ANY DOUBTS that we have entered a great period of rock 'n' roll should be dispelled in the first minutes of Armed Forces (Columbia JC 35709). "Accidents Will Happen," the opening song on Elvis Costello's third album, is one of those rare moments in rock 'n' roll that works on all levels at once.
The song lures the listener in with a sweet kiss of a melody and a tap along beat before the lyrics sink their teeth in. Costello's voice bites deeply into our willingness to become victims, but ends with an instructive growl of resistence.
As the song's drama turns from seduction to mockery and then to defiance, Costello and his band, the Attractions, grow fiercer with each bar: the romantic piano fills get desperate; the snare beats get sharper; the bass booms under each syllable as Costello seethes: "They keep you hanging on/Until you're well hung."
Like Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" or Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," Costello's "Accidents Will Happen" is the kind of high point that marks a great era of music. Rock 'n' roll's revival has been gathering momemtum for nearly two years now. With Armed Forces it has finally arrived.
The momentum for this revival was supplied by the new-wave-/punk-rock bands like the Ramones and Sex Pistols who defied the high polish of mid-'70s rock and returned to essentials. Unfortunately, no one in the Ramones, Sex Pistols or the rest of the punk movement had the musical talent to capitalize on their own breakthroughs.
It was left to Costello - who is definitely not part of the punk wave - and others to follow through. The current revival comes from several musical directions. Costello, his producer Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen all now use a bigh Phil Spector sound (as later refined by the Beach Boys and Beatles) to voice personal working class frustrations. Bob Seger, Graham Parker and George Thorogood have drawn on the Chuck Berry-Motown tradition to tell working-class stories.
The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, Van Morrison and Neil Young have drawn on their own backgrounds to extend their careers into an unprecedented second generation. Funkadelic has revived the black rock 'n' roll of the Sly Stone. Wendy Waldman, Ann Wilson, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Laura Nyro are shaping a vital female rock 'n' roll for the first time ever.
The common theme in this resurgent rock 'n' roll is a new defiance after too many years of "mature adjustment." No one express this defiance better than Costello. Unlike earlier rebellious songs, the targets are not just the powerful, but those average people who cooperate in their own oppression.
The catchy chorus on "Accidents Will Happen" jumps at you the first time you hear it on the car radio. You instinctively turn up the volume knob and tap the dashboard. Costello's relaxed voice sympathizes with the heartbroken, the fired, the busted, the pregnant: "Accidents will happen/We're only hit and run."
But then he springs his tap. The verses acidly mock the delusion that anyone's bad luck is accidental. Reverses are caused by those who "keep you hanging on/They say you're so young." He scorns the naive: "Your mouth is made up but your mind is undone." But with a punning twist, he also baits the powerless intellectual: "Your mind is made up, but your mouth is undone."
Yet unlike the punks and other rebels without a cause, Costello avoids the dead end of cynicism. He redeems his defiance with the hope of solidarity: "You used to be a victim. Now you're not the only one." To the fatalism of "accidents will happen," Costello confidently retorts: "I don't wanna hear it/Because I know what I've done." He closes the long with a stunning coda where his wordless vocals rise over the pumping band in determined hope.
All this takes place in three minutes even. When Costello sings, "It's the words we don't say that scare me so," his lowered breathy voice and the band's wavering sound imply both the words and their threat. The 11 other songs on the album have the same compressed drama of the opener.
"Accidents Will Happen" also appears on "Elvis Costello Live at Hollywood High," a three-song, seven inch extended player included in the first 200,000 copies of Armed Forces. Also included are Costello's two best early songs: "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives."
"Alison" and "Accidents" are sung cabaret-style over Hollywood piano fills, but the filed-down lyrics and charged delivery turn them into movie climaxes. "Detectives" is extended into six minutes of searing rock 'n' roll worthy of the Rolling Stones' best moments.
While Costello's first album, My Aim Is True, had the rockabilly sound of his namesake Presley, Armed Forces has a fuller Phil Spector pop feel. Everything is apparently played by the quartet, but they fuse into one big sound. Steve Naive's organ bleats out dance pulses. Bruse Thomas' broad bass notes and Pete Thomas' persistent bass drum are mixed way up. Costello's guitar wavers with a heavy twang across music.
"Oliver's Army," which has been getting lots of airplay, is almost a direct steal from Spector's hit with the Ronettes, "Baby, I Love You." "Busy Bodies" closes with Beach Boys surfer harmonies. "Moods for Moderns" is built around a tight Booker T. organ riff. "Green Shirt" has ghostly Zombies echo.
But Costello's lyrical strategy is confrontation at every turn. "Oliver's Army" challenges the conditions which force the unemployed to join the British army to fight against their friends. "Green Shirt" challenges the pretty girl used as a police informer. In a drowsy singalong, "Senior Service" assualts older workers who clog up Britain's seniority-based social system.
By wrapping his harsh lyrics in such seductive settings, Costello has risked offending rock purists to get his message to a mass market. This gamble reminds one of Dylan's break with the protest/folk movement.
Costello's bitterest vision comes on the album's next-to-last song, "Two Little Hitlers." In clipped singsong phrases, he describes two workaday lovers - "Two little hitlers will fight it out/Until one little hitler does the other one's will." But even at his bleakest, Costello offers stiff resistance. Caught in a little hitler fight himself, he vows: "I will/ Return./I will/Not burn."
This defensive resistance takes the offensive on the following song (the only non-original, written by producer Nick Lowe). Costello leads his band in an overwhelming march anthem. The thick texture is accented by four-beats bass drdumming, and Costello shouts out to those behing him: "As I walk through/This wicked world/Searching for life/In the darkness of insanity. . . /There's only one thing/I want to know./What's so funny 'bout/Peace, love and understanding?"
He hurls the question angrily in the face of those who have opted for political indifference or anarchic nihilism. The song surges forward with the momentum of the Rolling Stones, if they had been produced by Phil Spector. With one stroke, Costello clearly separates himself from the punk movement and allies himself with the best elements of the '60s. And he emerges from the album as a major voice of both anger and hope for the '80s. CAPTION: Picture, Elvis Costello