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Sound Reports & Views

Armed Struggle in Bath

Elvis Costello

Article from Sound International, February 1979

Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Bath Pavilion Dec 28 1978
Armed Forces RAD 14

Despite the apparent harmony between old and new, Bath seems to me to be a place in which past and present are locked in a life and death struggle. What better place, then, to see Elvis Costello, whose success, more than that of any other new wave figure, has relied upon his ability to take old and new elements and form them into an original and seemingly harmonious whole.

Of course, people have always traded on nostalgia, but Elvis Costello is doing something different, because despite his own consciousness of his musical roots he is playing to an audience to whom the Sixties mean almost nothing. And even to those who recognise the originals of some of his poses, the man does have compelling qualities of his own. This became quite clear at the Pavilion in Bath where Costello gave a blistering performance, full of the new assurance and confidence that has come to him with the knowledge that he is the first international star to emerge from the British new wave. The Attractions too were in excellent form, especially Steve Naive whose fluid keyboard work was prominent. In contrast Costello's guitar seemed staccato at best, and at worst inept, yet he still dominated the performance with his relentlessly aggressive vocals and his handling of both band and audience. For me the high points of the set were the long and adventurous versions of I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea and Watching the Detectives and it's a pity some 1977-style identipunks at the front had to ruin the atmosphere of the gig by continually gobbing at Elvis until he brought things to an abrupt and bad-tempered close with a torrent of abuse and a mic stand hurled into the audience.

One thing that surprised me about the gig was the fact that Costello chose to do only one number from his then forthcoming album. Now, after listening to Armed Forces I can see some of the reasons for his apparent lack of confidence in the new material, for although most of the songs here are sound enough there is little that is really different except perhaps the mysterious Green Shirt with its drum machine and synthesiser. But for me the least attractive thing about the album is Nick Lowe's production. Having built a career somewhere on that shaky ground between pastiche and plagiarism, Lowe adopts for this album a sort of composite Spector/Wilson sound, except when he has a more precise model in mind: for instance how many people will fail to identify the Abbey Road quote in Party Girls? Admittedly his Sixties-style experiments with reverberation times and stereo are interesting but not when they bury the song they are supposed to be projecting. The best thing about the production is the restrained and musical use of polyphonic synthesiser: the worst thing is the horribly thin and edgy vocal sound which almost manages to obscure Costello's more than usually interesting lyrics.

When I bought my copy of Armed Forces I found hidden in the bizarre and virtually functionless packaging a 'free' live ep (with free feedback). This provides an interesting contrast with the album, especially the version of Accidents Will Happen which, if anything, is underproduced, sounding so much better than the crowded version which opens the LP.

In all, I think that it's time Elvis Costello looked for a new producer and one less concerned with the recreation of the past. When you are as successful as Costello it is time to stop modelling yourself on others and to start leading the way for others to follow.

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Feb 1979

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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