Song of the Day #885: ‘Pills and Soap’ – Elvis Costello

The second of the political songs on Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock is a strange track toward the end of the album.

Costello has said that he got the inspiration for the sound of ‘Pills and Soap’ from the rap song ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. He says of that single, “It was the first rap record that I had encountered that was anymore than an invitation to dance. It spoke about ugly life.”

Now it would have been interesting had Costello been inspired to actually rap on his own record, but alas, we were deprived of (or spared) that experience.

What we do get is Costello singing over a drum machine beat that sounds like repeated finger snapping with an occasional double-thump of bass, alongside Steve Nieve playing one of his trademark lavish piano parts. It’s a stark and unsettling arrangement that works just perfectly.

The song was written in response to a British political climate Costello viewed as hostile and was released just days before the crucial 1983 election. When asked by the BBC what the song was about (they feared playing an overtly political song so close to an election would be a violation of fairness rules), Costello said cruelty to animals.

That was true, up to a point — the title came from a film about animal abuse, though Costello aimed to draw parallels between those acts and our cruelty to each other. Guess he got away with it.

They talked to the sister, the father and the mother
With a microphone in one hand and a chequebook in the other
And the camera noses into the tears on her face
The tears on her face
The tears on her face

You can put them back together with your paper and paste
But you can’t put them back together
You can’t put them back together

What would you say?
What would you do?
Children and animals two by two
Give me the needle
Give me the rope
We’re going to melt them down for pills and soap
Give me the needle
Give me the rope
We’re going to melt them down for pills and soap

Four and twenty crowbars, jemmy your desire
Out of the frying pan into the fire
The king is in the counting house
Some folk have all the luck
And all we get are pictures of Lord and Lady Muck

They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy
There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag ends of the aristocracy

The sugar coated pill is getting bitterer still
You think your country needs you but you know it never will

So pack up your troubles in a stolen handbag
Don’ t dilly dally boys rally round the flag
Give us our daily bread in individual slices
And something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #885: ‘Pills and Soap’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    Thanks for the explanation on this song. Must admit that I never could really figure it out.
    Still, such a haunting song from both a musical and lyrical perspective.

  2. Amy says:

    As if he’d said, “it’s about the upcoming election,” it would have made a bit of difference? He should have said, “You tell me. Play it for the candidates; if they can cite a specific concern, I’ll hold it until after the election.”

    I can just see these hyper articulate Brits listening to this, wanting to feel outraged, but having no idea at what they’re supposed to aim their outrage.

    I particularly like the last line – “[Give us]… something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis.” – the notion of the daily newspaper as a source of appeasement rather than instigation is powerfully critical. So were the publishers in England taking to the streets?

    I wonder if SNL were asked not to air a political special too close to an election what they would say? I mean, come on! Just outrageous.

  3. Vladimir Nabokov says:

    “The Message” should be credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

  4. […] beyond the borders of The Attractions. The result is the wonderful “Pills and Soap,” a pointed response to the build up to the Falklands War. Costello draws parallels between how we humans abuse animals […]

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