In 1979, composer, singer and performer Elvis Costello unleashed his third album on the universe which was to seal his status as an influential and successful artist — arguably one of the most talented of his generation — for the rest of his career. He was just 23 years old then!
Called Armed Forces, the album was exactly the powerhouse follow-on he needed after his first two tremendous albums, especially 1978’s This Year’s Model.
Bruce Springsteen once called Elvis’ initial round of albums a “perfect storm” (as a guest on Costello’s Spectacle TV show, a program I recommend highly if you haven’t seen it yet).
And storm Elvis did, across America with an aggressive concert tour that was both assaultive as it was emotional and powerful. I saw Elvis for the first time then (Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ, March 30, 1979) and it was an incredible evening with a certain edge apparent even outside in the crowd that enveloped you well before you got inside the concert hall… but I digress…
Roughly celebrating Armed Forces’ 40th anniversary, Universal Music has worked closely with Elvis Costello who has curated a genuinely wonderful Super-Duper-Deluxe all-vinyl boxed set celebrating this magnificent album. Dubbed The Complete Armed Forces, in the package you get not only the remastered version of the album – and a special version of it at that – – but you also get a first-time-on-vinyl expanded LP version of the free “EP” (a.k.a. “extended play” single) which came with the original pressings of the album: Live at Hollywood High. These recordings were included in the expanded CD of Armed Forces issued by Rhino Records some years back.
Gotta say, it is wonderful to finally have some of the best performances from this wonderful concert as a “real,” physical album! More on that later in this review series…
You also get an LP of Elvis’ complete set on June 4,1979 at the “Pink Pop” Festival in The Netherlands. There are three 10-inch mini-LPs of previously unreleased live recordings as well as period B-sides and demos recorded in that period.
There is much more which we will go into soon…
But, first, lets look at and listen to the new album…
One of the great details about this release is that for the first time we now have a universal version of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. For those not in the know, the US and UK editions of this album were slightly different (as were his first two albums, by the way), swapping out certain tracks for other single releases from the period that were deemed more likely to be popular in America. Thus, the version of Armed Forces released in the United States ended with Elvis’ powerhouse cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding.” The UK version of the album had a different track in the middle of Side 2, “Sunday’s Best.”
So, now for the first time on vinyl we get a universal version of the album with both songs included and it feels fine. By this point, many fans who had the Rhino Records two-CD expanded edition CD of Armed Forces are familiar with that track-listing and most hardcore Elvis fans (if I might speak as one) have many different pressings of the album already. So its nice to see and hear them together in harmony, if you will…
The appropriately khaki-military-green colored opaque 180-gram vinyl is quiet and well centered.
The remastering is interesting on this edition. From the official press materials for this boxed set we learned that this edition of “Armed Forces has been newly remastered by Costello and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig from the original analog tapes to match the sonic fidelity of the initial 1979 UK pressing. Striving for the utmost authenticity, they took care to match the feel and intention of the original mastering.”
Indeed, there is a quite a bit going on in this new remaster which took me a short while to get acclimated to — once I got used to the generally brighter feel they were going for, I got into the spirit of it. Generally this remaster offers quite a bit more detail and insight into the recording than I’ve heard previously – I compared this to an original US white label promo LP, an original UK pressing as well as CD-quality streams on Tidal and Qobuz.
The separation is more distinct compared to the original pressings with a nice sense of the studio ambiance and amplifier tone coming through (listen to those guitar stabs on “Good Squad” for an example of what I’m talking about). But, it is a decidedly shinier (if you will) listen so some of you might well prefer the somewhat warmer sounding original LP. The good news is that both versions can happily exist side by side. I’ll put it this way: I’m happy to have this in my collection alongside my original US and UK editions.
Also, most deeper Costello fans will be happy to know that The Complete Armed Forces reproduces quite nicely the original UK design of Armed Forces. A magnificent multi-faceted fold-out origami-like cover — designed by the great Barney Bubbles — it originally came with four postcards (one of each band member) as well as a more deluxe version of the Live At Hollywood High EP than what was issued in the US. English pressings were always better on that original run of Elvis Costello albums.
In Part II of my review of The Complete Armed Forces we’ll look at more of the rarities in the deluxe edition boxed set… tune in tomorrow!