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 
Elvis Costello + The Attractions: Punch The Clock US DLX RM CD 
- Let Them All Talk
- Everyday I Write The Book
- The Greatest Thing
- The Element Within Her
- Love Went Mad
- TKO (Boxing Day)
- Charm School
- The Invisible Man
- Mouth Almighty
- King Of Thieves
- Pills And Soap
- 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.
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.
GRADE – C
Next: From Hell To Borneo