How Elvis Costello Created His Masterpiece, ‘This Year’s Model’
Elvis Costello's debut album, 1977's My Aim Is True, arrived less than a year before its follow-up, This Year's Model. But the two records boasted a sound, style and attitude that were far removed from each other – a sign of things to come from the singer-songwriter, whose restless catalog has swung from one genre to another with little dip in quality along the way.
My Aim Is True was recorded in 1976 and 1977 in London by Costello, who was born there, and a California-based country-rock band called Clover that included members who would later join Huey Lewis and the News and the Doobie Brothers. (Lewis was actually a member of Clover at the time but did not appear on the album, which didn't credit the band because of contractual reasons.)
For This Year's Model, Costello enlisted his own band, the Attractions, which he formed after the release of his debut. (Even though they did receive credit, they didn't receive an official cover co-billing until 1979's Armed Forces.) And the upgrade, or at least the familiarity of working with musicians he had spent plenty of time on the road with at that point, pushed Costello's second LP to new levels of intensity. Not that My Aim Is True didn't have that; This Year's Model just had more of it.
The critical success of My Aim Is True also gave Costello more confidence as a songwriter. At 23, he was one of the best young writers of the era, pulling from earlier artists as much as he was riding the new wave of punk upstarts. With This Year's Model, released on March 17, 1978, Costello made his masterpiece – an album that bridged his brief past with his wide-open future.
The album's sessions started in late 1977 and ended in early 1978 at London's Eden Studios, with Nick Lowe, who worked on My Aim Is True, once again producing. More than a dozen songs were recorded, including some of his most enduring songs: "No Action," "Pump It Up," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Radio, Radio," among them.
Watch Elvis Costello and the Attractions' 'Pump It Up' Video
When it came time to release the LP in the U.S., a couple months after the original U.K. debut, two songs were dropped from the track listing – "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally," reportedly because they were too British for American ears – and replaced by "Radio, Radio," which was released in Costello's home country seven months later as a stand-alone single.
By the time "Radio, Radio" made its debut on record, it was already a notorious chapter in Costello's short history after he and the Attractions played Saturday Night Live in December 1977 (filling in for the missing Sex Pistols, who were having problems securing visas). Costello was scheduled to perform "Less Than Zero" from My Aim Is True, which still wasn't officially available in the States, but changed course after a couple seconds and launched into "Radio, Radio" instead. As a result, he was banned from the TV show for a dozen years, before being invited back in 1989; he then repeated the stunt, this time with the Beastie Boys and with SNL's consent, on the program's 25th anniversary special in 1999.
The song serves as a linchpin of This Year's Model, even though it wasn't part of the original release and closed the album it first appeared on. It represented a more robust sound for Costello, thanks to both the addition of the Attractions and Lowe's punchier production, and a more biting undertone that helped build Costello's standing as one of punk's most promising Angry Young Men.
He also became one of the era's most prolific genre jumpers, making R&B, country, baroque pop and Americana albums over the next decade. But This Year's Model serves as Costello's model, the record that introduced Steve Nieve's defining keyboard riffs and fills, a sturdier musical backing and Costello's sneering vocals – all of which would find their way in and out of various albums over the years. He's made more cohesive records since then. And more innovative ones. But he's never made a better one.