Elvis Costello’s 1977 Reggae-Rock Hit: “Watching The Detectives”

Elvis Costello’s 1977 Reggae-Rock Hit: “Watching The Detectives”

On October 14th, 1977, Elvis Costello released a reggae-rock song called “Watching The Detectives.” The song came out 3 months after his debut album, My Aim Is True, becoming his first hit single on any national chart.

Declan Patrick MacManus, better known as Elvis Costello, is a Grammy award winning English singer-songwriter. His debut album dropped on July 22nd, 1977 and was described as New Wave, Pub Rock that included 12 songs recorded with producer Nick Lowe at Pathway Studios in Highbury, London Borough of Islington.

“Watching The Detectives” was recorded May of ’77 with Lowe and in March of ’78, the song was added to the US release of his debut record.

The inspiration for the song came from another iconic band who also released their debut album in 1977. In a previous interview, Costello explains: “I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I’d been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to The Clash’s first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote ‘Watching the Detectives’.”

He actually drank an entire jar of instant coffee. Costello told Q magazine in August of 2013: “Why do you think that song is so jerky? I drank a lot of coffee.”

While the songs inspiration came from listening to The Clash, the visual aspect of the song conveyed through the lyrics was an example of Costello’s constant noir theme conveying images of detective, dames, guns and cigarettes as seen in American detective shows.

The backing band on the song was with Steve Goulding on drums and Andrew Bodnar on bass guitar, both from Graham Parker’s band, The Rumour. The keyboard overdubs were added later by a regular Elvis Costello collaborator named, Steve Nieve (Imposters, Madness).

Costello had in mind a piano sound that utilized the sort of short repeating patterns that movie composer Bernard Hermann was renowned for. Costello recalled to Billboard:?? “When we did ‘Watching the Detectives,’ it was the first record that Steve Nieve played on. He was 19, straight out of the Royal College, and we’d only just met. I said, ‘This is about detectives, I want a piano thing that sounds like Bernard Hermann,’ and, of course, he didn’t know what I’m talking about, so I go [makes staccato, sharp sound], and what you hear on the record is this galloping piano thing that rushes the beat and it sounds like one of those sudden jarring gestures that Hermann would use a lot. But we didn’t have 19 clarinets or whatever he used [in] ‘Torn Curtain’; we just had a battered upright in an eight-track studio.”

Watch: Elvis Costello – “Watching The Detectives”

The 70’s really was a catalyst for Reggae-Rock music with a lot of predominant bands taking their shot at the sound with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton to Paul Simon, The Police, Stevie Wonder, DEVO & all inspired by the sound coming out of Jamaica being put on proud display by the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots & The Maytals, Wailing Souls, Jacob Miller & more.

The genre was maybe 10-years-old at the time this song was written and to think it spawned from listening to The Clash’s debut record makes it that much more fascinating—Like you almost want to add Costello’s song to The Clash’s debut track-list. If you look at the timeline, The Clash’s record came out on April 8th of ’77 and Costello recorded “Watching The Detectives” that May.

The ska band, Madness, would go on to credit “Watching The Detectives” as the inspiration for their hit song, the ’78 release of “My Girl.” In 1995, Duran Duran covered “Watching The Detectives,” displaying a reggae-rock side to their sound with the cover.

The reggae-rock classic is noted as Costello’s favorite song from his first five years as a musician. Ahead of its time, “Watching The Detectives” was an instant classic and it created a spotlight for Costello as a young artist who added his signature early to a genre that is arguably celebrating its golden era as of this publish, 40-years-later.

You can find this song & many others by following our 70’s Reggae-Rock Playlist on Spotify HERE!

Related Links:
Elvis Costello Website
70’s Reggae-Rock Playlist

Article By: Mike Patti