It doesn’t sound like an oldies band. I couldn’t believe it when they cranked up behind me.
Sulky Girl was the UK single from Brutal Youth, the 1994 Elvis Costello album that reunited him with the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and, rather surprisingly, bassist Bruce Thomas (surprisingly because Bruce and Elvis had famously not got along for some years by this point, with Thomas’s 1990 memoir and its unflattering portrait of Costello a key source of friction). Fans were delighted, critics were split on its merits (too long, said many) but, significantly, it got Costello back in the public eye in a way he hadn’t been for some time. He’d had a heavily bearded wilderness period around the time of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and 1993’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, hadn’t exactly thrilled a lot of old fans of his spleen-venting late seventies output either. In an era when lots of mainstream music was relatively raw and unvarnished and a significant majority of bands openly looked to the past for their inspiration, younger listeners were potentially receptive to veteran artists if they could make a record that sounded alive and vital. With Sulky Girl making number 22 (his first top 30 single in 10 years), Costello even got back on Top of the Pops, singing a spirited live vocal over a pre-recorded radio edit while the band mimed dutifully along.
I was one of those young listeners, having never previously given a thought to Elvis Costello one way or another in my 12 years. I’m sure I knew who he was, may have known a song or two other than Oliver’s Army (Watching the Detectives, possibly), but he wasn’t on the radio all that much, he wasn’t someone either of my parents liked, so I didn’t know anything about him. But he was right in his assessment – this didn’t sound like an oldies band. The compilation album I had with Sulky Girl on it contained nothing else with as much energy, not even from the youngsters (Blur, Oasis, Suede – this was 1994, after all).
Sulky Girl has most of the hallmarks of a classic Elvis Costello tune, both the good and the bad. Starting with the bad, the lyric is considered but perhaps not quite as clever as it would like – ‘He’ll pay for the distance between cruelty and beauty’ is a terrible way to close the final verse, contorting both the previously established rhythm of the line and the natural cadence of the word ‘beauty’. Hard to know what he was thinking with that one. And while the sulky girl does come off better than other women in EC tunes – she is unambiguously portrayed as the intellectual and moral superior of men she encounters, and of her family too – Costello can’t resist a final section, telling her that, unlike everyone else, he sees through her.
Still, Costello is usually at his best when he’s telling someone else what they’ve done wrong, and the band do everything possible to drive him along, to wind him up further. Pete Thomas, a real drummer’s drummer, plays a particular blinder in this respect. His verse groove (half-time feel, tom on the backbeat, filtered/distorted by Mitchell Froom – or possibly the groove is the combination of a loop and some live drums from Thomas) is nicely atmospheric and ominous, promising an explosion, which duly comes with an eighth-note build-up on snare and floor tom under the final line of the verse, taking us into the chorus.
Thomas’s snare drum, as it is on most of the album, is undamped and ringy (this same snare sound is beloved by fans of reggae and hated by fans of Metallica). It’s never going to be appropriate for everything but that unruly sound is perfect for Sulky Girl and adds another dimension to Thomas’s energetic fills, which are a career highlight, particularly the ones in the first bridge: ‘It’s like money in the bank [good fill] Your expression is blank [great fill] But when the chance appears [really great fill]…
Thomas has a fantastic feel throughout the song, animating even the sections when he’s merely playing two and four in a supporting role. He’s right in the middle of the beat, powerful and authoritative, never sounding rushed and never sounding lazy either. What’s really impressive though is that he can do this on any song, at pretty serious tempos, when other drummers would lose their form and get inconsistent. His explanation of his practice regime in Drum! magazine gives a clue as to how he does it:
I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison. I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.
I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day: when I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling, like, ‘My arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.
While he is well known for busy playing and some iconic fills (Watching the Detectives; I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, with its Mitch Mitchell quotes; Radio Radio), it’s Thomas’s backbeat placement that’s key to his greatness, and a major part of what I think made the song stand out to me as a kid. He was on similarly solid form on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 (Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound, and my favourite, Wouldn’t Mama be Proud), which is where I first had the opportunity really to study him, and became aware – listening to the difference between Smiths sketchy playing on, say, LA and Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – of what difference a great drummer can make when they simply play for the song. But when I want to hear Thomas show off a little bit, Sulky Girl is what I put on.