Monday, June 16, 2008

Elvis Costello 9: Punch The Clock

The early eighties brought out the best and worst of some music veterans—the latter particularly when they surrendered their craft to “production value”. Elvis was hardly immune; having enjoyed some recent records by the likes of Madness and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, he enlisted contemporary hitmakers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to give his latest batch of tunes a chartbound sheen. The results, as heard on Punch The Clock, were mixed. On the plus side, “Everyday I Write The Book” was a huge hit worldwide, complete with a wacky video depicting Charles and Diana as bored newlyweds. However, most of the rest of the album favored a mix that brought the incessant female backing vocals and horn section to the forefront, making it hard to hear those catchy melodies. The effect is akin to having too much ketchup on your cheeseburger.
And those melodies do exist; you just have to listen really closely. “Shipbuilding” (with a gorgeous but brief and processed Chet Baker trumpet solo) and “Pills And Soap” are two of his more inspired creations, with political overtones that unfortunately still resonate today. “Charm School” is one example of a song that benefits from the layers, to the point where you don’t even mind the steal from “Theme From Summer Of ‘42”. Similarly, “The Element Within Her” features excellent dynamics in between the repeated “la la la” choruses. “Mouth Almighty” and “King Of Thieves” are catchy, but “The Greatest Thing” goes too fast and involves too many key changes to handle the words.
Punch The Clock is a pop album, but some fans were hoping for something more aggressive. Somehow the album title suggested he was merely going through the motions. The Rykodisc reissue includes two of the better B-sides of the period (“The Flirting Kind” and “Heathen Town”, which Elvis considered adding to the album after its initial release). Live versions of “Everyday I Write The Book” and “The World And His Wife” give insight into the less labored origins of those tracks. The Rhino reissue went even further, replacing those live tracks with studio alternates, and adding a whole pile of acoustic demos that more than suggest he should have stuck with his initial instincts instead of eyeing the charts.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Punch The Clock (1983)—
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks
2003 Rhino: same as 1983, plus 26 extra tracks


  1. this is the one album of his that i owned when i was a kid. i loved it. i liked the sound, i liked the clever word play, i liked the layout of the songs. it all worked for me.
    it was only later that i found out that this was not something he considered very good. and most costello fans tend to dismiss it. makes me a bit sad. the one damn album i like and it's one of his 'lesser' efforts.
    sigh. . .

  2. My rating is merely my opinion; there are lots of diehard Costello-heads who swear by this album. I'm just not that big on horn sections.

    Actually, it was the Rhino reissue that helped me appreciate the album more. I've come to like some of the songs in their basic form, and heard things I'd missed under those poppy arrangements.

    As for his own opinion of the album, Elvis says that hindsight causes him to cringe at some of the production, but he's still pretty proud of some of the songs. So there you go.

  3. Christopher SjoholmJanuary 1, 2012 at 9:50 AM

    Always have loved this album and probably for the very reason that it is what it is- an attempt to grab the 'brass ring' of pop success. No shame in that or in trying. It also syncs so nicely for me with a period when his stage shows were such fun- so full of energy and good playing. I make no apologies for my love of this record.