Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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One thought on “Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Loved your take on the song here. Rumour boys really stars on this one. Regards Thom.

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