This Year's Model

Elvis Costello's sophmore album at 40

Tuesday 13th March 2018

In 1978 Elvis Costello had already broken on to the scene with 'My Aim True' on Stiff Records in the preceding year. The Stiff stable had brought Declan Patrick MacManus (AKA Elvis Costello), producer/musician Nick Lowe and label entrepreneur Jake Riviera together, but the arrangement only lasted for one Costello album before Riviera set off on a new course with Radar Records taking Elvis and Nick with him as intellectual collateral.

Sure enough, Elvis Costello & The Attractions proved to be Radar's big hitters throughout the relatively short lifespan of the label and 'This Year's Model' (released 17th March 1978 and produced by Nick Lowe) was the first output by the band on the imprint, in 1978. A notable carry over from the Stiff period was the involvement of cover designer Barney Bubbles, who had engineered the many different coloured print runs of 'My Aim is True' at Stiff the previous year. For 'This Year's Model' Bubbles' gimmick was to seemingly accidentally slice off the left-hand side of the cover so severely as to lose the first letter of the artist name and album title while exposing the printers' colour bars on its right.

Another less direct nod to the Stiff days was the subject matter suggested by the first single taken from the album. 'Pump It Up' allegedly refers to the excesses enjoyed and endured by those that took part in the Stiffs Live Tour, including Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Wreckless Eric and Nick Lowe. The song's video begins echoing the album cover's photo, which legend has it was snapped while Costello listened to The Eagles' 'Hotel California', by his own choice to ensure he looked really miserable in the shot. The single's B side 'Big Tears' featured Mick Jones of The Clash on guitar.

Another single, 'Radio Radio' appeared on the US version of the album, and the song became a big deal in America after Elvis Costello and The Attractions were famously asked to fill a slot on Saturday Night Live. When Sex Pistols could not make their booking to appear on SNL due to travel complications, Elvis and the band were invited to appear instead. The band agreed to play their established song 'Less Than Zero' but stopped after the song's first few bars and instead played 'Radio Radio' which included lyrics referring to the BBC's ban of the Sex Pistols' 1977 single 'God Save the Queen'. The unapproved swap for the song with its anti-corporate broadcast themes earned Costello a ban from SNL until 1989, and the occasion has been mimicked and referenced by artists since including St. Vincent, Beastie Boys and "Weird Al" Yankovic.

UK versions of This Year's Model included '(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea' instead of 'Radio Radio'. Fans on either side of the Atlantic argue whether the Chelsea referred to '(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea' is Chelsea London or Chelsea New York, or indeed if it's drawing comparisons between the less favourable characteristics of them both.

When released in 1978 Rolling Stone's Kit Rachlis postulated that the last year's model described in the lyrics of the song was alluding to Costello himself. Having scored a hit stateside with the biggest selling imported album with 'My Aim Is True' he was facing the fearful prospect of the second album's reception. 

Far from failing though, as well as the big singles, 'This Year's Model' contained tracks that would cement Costello's new wave status in the UK and US. Songs such as 'Lipstick Vogue' and 'Living in Paradise' expanded upon Elvis Costello's rooted themes of cynicism and self-doubt. The band positioned themselves as a different take on punk to that which had been adopted by Sex Pistols and their acolytes, while deft touches, such as their version of The Damned's 'Neat Neat Neat', another album track, ensured that there were no confusions as to where they were coming from.

'My Aim is True' and 'This Year's Model' were released in the US by Columbia despite the SNL upset. The unlikely Buddy Holly-esque figure with the rock'n'roll stage name became the poster boy of British new wave abroad and succeeded in breaking America - just five years after providing the backing vocals for his father on the R White's lemonade advert.

In 1979 Elvis Costello & The Attractions not only released 'Armed Forces' with its singles 'Oliver's Army' and 'Accidents Will Happen' but also managed to produce the eponymous debut album for The Specials. The Attractions line up of Keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (formed while still at Stiff but not until shortly after the recording of 'My'Aim Is True') remained Costello's solid backing band until 1986. 

Read more about Stiff Records formation including the signing of Elvis Costello in our feature here.

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