Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Beatles fan, but I went nuts for them in retrospect, imagining what it would have been like to hear, say, Abbey Road the day it was released. But I got to live out Elvis Costello and the Attractions in real time, overcoming my initial what-is-that? reaction when I saw them on Saturday Night Live to get thrilled by the steady boom-boom-boom of releases, sometimes more than one a year.
The shimmering pop of Armed Forces got me hooked and made me appreciate the power of its predecessor, This Year’s Model. The spare, energetic Get Happy!! crammed 20 songs into 48 minutes and became my favorite, hooking me with its raw emotions, wicked wordplay and supercharged Stax sound before I knew what Stax was. Trust style-shifted even more drastically and rewardingly, Imperial Bedroom boasted a Beatlesque ambition and richness, and then came the pop moves—after they’d thrown in a B-sides collection and country excursion in the meantime. With each release Elvis Costello and the Attractions expanded my taste in and appreciation of music.
Each member of the Attractions was vital to its sound. The band often was keyboards-forward, and Steve Nieve could stab you with his Vox or tickle you with all sorts of ornate piano flourishes. Pete Thomas is one of the all-time great drummers, with his distinctive rolls, high-revving motor and deep pocket feel.
But the not-so-secret weapon was bassist Bruce Thomas (no relation to Pete), who struck a rare balance of melody, groove, creativity and propulsion. He created indelible bass lines while driving such songs as “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up,” and his bass was often the lead instrument on Get Happy!! as he transformed such songs as “B Movie” and “Opportunity.”
The innovation only increased on such songs as “New Lace Sleeves” (from Trust) and “Shabby Doll,” “Man Out of Time” and much of Imperial Bedroom. He also made surprising, rewarding choices on what became Costello’s first U.S. top 40 hit, “Everyday I Write the Book.” He was part Paul McCartney, part James Jamerson, part John Entwistle and all himself.
But after the synthy bummer that was Goodbye Cruel World—and then Costello’s songwriting rebound, King of America, that barely used the Attractions—relations between the singer-songwriter and band were fraught. Their crankiness produced one of their albums I play most often, Blood & Chocolate, but that was it for a while.
Bruce Thomas wrote The Big Wheel, an impressionistic novel about life on the road with a band very much like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Costello apparently took offense and directed a song at Thomas called “How To Be Dumb” (which could have used Thomas’s bass playing), and they didn't play together again until the Attractions regrouped for five songs on 1994’s Brutal Youth and then all of 1996’s All This Useless Beauty. At the time, Thomas had a great phrase for their fence-mending: “grudge fatigue.”
But Thomas didn’t much like All This Useless Beauty, arguing that its vocals-forward approach turned the Attractions into a karaoke band. Tensions grew during the subsequent tour, and that was it for Thomas and Costello. Costello has since recorded and toured with the Imposters, which is the Attractions (Nieve and Pete Thomas) plus bassist Davey Faragher, whom I first saw play with Cracker. Not even the 2003 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction of Elvis Costello and the Attractions could get Costello to play with Thomas again.
Costello battled cancer and continued recording and touring—and last month released Spanish Model, which is the original This Year’s Model recording with new Spanish-language vocals added by a variety of Latin artists. Costello and Thomas were in touch over this project—could a reconciliation, or even a reunion, be in the works at last?
Thomas discusses this and so much more in the Caropop podcast. I was thrilled he agreed to speak with me, and he didn’t disappoint, offering insights into the creation of so many songs that I love and telling stories ranging from his early days in the early-‘70s British rock band Quiver (they’d play soccer with Pink Floyd) through the Attractions and beyond.
Do you know what legendary British band tried to hire Thomas before he joined the Attractions? Do you know what other legendary British band Thomas thought he should join? Do you agree with him that Steely Dan has never recorded a bad song?
If you’re the kind of fan that I am, this will be a treat. Enjoy!