By 1979, Elvis Costello had established himself as an acerbic songwriter with a penchant for pungent turns of phrase, a sort of New Wave Bob Dylan. Critics adored his wordplay, and audiences made his first two records big hits. But when Costello delivered his third album, in January of that year, it was a reproach to anyone who thought they had figured out his shtick. Armed Forces represented a leap for the English singer and his band, the Attractions—a harmonic and sonic transformation. But the most remarkable thing about the record was its obsession with fascism, Nazis, and the Holocaust. A quiver of catchy riffs carries a dozen embittered songs, only to resolve in an unexpectedly earnest plea for harmony.
The extensive use of Nazi-related motifs puzzled American listeners in the late 1970s. Even now, Costello’s casual use of the Third Reich as a metaphor for the strife of personal relationships comes across as flippant and even blasphemous. Unfortunately, the imagery no longer feels quite so foreign this month, in which Costello has released a sprawling, sumptuous new deluxe box set of the album. The American president clings to power and refuses to recognize an election that defeated him. Right-wing militias plot to kidnap governors. Around the globe, people are watching as authoritarians consolidate their power and fascist movements gain followers. More than four decades after its release, Armed Forces feels more frighteningly vital and relevant than ever.
On his first two records, Costello had begun to toy with fascism as a lyrical motif, a strange choice for a young man born nearly a decade after the end of World War II. His first single, 1977’s “Less Than Zero,” was inspired by an interview with Oswald Mosley, the 1930s British fascist leader, and likened a flirtation with fascism to clandestine teen hookups. On 1978’s This Year’s Model, Costello included “Night Rally,” a brief but blistering anti-fascist ditty, and “Radio Radio,” which painted the BBC as Orwellian for censoring the Sex Pistols. Costello initially planned to call his third album Emotional Fascism, before landing on a somewhat subtler title. Many of the songs on Armed Forces play, inchoately, with the idea of love as a fraught and even fascistic construct that leads people to inhumanity, unreason, and brutality. Costello had espoused a bleak vision of romance in an August 1977 interview, telling NME, “The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs are revenge and guilt … Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn’t exist in my songs.”
Yet, as those songs took him around the globe, the things he saw began to influence his political vision. On tour in the United States, he met “Me generation” college students whose complacency and hedonism made them appear to him as budding apparatchiks of despotism. “I could only imagine such people sliding blithely into some repressive future,” Costello wrote in the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of Armed Forces. “Either that or they might find an excellent career in advertising.” In Belfast, he saw baby-faced young men in fatigues carrying automatic weapons.
Meanwhile, Costello found ample fuel for his obsession with fascism at home. Britain was in the midst of a sharp uptick in fascist and racist political activity, as groups such as the National Front and the British Movement reprised Mosley’s efforts from 40 years earlier. “Thugs of the nationalist parties had recently been parading in the streets of London,” Costello writes in new liner notes to the Armed Forces box set. “Despite never being attracted to the slogan song, the U.K. edition of [the first Attractions album] This Year’s Model had closed with … ‘Night Rally.’ It was a projection into a possible future; I didn’t think I would be reporting current events.”
All of these experiences informed the writing of Armed Forces. Musically, the record was a more elaborate iteration of the formula from the first two Attractions records. Steve Nieve’s peppy Vox organ, Bruce Thomas’s muscular and melodic bass, and Pete Thomas’s steady drums remained, but the album was poppier and a little less punk than its predecessors, laden with hooks. The lyrics, however, were flintier than anything that had come before.
The shallow American undergraduates served as a muse for “Chemistry Class,” where a sneering Costello asks, “Are you ready for the final solution?” “Goon Squad” tells of a young man co-opted by a Brownshirts-like movement. “You’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me,” the narrator vows, a reference to a horrifying Holocaust rumor. The title of “Green Shirt” harkens back to pre–World War II fascist parties whose members adopted green shirts as an emblem, and the lyrics present a dystopic vision of population control by television and warns of torture at “the Quisling Clinic”—which, implausibly, was a real place Costello noticed in Madison, Wisconsin, and couldn’t resist enlisting in a double entendre for the notorious Norwegian collaborator. An early draft of “Senior Service,” the lyrics of which are included in one of the box set’s many booklets, began with a portrait of a postwar fascist underground.
Then there’s “Two Little Hitlers,” yet another love-gone-wrong tale that offers the most explicit of the album’s Third Reich references. Costello insists that the title is “just a turn of phrase,” but listening to such lurid lyrics with detachment is impossible. Over an incongruously cheery lite-reggae beat, Costello sings, “Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one’s will / I will return / I will not burn / Down in the basement.”
The album’s finest song, however, avoided Nazi references, and instead turned Costello’s gimlet eye on British militarism. “Oliver’s Army” is one of several tracks on Armed Forces that poke at the embers of the British empire, and a bouncy, ABBA-inspired piano line helps sugarcoat dour lyrics about young working-class men “from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” who are sent off to fight wars of empire around the globe. The titular Oliver is Cromwell, the leader of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, who remains hated in much of Ireland for his brutal treatment of the country. Costello imagines Cromwell joining a roll call of British leaders in making the same empty promise to new recruits: “But there’s no danger / It’s a professional career / Though it could be arranged / With just a word in Mr. Churchill’s ear.”
As Costello was writing the record, Britain’s music scene was itself experiencing a convulsion of racism and far-right politics. Though extremist groups like the National Front were on the fringe, they could create real disturbances. In August 1977, 500 NF members gathered for a march through Lewisham, an area in southeast London with a significant Black community, where they were met by thousands of counterprotesters and police. The ensuing riot, called the battle of Lewisham, left 111 people injured, half of them police officers; more than 200 people were arrested. In April 1979, an NF meeting in Southall, a heavily Asian area of western London, resulted in a riot and one man’s death.
Neofascism attracted some prominent rock musicians. At a 1976 concert in Birmingham, Eric Clapton chanted racist slogans and praised Enoch Powell, a notorious Tory member of Parliament who warned in 1968 of “rivers of blood” if immigration was not curtailed. “Keep Britain white,” Clapton said. “I used to be into dope; now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man.” (He has since apologized.) Around the same time, David Bowie repeatedly praised fascism. “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader,” he said in 1976. “After all, fascism is really nationalism.” (Bowie also later recanted.) Reacting to the far-right movement, a group of musicians calling themselves Rock Against Racism organized hundreds of concerts across Britain, including two large outdoor shows in London. Costello’s participation in the second London concert was an indication of both his political engagement and the earnest streak that undergirded his outward irony.
The initial release of Armed Forces ended with “Two Little Hitlers,” but by the time the record was released in America, the single “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” had become a hit, so it was tacked on. It’s the album’s only cover song. The producer Nick Lowe had written it as a teasing send-up of hippie pieties, and some critics have pegged Costello’s version as similarly mocking, but Costello wrote in the liner notes to the 2002 reissue that he delivered the song with angry sincerity: “We certainly attacked the song with little sense of irony and as if it were obvious that no one knew the answer to the question that the song posed.” The song wasn’t a self-deprecating rejoinder to what had come before; it was a neat bow tied on the preceding 40 minutes of anguish and fury.
If Costello had released the record today, it might have been both praised and panned as a “woke” message. The politics it displays makes the catastrophe of Costello’s 1979 U.S. tour especially remarkable. During his previous American tour, Costello had overhauled “Less Than Zero,” realizing that U.S. audiences didn’t know Mosley and would assume “Mr. Oswald” was Lee Harvey. He rewrote the song to be about the John F. Kennedy assassination, in what he called the “Dallas Version.” But he didn’t tone down the militancy on his 1979 tour. His retinue wore combat fatigues and traveled in a bus labeled camp lejeune, after the U.S. Marine base. Live recordings included in the box set give a good sense of what an Armed Forces–era Attractions concert was like: Every song seems about 15 percent faster and 30 percent more punk than the album version. To an unsympathetic listener, Costello can sound twee in studio, especially surrounded by Nieve’s filigrees. These tapes show that the concerts were rougher affairs.
By March, Armed Forces had reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 200. Drinking at the Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio, with Stephen Stills’s band, Costello began attacking American music as insincere. When Bonnie Bramlett, one of Stills’s singers, took issue, Costello became more belligerent, calling James Brown a “jive-ass nigger” and Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger.” Bramlett, who is white, did the reasonable thing: She decked Costello, knocking him off a barstool. The incident was, and remains, baffling. Costello’s comments were both morally and musically indefensible, no matter how drunk he was. And wasn’t this the same guy who a few months earlier was playing Rock Against Racism shows? The same songwriter who on the Armed Forces track “Sunday’s Best” had lampooned dyspeptic British pensioners who would “blame it all upon the darkies”? Costello writes in the new liner notes that the Holiday Inn incident “is a story without excuses or coherent explanation.”
Word of the melee spread. Costello was spotted wearing a sling, thanks to a separated shoulder sustained when he fell off the stool. Faced with protests and death threats, Costello apologized and said he was acting stupidly and drunkenly, and was mostly just trying to provoke the Stills band. But American radio stations and listeners boycotted Armed Forces, and it tumbled down the chart. By 1982, when Costello discussed the incident with Rolling Stone, he remarked bitterly that it was what he was best known for. In his 2015 memoir, Costello wrote, “That Ohio evening may very well have saved my sorry life. So what if my career was rolled back off the launching pad? Life eventually became a lot more interesting due to this failure to get into some undeserved and potentially fatal orbit.”
Just as Costello’s burgeoning star was dimming, the British fascist movement was running out of steam. In spring 1979, as the Attractions limped home from America, the U.K. held general elections. The National Front drew almost 200,000 votes, but that was a high-water mark; the real story turned out to be Margaret Thatcher’s victory. Although racist, fascist parties still occasionally regenerate in Britain, the NF’s moment had passed.
Perhaps Bramlett’s right hook didn’t just knock Costello off a barstool and the charts. It might have also shattered some of the arrogance and smugness that informed Armed Forces’ lyrics. Costello’s career recovered and thrived, and today he is able to critique his lyrics with distance. “Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naive; it is full of gimmicks and almost overpowers some songs with paradoxes and subverted clichés piling up into private and secret meanings,” he writes. “I was not quite 24 and thought I knew it all.”
Costello has never abandoned cynicism, disgust, and anger in his lyrics. But he has never written another record so searing in its combination of romantic and political fury as Armed Forces. Over the ensuing decades, he occasionally commented on current events in songs, but he was more plainspoken and more righteously indignant than ironic—and then dropped the habit altogether. “There is the delusion that you are effecting change with a [political] song,” he told GQ in 2015. But Armed Forces never feels that way. It’s not pedantic in its treatment of the looming threat of fascism. It’s furious and afraid. Costello seems less interested in trying to change anything than he is in describing with horror what he sees around him.
That makes it a perfect album when not only are far-right parties and leaders on the rise, but also the coronavirus pandemic has left people around the world feeling powerless. Now, more than in 1979, fascism is everywhere. Donald Trump calls the press the enemy of the people, grounds his appeal in racism, and seeks to undermine democratic elections. Echoing the NF marches of the late 1970s, white nationalists stage marches across the U.S. Ultra-right-wing parties are ascendant around the globe. Reporters are abducted in consulates, tortured, and killed. Internet-incubated far-right movements of outcasts, once written off by most as a bunch of meme-obsessed losers and “shitposters,” now dominate governments. Costello warned us: “You think they’re so dumb; you think they’re so funny / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally.”
Meanwhile, despite his repudiation of agitprop, Costello has taken a turn back toward the political in his most recent album, Hey Clockface, released in October. The album’s first single is called “No Flag,” and it bristles with some of the same paranoid anger as Armed Forces. “We want everything and we don’t wanna share / Outer space for the faces we fear / Look in the mirror and see who I used to be / Made out of plastic in a factory,” Costello shouts over an industrial thump. Asked by Stephen Colbert in an interview whether it was a protest song, Costello demurred: “No, those sorts of things just happen by coincidence.”
Perhaps—but as Costello would be the first to teach, you shouldn’t always take what people say at face value. “No Flag” shows up on a Spotify playlist of “50 Songs for 50 Days” that Costello rolled out to conclude on Election Day, an endeavor that he called his “October Surprise.” Costello has also been pointedly quoting a song he wrote for a musical adaptation of A Face in the Crowd, Elia Kazan’s film about a demagogic grifter. The songwriter might have tried to stay away from politics, but just as in a poisonous relationship, temptation can be strong.
These more recent songs are aimed at the moment, but Armed Forces might still speak to it most forcefully. Greil Marcus’s 1979 description of the record doubles as a description of the reality of contemporary America. “Every moment of personal failure or unsatisfied passion is invaded by the cruelty and shamelessness of the political world,” Marcus wrote. “The secret, unspeakable realities of political life … rise up to force a redefinition of relationships between men and women, the essential stuff of ordinary life, on these unspeakable terms.”
As uncomfortable as the mixing of the personal and political on Armed Forces made Costello nearly two decades ago, his grim vision of how movements in the streets reflect and affect our personal lives makes the album feel disquietingly timely today. If Costello’s anguish at fascism translates all too directly to the present day, his parting question hasn’t lost any of its power over the past 40 years. What, in the end, is so funny about peace, love, and understanding?