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Welcome back to The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
The week’s pick: “Charm School,” from Punch the Clock (1983)
Gary Stewart: I’m so glad one of our readers suggested we talk about this because I’ve wanted to pick something from Punch the Clock for a while. When the album came out it in 1983, it was one of Costello’s highest-charting albums (due to the success of “Every Day I Write the Book”), but it’s been all too often relegated to minor status in the Costello canon, or viewed as dated ’80s pop. But it’s really like nothing he’s done before or since.
Punch the Clock was Costello’s attempt to make a record that fit in with prevailing popular sounds. In pursuing a chart-friendly record, he recruited Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had previously applied their production savvy to records by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Teardrop Explodes, and Madness. At the time, Costello’s decision to work with them was seen by many as a risk at best or a mismatch at worst—until these same critics heard the result. Instead of approaching the album as a crass commercial pursuit, Costello took the limitations of the form and turned it into an artistic challenge.
Punch the Clock is full of colorful sounds and images contrasted with more sobering and cautionary tones and tales. “Charm School” is a perfect example of that, channeling some of the disdain you’d find in the early “angry young man” tracks while showing off a side of the Attractions that would’ve been hard to imagine two years prior. A playful Madness-inspired piano riff opens the song and runs thought the opening verse. You think you’re having fun, but think again—you’re actually being dragged through one of the worst relationship dynamics captured in any three-and-a-half-minute song. Then that four-note sinister, almost noir-ish Steve Nieve riff worms its way repeatedly and insidiously through the chorus, pulling off a powerful bait and switch. A poison pill was never this easy to sing along or dance to.
David Gorman: I’ve had to defend my love of this whole album since the day I bought it from that all-too-familiar record store clerk who, while bagging my copy, bagged on it too: “You’re a little late to the party. He hasn’t made an album worth listening to since 1979.” Sorry I missed the boat on his “good” records, jackass, but I was eight when you think he stopped making them. So, yeah, I was one of those people who bought this album because of the hit single. And I loved it. And it became the first step in a deep relationship with Elvis Costello’s art that continues over 30 years later.
The record still gets a bad rap, yet “Charm School” is a fine example of what’s so great about Punch the Clock as a whole and why it’s so baffling that the album needs any defense at all (though, to be fair, nowadays it only needs to be defended to a very small group of people who gather at used record stores, reunion shows by groups most people with families didn’t realize had split, and, of course, Elvis Costello concerts—all places you’re still likely to find me).
With its fastidiously engineered hooks, punchy horns, keyboard flourishes and tight backup harmonies, Punch the Clock was a gut-punch to the same rock snobs who hypocritically fawn over those same qualities when wiping their drool off mono pressings of albums by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Motown acts of a certain era. Apparently, ear-candy is only acceptable in the past-tense. To a certain breed of music snob, it seems a record can either sound good or be good. “Charm School” does both. It’s got a pimped-out bass line, hummable enough to carry a whole song, that kicks off a watertight, sample-worthy groove. The drums are pounded out so loud they sound like they were recorded in an airplane hangar (something George Clinton actually did, BTW). It’s an even bigger treat to hear it all between a good pair of headphones, where you’ll catch a hundred other details that show the care that went into the song’s candy coating.
The lyrics are not nearly as sweet as the melodies and harmonies that float around them, but Elvis plays the part of a pop singer well. His evisceration of an ex (or the press, or maybe Thatcher…it works on a few levels) is delivered with a coy smirk, never violating the finger-popping feel of the track (in live versions, Costello delivered the words with more bile, spitting out key phrases, making sure the audience felt their sting). “Charm School” is substance delivered with style, and I’m not about to value one over the other.
Hear all our past Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week with this handy playlist: