In Part I of this review of Elvis Costello’s super deluxe vinyl-only boxed set The Complete Armed Forces celebrating his 1979 masterpiece, Armed Forces, we explored the new original album remaster included in this collection. In case you missed that essential introduction, please click here to jump back to it.
One of my favorite things in this set is the wealth of live recordings officially released pretty much for the first time. On vinyl, Elvis really only put out one live album in 1978 to radio stations: Live At The El Mocambo. This was almost instantly pirated (extensively) but eventually saw legitimate release in the 1993 CD boxed set 2 & 1/2 Years.
The three-song seven-inch extended play (“EP”) included in Armed Forces called Live at Hollywood High, was initially expanded in the two CD edition of the album issued by Rhino Records. The single LP version in this collection mirrors the running order on that CD which is interesting since eventually the entire concert was released as its own stand alone CD in 2010. Having recently re-listened to that concert (which is great), I can see why they kept to this running order which presents the strongest and most unique performances from that concert.
That said, it is fantastic to finally have Live at Hollywood High in an LP format and as a listening experience, it is fabulous! What a great concert including scorching renditions of “Mystery Dance” and “Goon Squad” as well as a rare live version of the non-LP country-western song, “Stranger In The House.” Here, however, the song is played more like the churning power pop of some of Elvis’ other non-LP tracks at that time such as “Big Tears” and “Tiny Steps.” Clearly he had ideas about where that song might go — it was initially recorded with an upbeat country feel (including pedal steel guitar!), issued on a free single included with UK pressings of This Year’s Model (with a scorching live cover of The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” on the B-side) and later was recorded by George Jones.
Again, while a full two LP version of the whole show might have been nice, I like this tight curated version of the album. That said, I won’t be at all surprised if that comes out sometime in the future (maybe for Record Store Day!).
Also included in the set is an album called Europe ’79 – Live At Pinkpop recorded at the legendary music festival in The Netherlands. Newly remixed from the original two-inch multi-track master tapes by Costello’s longtime producer and mixer Sebastian Krys, this live album (featuring 13 of the 19 songs performed that day) is a revelation. Fans have no doubt heard tapes from this show, portions of which were broadcast on radio and TV — Costello fans are like new wave DeadHeads, folks — but I’ve never heard it sound this crisp and tight.
And the really fantastic detail about this show is that Elvis broke out much new material that wasn’t even released. Again, like The Grateful Dead, Elvis liked trying out new songs and arrangements live on stage prior to going into the recording studio. So, it is wonderful to to hear in terrific quality early incarnations of songs that ended up on 1980’s Get Happy. These include “B-Movie,” a slower take on “High Fidelity,” “Opportunity” and the non-LP track “So Young.” The latter is a Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons cover which eventually surfaced on the compilation called Out Of Our Idiot.
An important detail which newbie fans might not yet know is that Elvis was great about creating a sense of fun and collectibility among his recordings pretty much right from the start. This makes sense given he is a record collector himself.
No doubt he and his management were — by the time of This Year’s Model and Armed Forces — riffing off the new release schedule aesthetic established when he debuted on the influential Stiff Records label (My Aim Is True).
Accordingly here on The Complete Armed Forces he has created a collection that not only pays homage to the original Armed Forces album but also expands upon it with all manner of fun bonuses.
In the box that you get two portfolios which cradle The 10-inch and 7-inch vinyl bonuses as well as the collection of pulp- and comic-book-styled liner notes booklets. This is a very special and ultimately thoughtful package.
Tune in tomorrow for part three of this review series where I’ll look at more of the bonus discs and other goodies in the set.