While My Aim Is True is generally regarded as one of the all-time great debut albums, there’s little disagreement that This Year’s Model is where things really get cooking for Elvis Costello.
In fact, for some, this album is The Whole Thing— he would never top it. It is the Gold Standard, an explosion of rage & guilt from a vengeful nerd, and every song on it is great.
For those listeners, it would be all downhill from here. When Costello makes an album that people describe as “a return to form” they are most likely thinking of This Year’s Model. (There is a certain breed of Costello fan who yells out "PUMP IT UP!!" at inopportune moments during almost every Costello concert, whether he is performing with a rock band, a string quartet or a bunch of Irish folk musicians.)
Shedding both Clover and his pub rock roots entirely, he now had his own backing band— The Attractions; Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums, and Steve Nieve on keyboards— and they would be Costello’s partners-in-crime for almost a full decade.
Nick Lowe was still in the producer’s chair, but by his own admission Costello had quickly taken control, and the multi-tracked backing vocals and self-harmonies (just listen to the army of Elvises on the opening track, "No Action") were more likely the result of Costello’s increasing confidence in the studio than any grand sonic ambition on Lowe’s part. Lowe felt the best thing he could do was to stay out of the way and try to capture some of the madness as it happened.
The promotional LP "Live At The El Mocambo" was widely bootlegged before finally getting an official release on CD in the 1990s, and it offers a glimpse of what Costello & The Attractions were like right out of the gate— cocky, skilled and aggressive. Sometimes riots would break out because they would blaze through their entire repertoire so quickly that the show would be over and they would be heading out of town before the angry patrons even realized that the show was over.
But by far the biggest “outrage” of this period was when EC & The A’s were the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and Costello decided to switch songs live on the air.
Unfortunately, this classic SNL clip is nowhere to be found online at the moment, but you CAN watch:
• Costello’s 1991 SNL appearance (his 2nd time back after being “banned for life”)
• Costello re-creating the interruption with The Beastie Boys for SNL’s 25th anniversary special
The early version is a fairly straightforward celebration of listening to the music on the radio. When Costello sings “I believe in the Radio Soul” he sounds like he means it, and the description of radio as a “sound salvation” doesn’t sound like it’s meant to be sarcastic. He’s singing about how much he loves music and how much its simple pleasures mean to people (a sentiment he would echo decades later in the song "International Echo" which was about the way music spreads and reverberates all over the world.)
COMPARE & CONTRAST:
Elvis Costello & Flip City: "Radio Soul"
Elvis Costello & The Attractions: "Radio, Radio"
It’s hard to imagine Elvis Costello would have become a sensation in 1978 with a song like “Radio Soul.” It’s a pleasant song, but hardly what the times were calling for. The adjustment Costello made was to emphasize the most cynical element of the original lyric (“everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed”) and to then take the absolute opposite point of view, that Radio is “in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel.”
Of course, despite being an “overnight” success, it’s fair to assume that between 1975 and 1977 Costello had had more than a few doors slammed in his face and had possibly grown more cynical about how the “music business” operates. But it’s also clear that Costello realized that a song about how he wanted to “bite the hand that feeds me” would play better than a song about how great it was to listen to music on the radio.
On a personal note: if you come to see The Stepfathers perform on any given Friday night at the UCB Theatre in New York City, there is a good chance that you will hear the song “Lipstick Vogue” playing a minute or two before the show starts. It’s a very exciting song to hear when being played while one is waiting to go on stage.
Costello once wrote about this song:
"Here are the bones of it; the rhythms of the Metropolitan line (on which it was written) colliding with a song by The Byrds called ‘I see you’. I didn’t mention this bit to Pete Thomas at the time, so what you hear is all his own work. I stand by every word."
I used to ride on the Metropolitan line when I lived in London, and the drums DO sound like that train zooming by. Furthermore, it’s interesting to look at the way Costello is learning to synthesize his influences. On My Aim Is True, he had a song which the band referred to as “the one that sounds like The Byrds.” Now, just one year later, he has a song that is Byrds-influenced but doesn’t “sound like a Byrds song.”
The Byrds: "I See You"
Elvis Costello & The Attractions: "Lipstick Vogue"
It’s infuriating to note that Costello was still in his early 20s when he made this record.