Night Music: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “TKO Boxing Day”

The 1983 Punch the Clock album, along with it’s follow up, Goodbye Cruel World, were the first Costello albums that didn’t deliver fully. One had the impression that after the art move of Imperial Bedroom, the decision was made to get commercial. New producers added horns, there were 12″ dance mixes, and to tell the truth a lot of really good songs on both records. But on Boxing Day every year I wake up singing this song, because it’s the only one I know about Boxing Day.

It has a driving beat and driven insistent horns, and it feels like it should get you jumping, but like many of the less successful tunes on this album, there is a lack of warmth and a brittleness to the arrangements. What sounds like it should be rollicking, like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, sounds mechanical and a little heartless. But I hear, with a little more relaxed groove and a suppler beat, a song with a hard groove and an appealing hook. Until they do it that way we have it this way.

10 thoughts on “Night Music: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “TKO Boxing Day”

  1. He’s never a total waste but I think after Armed Forces he started getting intricate beyond the call of rocknroll. I don’t know that he ever considered himself a rocker, maybe briefly when he was. I always thought he is a much better singer than he gets credit for. Great inventive harmonies like at the end of This Year’s Girl which is not on youtube in the original. The “all this but no surprises” line just nails me to the wall. The bass player does it on this:

    • I agree for the most part. After an incredible run of albums without filler, but often not rock ‘n’ roll, and often not all that popularly successful, Punch the Clock seems like an attempt to hit the bullseye. But it stumbles. Apart from the majestic 12″ remix of Let Them All Talk, which beggars the album version, and Everyday I Write the Book and the incredible Shipbuilding, these songs can contain clever lyrics, f.i.:

      With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef
      I wish you luck with a capital ‘F’
      A self-made mug is hard to break
      A silent partner in someone else’s mistake

      And catchy melodies, like Charm School, but not often together. It’s hard to say whether this is because of the producers, the attempt to make hits, or simple exhaustion.

      It is probably meaningful that the 12″ remix of Everyday I Write the Book is also much warmer and appealing, and it is Robert Wyatt’s cover of Shipbuilding (which may have come out before this album, if I recall correctly) that better captures the matter of fact but heartbreaking moral costs of work and war the song explores. Costello’s voice can be a fantastic instrument at times, but his sound, especially when he becomes a shouter or a declaimer, can edge into the territory of harshness.

      But you’re absolutely right, Gene, that he often deploys harmonies and overdubs to enrich things. Not a rock ‘n’ roller, really, but our beloved entertainer always.

  2. Vicki (my wife for those who don’t know) thinks Oliver’s Army is one of the 10 best songs of all time. That’s another one that has an incredible harmony in the last verse. I am extremely partial to Elvis’s cover of What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding. I liked some of the stuff he did later with Paul McCartney too, they were good for each other and should have started a band. Also, the drummer Pete Thomas is a monster, always about to go over the top yet he holds it together.

  3. Hi, Peter! Top 10 songs? Hmmm. First, some disclaimers: I like Rock’n’roll primarily as dance music. I enjoy many different kinds of music for different reasons: Italian opera, Gregorian chant, Polyphony, Baroque chamber music, Big Band Jazz … even some folk songs. I also enjoy the variety within Rock’n’Roll, but my real love is the written word. And I’ll throw down the gauntlet and claim that the Psalms (which were written as songs) cover a wider range of human emotion than all these genres put together!
    So, if I felt like dancing right now I’d play:
    1. Rocks Off (I’d be tempted to be sidetracked with Think, Let it Loose, Paint it Black …)
    2. Isn’t She Lovely
    3. My World is Empty Without You
    4. Oliver’s Army
    5. I Want to Hold Your Hand (or is it “wanna”?)
    6. More Than This
    7. Lodi
    8. Call Me
    9. Don’t Be Cruel
    10. When You Walk in the Room

    • A fabulously eclectic list, which pleases me, the eclecticist.

      All great songs. Rocks Off is funny, given what you say about words, since I don’t think of it as a tune with words, even when I’m dreaming. My World Is Empty and When Your Walk in the Room are all time faves, and Lodi is the Creedence song I sing in my head and out loud when I’m working or walking or whatever (well, Lodi and Willie and the Poor Boys), and Call Me has a similar rank in my Blondie pantheon, even if I don’t really sing it. Plus I had I Want to Hold Your Hand is on my Beatles list, misspelled, now corrected.

      Thanks for the contribution, and feel free to jump in at any time.

  4. From Rocks Off? I have the line as “Plug in, flush out and fire the fuckin’ feed,” apparently a heroin reference and plenty alliterative as is.

    Rocks off has another sweet line: The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.

    The Stones, mostly Jagger, but all their songs, are full of great lyrics. Not always specific but always hard and assertive.

  5. ooh. Is that Roxy’s More Than This Vicki? One of my favorite love songs (along with It’s Only Love).

    you know Elvis wrote three separate sets of lyrics for Oliver’s Army (or so I heard)?

    the greatest alliteration, though, I saw on the bottom of one of those metal things that we used to get our feet measured in. on the bottom, it said “fit fat feet one width wider.” genius.

    when my strictly olga album band did our album release gig, we did when you walk in the room as one of the covers, along with the kids are alright and baby’s on fire.

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