like anything else and losing all rhythm and beat along the way." Not sure what that means, but this needs to be played LOUD!
On January 18, 1979 The Jacksons released "Shake Your Body ( Down to the Ground)", the second single of their 1978 album Destiny. Written and composed by Randy and Michael Jackson, it would sell two million copies, peak at US #3 and become The Jacksons's all time biggest selling single for Epic Records. Here, for the first time, we hear Michael's trademark yelping and hiccuping vocal style. Maybe the only Jacksons tune that stands up to Michael's solo material. The full album version is even better than the single, running 8 minutes. Ranked the #9 best single of 1979 by NME writers.
On January 16, 1979 readers of Billboard Magazine learned "a growing number of affluent, single playboy types are turning the bedrooms of their plush co-op apartments and homes into mini-discos, according to Jack Ransom, head of MGM Stage Equipment, one of the leading suppliers of disco lighting equipment in the country."
The art of seduction circa 1979 begins with a fancy $10,000-$20,000 light show, as well as the pulse pounding sounds of disco music. Ransom says the equipment is especially popular in the oil rich Middle East and in South America.
Why private discos? Ransom has a theory:
Part of it is snobbism but for the most part they are being ordered by people in the public's eye, who love to party but want to enjoy themselves without being constantly oggled, photographed or written about.
Disco was a worldwide phenomenon in 1979. This three minute Australian news story, which focuses some of its time on roller disco, is well worth your time.
Flipping over to the Hot 100 charts , Billboard readers discovered Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" debuting at US#85. Born in Watts, Sylvester James pushed social boundaries with gender-bending performances, his openly gay lifestyle, and his belief that gender was a choice. He had sung with a group of black cross dressers and trans women in L.A. before moving to San Francisco. He became the "Queen of Disco" thanks to this early electronic dance music classic, produced by Patrick Cowley, which had already peaked at U.K. #8 and would break into the US Top 40 in February of 1979.
This same week, Herbie Mann's "Superman" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at US#90. It would peak at #26 in April.
On January 13, 1979 Melody Maker published an interview with David Bowie in which he told journalist Michael Watts he was finishing up an album ( the last of the Berlin trilogy) to be called either Despite Straight Lines or Planned Accidents. ( It would actually be called Lodger, released in May of 1979.).
Bowie thinks it contains some of his most intimate lyrics ever and says that although he still uses cut-up techniques, he's also going back to narrative. "But in a more emotionally driven way rather than from an objective point of view."
Bowie also says he plans to focus on his painting over the next couple of years, but he is scared of exhibiting his art publicly.
In February, Bowie would be in London to promote the UK release of Just a Gigolo, a film he made with director David Hemmings and featuring a 78-year old Marlene Dietrich in her final role. Of the critically derided film, Bowie said:
Everybody who was involved in that film – when they meet each other now, they look away [covers face with hands, laughs]... Listen, you were disappointed, and you weren't even in it. Imagine how we felt... It was my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.
On January 14, 1979, Dr Feelgood's new single "Milk and Alcohol" entered the UK pop charts at #46. The song, penned by Nick Lowe and Feelgood guitarist John "Gypie" Mayo, would be the band's biggest hit, peaking at #9.
The song tells the story of the band's beverage of choice during their American tour, an intoxicating combination of milk and Kahlua. Disappointed by a John Lee Hooker show ("Main attraction dead on his feet /Black man rhythm with a white boy beat"), the band left a bit wobbly and got pulled over by police. Legend has it Lowe wrote the lyrics on a cigarette packet in less than a minute.
On January 13, 1979, Grammy winning R+B singer, composer and musician Donny Hathaway plunged to his death from the 15th floor of the Essex House hotel in New York City. Hathaway's struggles with depression, schizophrenia and his own sexuality wreaked havoc on his life and his relationships. Earlier that day Hathaway and his longtime Howard University friend Roberta Flack recorded a pair of duets, "Back Together Again" and the Stevie Wonder/Eric Mercury penned "You Are My Heaven". They had dinner that night at Flack's apartment in the Dakota. When he returned to his Essex House room, Hathaway removed a window and made the leap that would end his life.
The songs Hathaway recorded with Flack are the best known. "Where Is The Love" from their 1972 collaboration Roberta Flack + Donny Hathaway topped the R+B charts and peaked at US#5. "The Closer I Get To You", recorded when Hathaway was suffering from bouts of clinical depression, was an even bigger hit, peaking at US#2.
Hathaway's solo albums offer real treasures. 1970's Everything is Everything has a seven minute jam called "The Ghetto", which Hathaway would expand on his must-own 1972 live album. Donny HathawayLive also features his soulful cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy".
1973's Extension of a Manhas "Someday We'll All Be Free". Lyricist Edward Howard had written the song especially for his troubled friend who cried when he heard the playback.
"What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person. I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him."
Hang onto the world as it spins, around. Just don't let the spin get you down. Things are moving fast. Hold on tight and you will last.
In 1979, a year Richard Hell would describe as a blur "because of the way everything got absorbed into the drug monotony", Radar Records released his band's Nick Lowe produced "The Kid With The Replaceable Head" b/w "I'm Your Man" single. The frenetic A side remains one of my favorite tracks of theirs.
In late October we recorded the “Kid with the Replaceable Head” single (backed with “I’m Your Man”) with Nick Lowe producing, for Jake’s Radar Records. I thought I was making a pop hit with “Kid.” I even diluted the lyrics in the chorus because I thought they might be too morbid for the public. (The original chorus went, “Look out! Here he comes again. / They say he’s dead. He’s my three best friends. / He’s so honest that the dishonest dread / meeting the kid with the replaceable head.” I changed “dead” to “done” on the single.)
In January of 1979 The Ramones released a new single, "She's The One" b/w "I Wanna Be Sedated". Both come from 1978's Road to Ruin. The B side, one of the band's best known songs, would be released as a single in 1980 following its appearance on the Times Square soundtrack.
On this date the Ramones were touring the country again, playing in Salt Lake City. A few weeks earlier they played three shows at the Roxy and filmed their parts for a 1979 movie called Rock 'N' Roll High School.
Johnny Ramone remembers:
Dee Dee was out of it the whole time that movie was being made. he originally had three lines of dialogue, but they cut it down to one because he couldn't remember them all. "Oh boy, pizza." He got that one after about 40 takes.
In January of 1979 James Brown released Take a Look at Those Cakes. The rollicking title track, a R+B #52 hit, celebrates the female body parts that make his "groove last long ". He even asks blind superstars Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder whether they've seen those cakes? This album would be followed later in 1979 by the even more unfortunate Original Disco Man.
A surprising entry at #29 on the Village Voice's year end Pazz and Jop poll, Nice Guys is the first album in five years from Art Ensemble of Chicago and their first on the ECM label. "Dreaming of the Master" is a nod to the post bop sounds of Miles David and John Coltrane. Members of the band has played on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks a decade earlier.
DAVID JACKSON's 1979 PAZZ and JOP ballot:
Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (ECM); Steppin' With the World Saxophone Quartet (Black Saint import); Van Morrison: Into the Music (Polydor) 10; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 10; Neil Young + Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 10; Robin Williamson and His Merry Band: A Giant at the Kindling (Flying Fish) 9; James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House) 8; Bread and Roses (Fantasy) 8.
Also, billed as the TV special of the year, The Music for UNICEF Concert: A Gift of Song was a benefit concert of popular music held in the United Nations General Assembly in New York City that aired on January 10, 1979. It was intended to raise money for UNICEF world hunger programs and to mark the beginning of the International Year of the Child.
On January 9, 1979 Skids released the anthemic UK Top 10 hit "Into the Valley". Because of Richard Dobson's accent, most people don't know the lyrics are actually about Scottish youths being recruited into the army, with a personal touch after a friend was killed on duty in Northern Ireland .
"A lot of the guys I knew who went to Northern Ireland had become prejudiced when they came back. They spoke about Catholics or Irish Nationalists in a very negative way, and always used that precursor, 'I know you're not like that, but...' It definitely had a curious effect on them as people, and psychologically scarred them. So that had a deep influence on the song."
The anthemic quality served the band well and would also be a defining quality of guitarist Stuart Adamson's next band, Big Country.
On January 8, 1979 'The Gentle Giant", Don Williams, was celebrating his eighth #1 country music hit, "Tulsa Time". It was written by Danny Flowers, seen below playing lead guitar in a red jumpsuit, and also recorded by Eric Clapton on his 1978 album Backless and on his live album Just One Night. That version hit US#30 in 1980, the year Williams appeared as himself in Smokey and the Bandit II.
Country music fans were then complaining that the song sounded too much like rock 'n'roll. They wouldn't recognize what country music sounds like today.
On January 7, 1979 Cerrone's latest euro-disco hit, "Je Suis Music", entered the U.K. charts at #58. The tune, with its lyrics "When we feel the pain,
Better stick together,
Music is the way,
To relieve the pressure", would spend four weeks on the chart, peaking at UK#39.
Cerrone was selling millions of albums worldwide in the 70's. He really did have the golden touch. In 1978, at the "Billboard Disco Forum'' the french drummer and composer swept the night taking home an amazing six awards,
"Disco Artist Of The Year," "Male Disco Artist Of The Year," "Disco Composer Of The Year," "Disco Producer Of The Year," "Disco Arranger Of The Year," and "Disco
Instrumentalist Of The Year." "Je Suis Music" would Cerrone's last visit to the UK charts until the mid 90's.
On January 6, 1979 Willie Nelson topped the country charts with his double album Willie and Family Live, recorded at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, Nevada in April 1978 at the height of Willie madness. It would stay on top for two weeks until Kenny Rogers replaced it with The Gambler which would hang out on top of the charts for all but one week until July 7. Eye roll.
At the time, it seemed as if we were making an impossibly sophisticated leap from the sound of “This Year’s Model” but listening now there are very few production devices that sit between the listener and the songs. -Elvis Costello on Twitter
On January 5, 1979 Elvis Costello and the Attractions released Armed Forces, perhaps my favorite of all of Costello's records. Teaming up with Nick Lowe once again, the band had six weeks at London's Eden Studios to record. The whole thing is a marvel. My version was an American cassette with the Barney Bubbles paint splatter cover and "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace Love and Understanding", which had appeared in November of '78 as the B side of Nick Lowe's "American Squirm"single. It's interesting to read that some critics thought Costello was going soft. Essential!
Costello writes in Unfaithful Music + Disappearing Ink: Late at night after the sessions, I listened repeatedly to the newly released All Mod Cons by The Jam. What I felt about it was nothing like rivalry, more just admiration. Paul Weller and I were writing completely different songs, but The Jam’s record was such a big and different step up from their previous release that I was moved to put aside a good song like “Tiny Steps” simply because it owed too much to the music and lyrics of This Year’s Model.
From Janet Maslin writing for Rolling Stone :
Consider "Oliver's Army," the piéce de résistance on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, an album that's killer in several senses of the word. The tune sounds bright and bouncy, with a jangly keyboard riff along the lines of "Here Comes Santa Claus," and it's enough to make you want to rock around the room. But sit down, Fred, and get a load of the lyrics you're dancing to: There was a Checkpoint Charlie He didn't crack a smile But it's no laughing party When you've been on the murder mile Only takes one itchy trigger One more widow, one less white nigger Oliver's Army is here to stay Oliver's Army are on their way And I would rather be anywhere else than here today. In fact, this is an angry song about imperialism and the military, reportedly written just after Costello visited Northern Ireland. In spirit and on its very congenial surface, "Oliver's Army" is a hit single. You can hear it one way, or the other way, or both. Elvis Costello doesn't seem to give a damn what you do, and that's no small part of his charm.
Costello writes songs that are elusive at times, bursting with bright phrases you can't always catch. (As someone who still thinks the Rolling Stones are singing "Heartbreaker... with your bowling ball," I'm all in favor of half-audible lyrics that encourage a valuable do-it-yourselfism in the listener.) He sings about violence with a vibrant romanticism, and about love with murder in his heart. He writes short, blunt compositions that don't pretend to be artful, though they are, and don't demand to be taken seriously, even though they're more stunning and substantial than anything rock has produced in a good long while. He doubles back on himself at every turn, and you're forced to take it or leave it.
There's only one way to listen to Elvis Costello's music: his way. The songs are so brief they barrel right by, leaving an impression of jubilant and spiteful energies at war with each other. Every now and then, words like "quisling" or "concertina" leap out of nowhere and add to the confusion. Images are etched hard and fast, then replaced by new ones even stronger. There's an overload of cleverness on the LP -- more smartly turned phrases than twelve songs ordinarily could bear. But the rapid pacing alleviates any hint of self-congratulation.
Costello's songs are dense the way Bob Dylan's used to be, driven by the singer's faith that if this line doesn't get you, the next one will, and compressed so tightly that they lend themselves to endless rediscovery. He has something like the younger Dylan's rashness, too, being hotheaded enough to oversimplify anything for the sake of a good line, and being a good enough writer to get away with it. His puns are so outrageous they're irresistible. In "Senior Service" (the name of an English cigarette): "It's the breath you took too late/It's the death that's worse than fate." In "Oliver's Army": "Have you got yourself an Occupation?" In "Chemistry Class": "Are you ready for the final solution?" The first line on the record, "Oh, I just don't know where to begin." Beneath all this gamesmanship lurks something like a grand passion, however unexpected it may be from a fellow who favors photographs that make him look like a praying mantis. The EP that accompanies some copies of Armed Forces (Columbia wants you to buy the album in a hurry, so they'll stop including Live at Hollywood High after the first several hundred thousand records) contains a live version of "Alison" that's so steeped in tortured love it makes the concert audience squeal. And the LP's final cut, "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," is delivered with a sincerity bordering on desperation. The wise guy who can work Hitler into a song about competitive friendship ("Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/One little Hitler does the other one's will") is also prey to authentic romantic agonies so exquisitely maddening they go hand in hand with danger.
Listen to "Watching the Detectives," rerecorded in an almost playful version on the EP, with these show-stopping lines: "Nearly took a miracle to get you to stay/It only took my little fingers to blow you away." Or "Party Girl" (as in "You'll never be the guilty party, girl"), with its alternating waves of passionate declaration and angry denial. No Elvis Costello love song is without its ax to grind or its hatchet to bury, but at least the emotion, however strangled, comes through. Costello never sounds exactly willing to give himself over to sentiment, yet he works hard to make himself more than marginally accessible: a gangster with heart. Without that bit of humanizing, he'd be a specialty item. With it, he can be a star.
It hardly hurts that Costello's songs are never less than snappy, even when their drum parts are reminiscent of machine guns, or that Nick Lowe had produced him this time with a large and general audience in mind. Notwithstanding his Buddy Holly glasses and his Buddy Holly white socks, Elvis Costello refers most readily to the Sixties. And Lowe makes the most of this, filling Armed Forces with recycled lounge music ("Moods for Moderns"), Beatles-like codas and the trashiest organ lines this side of "96 Tears." Like the lyrics, these echoes run together in a quick, exciting jumble, so dense that the end of one number, "Busy Bodies," can mix the phrasing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Nowhere Man" with the guitar lines of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and the whoo-oos of the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl." Costello draws so heavily on the recent rock past that his reliance upon it amounts to a kind of cheapening, a repudiation. But that's only one more in a long line of quicksilver contradictions.
Right now, Elvis Costello serves as a feisty and furiously talented middleman, halfway between rock's smoothest sellouts and the angriest fringes of its New Wave. He wants to be daring, but he also wants to dance. He'd like to seethe and sell records at the same time. He's mindful of -- indeed, insistent upon -- the form and its limitations: it's only rock + roll, after all. But he takes it to the limit just the same.
Bebe Buell was seeing Costello in this time period. In Please Kill Me-- the Uncensored Oral History of Punk she tells the story of meeting Costello at The Whiskey.
I turned and immediately knocked his glasses off by mistake. I apologized. He had a great sense of humor about it, he told me he didn't need his face anyway-and we were sweating and shaking and totally scared to death of each other.
It was so cute-you don't feel that kind of purity too often in your life. I mean, we were in love. It was just, forget it, that was that.
We went to see somebody record and Elvis didn't like them, so we crawled out of the recording session on our hands and knees and we ran right into the president of Columbia, which was Elvis's label at the time. I'm sure they thought I was a horrible influence on him, because at that point there was only one person badder than me and that was Anita Pallenberg.
I think they really saw trouble when they saw Elvis and me together. They thought, Oh god, how are we gonna explain this one? Immediately it was sort of like the Punk and the Model-Beauty and the Beast. And the press pulverized us.
Was she the inspiration for "Party Girl"? Bebe responded to my question on twitter: Bebe NO- I didn't even know him yet when he wrote it. I met EC June 1978~he was creating + then making "Armed Forces" when I was first living w/ him in the Fall of 1978 in London.Think he just had a very active imagination which is great when you're a songwriter!x Of course- there are so many rumors out there- including some started by EC himself. I NEVER thought or claimed that any of the songs on This Year's Model or Armed Forces held me as the subject. Anything after that? All bets are off! EC is famous for denying! 40 Year Itch:
Oh! I’m going to listen to Get Happy right now!!! BeBe
Now you're on the right path!
Tom Moon called Armed Forces one of the 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, writing:
Armed Forces was written when Costello was twenty-four, after he and the Attractions had finished a long tour of the U.S. by van. It is the bridge between Costello the "punk singer-songwriter" and Costello the unabashed romantic of rock's New Wave. In the liner notes of the expanded edition, Costello recalls that while on the road, the band listened to cassettes of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Cheap Trick and ABBA. And it's possible to hear the influence of those polished productions in Armed Forces's specific details (the whomping piano-studded refrain of "Accidents Will Happen" and the nattily harmonized "Moods for Moderns"). This is the record where Costello realizes that the doors are wide open, and he can make any kind of snarly (or idealistic) noise he wants. So he makes all kinds of noise -- songs that thrum with Springsteen-like idealism ("Peace, Love and Understanding") or express disdain ("Goon Squad") or go to great lengths to draw parallels between cultural and personal upheavals ("Two Little Hitlers"), an idea underscored by Costello's original working title for the album, Emotional Facism.
From Robert Christgau who gave the album an A- grade:
Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person. He needs words because they add color and detail to his music. I like the more explicitly sociopolitical tenor here. But I don't find as many memorable bits of language as I did on This Year's Model. And though I approve of the more intricate pop constructions of the music, I found TYM's relentless nastiness of instrumental and (especially) vocal attack more compelling. A good record, to be sure, but not a great one.