Battle Of The Mid-80s Horn Sections: Elvis Costello + The Attractions – Punch The Clock

post-punk monk theme week - battle of the mid 80s horn sections

They proliferated like mushrooms in the pomp of mid-80s productions as the Serious Eighties got underway and swept the last vestiges of the Post-Punk experimentation of the late 70s off of the music map. I suppose we can lay the trend at the feet of three factors that happened earlier. First of all Dexys Midnight Runners and The Teardrop Explodes were the two post-punk bands that dared to integrate a horn section with their distinctive sounds before many bands even got their first synthesizer.

I can remember hearing The Teardrop Explodes’ “Ha Ha I’m Drowning” in 1981 and it really sounding vital and powerful, and it was totally down to those horns. Secondly, the rise of Ska and 2-Tone meant that all of a sudden, there were lots of horns back into the churn of British pop music of the New Wave period. By 1983-1985 horns were popping up in the least likely of places. They were often as a prop for established bands who needed a veneer of progress, no matter how it turned out. I’ve picked five bands not known for traditionally having horns in their makeup and we’ll survey the landscape and see who benefited and who suffered for their efforts. First up?

Elvis Costello + The Attractions: Punch The Clock [1983]

elvis costello + the attractions - punch the clock cover art

Rykodisc | US | CD | 1995 | RCD 20279

Elvis Costello + The Attractions: Punch The Clock US DLX RM CD [1995]

  1. Let Them All Talk
  2. Everyday I Write The Book
  3. The Greatest Thing
  4. The Element Within Her
  5. Love Went Mad
  6. Shipbuilding
  7. TKO (Boxing Day)
  8. Charm School
  9. The Invisible Man
  10. Mouth Almighty
  11. King Of Thieves
  12. Pills And Soap
  13. The World And His Wife

’81 had brought [the other] Elvis to Country Music with his “Almost Blue” album. In 1982 his album of ornate chamber pop, “Imperial Bedroom” had been produced by Sir George Martin’s right-hand-man, Geoff Emerick. Elvis must have felt like a hit because he turned to Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley; purveyors of hits for Madness as well as… Dexy’s Midnight Runners and The Teardrop Explodes [insert dramatic stinger]! So in the grand scheme of things, it seems like the horns were preordained here. How did that work out?

Judging by the first track out of the gate, poorly. The brash and abrasive “Let Them All Talk” immediately came on far too strong with everything but the kitchen sink piled on after those horns that immediately took first blood. The backing vocals of Afrodiziak could be a wonderful thing, but in this arrangement, they were competing in the same space as the horn section and it had the effect of being repeatedly asked if you are having any fun at a party where you are not having fun by the clueless and insistent host. Amazingly, this was one of two singles from the album.

The high points here are in the quieter moments where subtlety reigned and coincidentally the four horns were out of sight. “Every Day I Write The Book” was effective pop-soul and while there was a horn on the excellent “Shipbuilding,’ it belonged to the trumpet of Chet Baker and not the TKO Horns, as they were called here. Even if Costello did regret the echo he wanted on the horn solo  in the typically self-flagellating liner notes, it was one of the best songs here.

elvis costelloo + the attractions US tour book 1983

US 1983 tourbook

A little less than half of the songs here had the horn section bolted on, and in a band that is traditionally dominated by the overplaying of keyboardist Steve Nieve, things can get very claustrophobic indeed. The busyness of the arrangements with [usually] too many things happening at the same time, in addition to the penchant of Clanger + Winstanley to record all of the instruments separately, both conspired to suck the life usually present in an Elvis Costello + The Attractions album out of this one.

The one track with horns that actually approached swinging, was “The Greatest Thing,” which was built on a Bo Diddley beat similar to the one on “Trust’s” “Strict Time.” Elsewhere, “TKO [Boxing Day]” or “The World And His Wife” only succeeded in making Elvis Costello + The Attractions sound that much closer to the group Chicago. The heavy, unison horn sound was simply overbearing to my ears. The album had better footing with songs like “Charm School” or “Pills + Soap” which had been the inspired by “The Message”  and was released as a single ahead of the album. It  was remixed [and not fatally] by Langer + Winstanley for inclusion here.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A second tier Elvis Costello + The Attractions album indicative that the wheels may be coming off of the bus. They actually did with the next album, but that’s another story. The horn section got a paycheck, but for the most part, it was luxury I couldn’t afford. There was a perfunctory air to the playing and arrangements that felt at odds with the traditionally keyboard led band. That Nieve didn’t scale back his keyboard aspirations meant that this one was overstuffed and yet it managed to also feel sterile, due to the track-by-track construction of the songs. The songs weren’t the worst from Elvis’ pen, yet only a handful here ranked with his best.


Next:  From Hell To Borneo

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12 Responses to Battle Of The Mid-80s Horn Sections: Elvis Costello + The Attractions – Punch The Clock

  1. bpdp3 says:

    Looking forward to seeing where you take this thread. I have some thoughts but will keep my yap shut as I’m curious if we share some reservations. Your Costello pick is a good one…have to agree that the sparser the horns, the better the songs come across!

    I suppose if I hear the music with the horns initially (as is the case with the quadruple punch of Specials, Too much pressure, One step beyond and Just can’t stop it) they seem to belong and make sense. And I’ve loved jazz, r&b, etc. But as a rule they are generally not a source of joy for me in this realm of music. Tear down the walls… of brass!?


  2. drskridlow says:

    I love how integral horns were in shaping the distinctive sound of Teardrop Explodes – in the same way they were used so uniquely on Love’s Forever Changes. Copey was pretty possessive of that sound too, remarking in his Head-On biography about being angry that Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, who produced Echo & the Bunnymen’s first album, ripped off the trademark Teardrop horns in the song Happy Death Men. He also slagged the Jam for using horns on their Sound Effects album.
    Looking forward to reading the rest of the series!


  3. SimonH says:

    Harsh Monk, harsh:) I really enjoy this album, sure it’s not top tier but still lots to like. I recently
    finally bought Goodbye Cruel World on cd, and felt it was a lot better an album than I recall at the time. Maybe I’m trying to make up for the fact that my last pre-lockdown gig was due to be Costello until it was cancelled 24 hours before taking place…the tour setlist looked great as well.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – Well i think there’s enough to like here. But it’s “boiling frog syndrome.” In 1983 this album didn’t seem as weak as it does now in the rear view mirror. As I alluded to, EC himself finds a lot to be desired here in retrospect as well, according to the liner notes.


  4. negative1ne says:

    Hi Mr. Monk,
    Wonder if we will hear about Phil Collins, Haircut 100, or Heaven 17 in this series.
    Love horns, when done properly.



    • postpunkmonk says:

      negative1ne – But I think they’re so rarely used properly. Especially in the kind of music we discuss here. I just thought of the first five acts that bolted on horns in the mid80s when planning this thread (for the last month, I swear) and I’ll admit that I forgot about the 2nd, wonderful, Heaven 17 album with EWF’s Phenix Horns. An all time great album for integrating horns. Pure class!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I certainly concur that Langer/Winstanley were the wrong choice for this album, but you have to admit he got a hit out of — “Everyday” was in heavy rotation owing to the presence of a certain Mr. Hall.

    I haven’t listened to that album in a long time, but I recall enjoying the singles and other tracks you mentioned. I like “Let Them All Talk” but it is absolutely kitchen-sink territory and was ill-suited for the lead spot except as a warning (heh). The songs themselves I didn’t have any problem with that I can recall. “Overstuffed” is the exact right term for the arrangements. You can get away with that on a rave-up but not elsewhere.

    That said, you’ve planted the idea of a EC&TI all-ska album in my head and now I want one!


    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – I hate to tell you but you’re thinking of “The Only Flame In Town” from “Goodbye Cruel World.” The next album. I find “Everyday I Write The Book” to be a much better “pop song.”


  6. diskojoe says:

    I didn’t want to hijack your Ultravox thread, so this is the best place I could find to put this story I just found about Elvis Costello explaining why the new Armed Forces deluxe box set will be vinyl only:

    The comments are pretty interesting.


  7. Pingback: 80s Soundtrack Week: Monday – “Party Party” GER CD | Post-Punk Monk

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