Elvis Costello Countdown #97: “Pills And Soap”

Elvis Costello was clearly trying to escape his comfort zone in 1983 with Punch The Clock. Most of the album was devoted to trying to achieve what he hoped would be a more accessible sound; yet “Pills And Soap” went in the opposite direction toward overt weirdness and somehow ended up in the Top 20 of the UK charts.

Elvis’ main inspiration was “The Message,” the seminal rap song by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. So he used a drum machine for the rhythm and allowed Steve Nieve to fill in with some jagged piano chords here and there. The resulting song didn’t come out sounding like rap so much but did achieve a kind of avant-garde uniqueness that helped it stand out from the pop accents of the rest of the album, accents that, for the most part, didn’t do any favors to Costello’s songwriting.

The song earned some consternation from the BBC for its withering depiction of both the press and the royal family. I would argue that Costello had taken similar pot shots in previous years, but they somehow stood out more within the spare arrangement of “Pills And Soap,” whereas the adrenalized rush of protesting songs like “Oliver’s Army” or “Radio, Radio” tended to mask the acidic sentiments somewhat.

The amazing thing about “Pills And Soap” is that it maintains its oddness after all these years. In addition, Costello’s theories about dishonest journalists peddling frivolous stories, sadly, have become even more relevant with the passing of time.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)


(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


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