[Note: I am forgoing my usual April Fools’ Day post this year, in part because I’m in the middle of a Decades countdown and in part because the world seems to have turned into a giant, cruel prank without me needing to pile on.]
Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock followed what may be his best album, Imperial Bedroom, by just a year, and in that context it can’t help but be a bit of a letdown. But it’s plenty good enough to land at #3 on my list of the best albums of 1983.
This Elvis Costello track shows up on one of the reissues of his 1983 album Punch the Clock.
It’s a testament to the depth of Costello’s catalog that a song this good can end up as a forgotten B-side, and also that after months of Costello Weekends, plenty of Random Weekend appearances, and a bunch of other Song of the Day posts, I still have to much great material of his to mine.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions recorded this cover of Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ for a 1984 Yoko tribute album titled Every Man Has a Woman.
It was later released on Costello’s compilation Out of Our Idiot and finally on the reissue of Punch the Clock, where I first heard it. It’s pretty great.
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.
Keeping up his breakneck streak, Elvis Costello released his seventh album in as many years in 1983. Punch the Clock was a departure from the baroque pop of Imperial Bedroom and Costello’s most commercial-sounding album to date.
Punch the Clock was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, a pair of Brits I’ve seen described as “hit-makers,” though I don’t recognize any of the so-called hits they produced. They brought a high-gloss sheen to Costello’s tunes, including a jaunty brass section and a pair of girl-group backing vocalists known as Afrodiziak.
Punch the Clock is the first Elvis Costello album that feels like a step back. As a followup to Imperial Bedroom, this collection of mostly lightweight pop songs was rather anticlimactic.
Most confounding is the production, polished and packaged, complete with girl-group backing vocals. Whether this was Costello’s direction or a record label suggestion, I don’t know, but it feels wrong.
That said, the album does contain some great songwriting. ‘Shipbuilding’ is one of Elvis’ most gorgeous ballads, ‘Pills and Soap’ is an offbeat trippy treat and hit single ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ is an unabashed delight that benefits from the glossy production.