On 30 September 1978 Elvis Costello and the Attractions played in front of 150,000 people at the Anti-Nazi League carnival in Brockwell Park, south London. The obvious choice to open their set with was Night Rally.
The song deals with the rise of fascism, which was a live issue in 1970s Britain. An avowedly racist, far-right party, the National Front, had achieved greater prominence than any similar organisation since the second world war, in turn inspiring the formation of the Anti-Nazi League to confront the fascists on the streets. (Its sister organisation, Rock Against Racism, was founded in the long hot summer of 1976 following a racist rant by a worse-for-wear Eric Clapton at a concert in Birmingham.)
In 1978 Elvis Costello was a bona fide pop star. With his new band, the Attractions, he was a regular on Top of the Pops and within a few months his biggest hit, Oliver’s Army, would spend four weeks at No2 in the charts.
This Year’s Model, his newest LP, was packed with the sort of whip-smart angular songs that made him the standard bearer of what those in the music press who had never quite been able to get on with punk rock liked to refer to as “new wave” music.
The final song on the record, though, struck a different, foreboding tone. Costello later wrote in his autobiography that Night Rally was supposed to be an ‘alarm bell’. The song’s sombre mood seemed to have seeped in from Bowie’s Berlin albums and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, which the band had been listening to ‘to the point of hypnosis’ as they toured America.
Night Rally starts ominously, with Pete Thomas’s military snare drum and Steve Nieve’s Polymoog synthesizer sounding like some sort of muffled siren. Only Bruce Thomas’s bass, wandering upwards almost wistfully, seems to hint at the possibility of not toeing the line before snapping back into lockstep.
The lyric begins with disparate images – a frustrated call for help, the flashing ‘corporation logo’ that could be either reassuring or insidious or both (perhaps with echoes of Mussolini’s ‘corporate state’ – before turning darker:
They’re putting all your names in the forbidden book
I know what they’re doing but I don’t want to look.
Inaction is complicity.
With its title referencing Nuremberg or even the Ku Klux Klan, the song expresses the idea that fascism isn’t necessarily imposed under the heel of a jackboot, at least not initially. It can be embraced on a wave of feelgood enthusiasm by people seeking easy answers: ‘Everyone gets armbands and 3D glasses…’ The uplifting anthems, however, lead to horror, as Costello sings:
It’s just the sort of catchy little melody
To get you singing in the showers.
The song’s last third is an increasingly woozy nightmare of repetition before the track cuts off abruptly.
Costello’s ‘alarm bell’ was meant to rouse people into taking the threat of the extreme right seriously. Unfortunately, Columbia Records left the track off the US version of This Year’s Model so most American listeners didn’t get to hear Night Rally’s words of warning:
You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Elvis Costello played the last date of his 2016 US tour at the Beacon Theatre in New York on 7 November. The tour’s set list was based on his 1983 album Imperial Bedroom but he chose to open this particular show with Night Rally, the first time he had played the song in the US in 38 years. The following day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
As Costello had written in reference to this song: ‘History suggests that underestimating the crude appeal of bigots is usually a mistake.’
Written by Chris Taylor From New York
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