Stiff Records were so free and easy with their publicity slogans that I am not sure of the actual given title of that first, momentous package tour of their impressive roster. “Live Stiffs”, “5 Live Stiffs”, “A Bunch of Stiffs”, it was probably all of these at some time. Anyway, “if it ain’t stiff it ain’t worth a f*ck”. I do know that on the 25th of October 1977 when the ragged, brilliant pub-rock parade reached Birmingham Town Hall it was a very hot ticket. That night there was a whole lot of exciting British music going on. It was the night that I saw Elvis Costello & the Attractions play live for the first time.
Costello’s debut LP “My Aim Is True” (1977) was absolutely part of the blast of fresh air blowing away the stale fug of UK prog rock. 3 singles, the ballad “Alison”, the retro “Red Shoes” & the anti-fascist “Less Than Zero”, had not been hits but had shown the range of an invigorating new songwriter. “My Aim Is True” was a big record around my too-old-for-punk friends & that night in Birmingham Elvis, backed by his new band raced through the LP in fine style. 2 songs which were not on the record “held by many as the most impressive debut in pop music history.” (Pitchfork) tipped us off that the next release was not to be missed.
The only misfire on “My Aim…” was that Elvis (a cool & surprising name to appropriate in 1977) had a backing band which was no more than competent. That 2nd LP came around in March 1978 as a record by Elvis Costello & the Attractions. The singer now had his own band & the synergy was perfect. Here was a new gang with something to prove & they made a flying start. “This Year’s Model” is an amphetamine-fuelled charge, Elvis’ spitting, snarling bile matched by the urgency of the rhythm section (Look, there’s Pete Thomas, a man to watch since he was drumming for Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers ) & the impassioned keyboard stabs of Steve Nieve. Some of these songs were the leavings from the first record. They were all improved by the collective input of musicians eager to do more than just play the tune.
All of these clips are from a show filmed for German TV. I love to see a group who know that they have something special going on & just want to steamroller an audience with quality & energy. This frantic take on “Lipstick Vogue” is not as disciplined as the recorded version where the charge from “sometimes I almost feel just like a human being” into the chorus never fails to stir. There is a clip of the same song from June 1979 when the band had sold more records & the song is a showstopper but here there is a demand from the band that attention is paid to something this good.
Those impressive new songs on the Stiff tour were “Watching The Detectives” , released as a single coincident with the Stiff tour, & “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”. “..Detectives” tense reggae-noir arrangement is a step forward from the debut LP. “…Chelsea”, a taut torrential sneer underpinned by Bruce Thomas’s abiding bass line which holds the room together. Here Elvis was pushing his “wordplay as swordplay…puns for punters”. I’ve nicked that quote because I like it. Some of my favourite rock & roll is as dumb as a box of hair but I never saw nothing wrong with a finely turned phrase, with some wit & intelligence in my music.
“They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie” always, for me evoked the 1967 movie “Smashing Time”, Rita Tushingham & the younger Redgrave sister are down from the North to go up West & Stark Raving Mod. The LP’s cover is Elvis as photographer, as David Hemmings in “Blow Up” (1966). “This Year’s Model” re-makes re-models the Swinging Sixties, the decade that Elvis & I became teenagers but were still kids. The classic pop of the Beatles, the attack & wit of the Who & the Kinks even, in ” The Beat”, the pre-Fab Four sound of Cliff Richard & the Shadows.There is too an element of misogyny recalling the early Stones, maybe young Declan MacManus had some scores to settle. I’m prepared to cut the guy some slack. It’s a misanthropic record, he didn’t like anybody. The closing track “Night Rally” is a companion to “Less Than Zero”. The posturing proto-fascist National Front were gaining political ground in 1977. They were not to be flirted with, not to be taken lightly. “Night Rally” is serious & seriously good.
Back in those few weeks when “Punk” became the latest moral panic (between that stupid one & something even more dumb) British city centres were the setting for a bit of pushing & shoving between the police & local adolescent anarchists. It was all nothing much about very little, the pubs closed at 10.30 & most of those suburban situationists had pleasant family homes that they just didn’t want to go back to yet. Anyway, a punk friend of mine was chased & cornered by a Birmingham bluebottle who, referring to Mark’s shiny, of-the-moment, leatherette trousers sneered, “What are these then…Punk ?”. With the confidence of youth, our dedicated follower of fashion put 5-0 right, “No, they’re New Wave”. It is a fine line, maybe you have to be of a certain age, but that is some funny shit.
Elvis Costello wasn’t Punk either but he’d help them out when they were busy. The “whatever it is I’m against it” choler of his lyrics set in the short, sharp, shocking context of the Attractions placed this music right there in the contemporary section. For 15 years the current British interpretation of popular music had been exported to & copied by the rest of the world. The music business knew that this new unruly mob, gobbing on life in the dole-drums, would be a harder sell. The track listings on Costello’s records were mucked about with for the US, the seismic debut by the Clash was not even released there. “Ramones”, an LP which should be part of the post-natal kit for all new-born babies reached #111 on the charts. So, “New Wave” it was then. Less threatening, designed to shift product.The catch all tag included the Good (Graham Parker, B-52s, Devo), the Bad (the Knack, the Cars) & the Flock of Seagulls. New Wave, as a style & fashion, was, at best, nebulous & probably meaningless.
“This Year’s Model” picks up the torch of British pop music that had become obscured by self-indulgent space odysseys & triple albums. It combined the best of that inventive mid-1960s beat with the energy & attitude of the new music of 1977. There are later records by Elvis Costello & the Attractions that I love but if I want a rush & a push it’s the charge, it’s the bolt, it’s the buzz of this record that I reach for.