Renowned minimalist Lou Reed once said:

“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

Rock ‘n roll has plenty of examples of one-chord songs. “Chain of Fools” is filled with such incredible vocal interplay between Aretha Franklin and her background singers that the lack of a chord change is not apparent. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” features their archetypal swamp guitar riffs and only one chord. One chord vamps go back to the beginning of R&B as Bo Diddley transformed an old rhythm into his own signature beat as the song “Bo Diddley” never changes from an irrepressible single chord. Not to be outdone, James Brown famously finds one chord and never deviates from the funk workout for “Get Up Offa That Thing” as one example. The British punk band The Adverts have a song called “One Chord Wonders” that is a blatant case of false advertising. A common misconception is that “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles contains a single chord, but it does move from a C chord to a B flat while keeping the C bass note for the B flat. Lou Reed would have said that The Beatles were pushing it. 

Lou would have been disappointed by Elvis Costello as Costello wrote that “Uncomplicated,” the first song off of 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, was “my latest failed attempt to write a song based on one chord”:

The attempt lasts about three seconds as the song starts with Costello playing two chords on a loud, highly distorted guitar. The two chords are well-chosen as the intro of “Uncomplicated” sounds like “Rumble” by Link Wray, the king of beautifully obnoxious guitar. Immediately, the band kicks in behind Costello with a driving sound. All the instruments — bass, drums, electric guitar, keyboard — are maxed out in volume. There is also what sounds like a dishwasher churning along behind them making a displeasing yet appropriate sound. It was noted in an earlier Recliner Notes post that Costello has impeccable taste in choosing the first song for an album and how those opening songs establish themes for the rest of the album to come. As the first song on Blood & Chocolate, “Uncomplicated” is no different, but, in this case, it’s the sound that sets the tone for the album. It’s noisy, loud, boisterous, and raw, fitting for the remainder of Blood & Chocolate

The Attractions are playing with Costello once again on Blood & Chocolate. On Costello’s previous album, King of America, he had promised that they would play on half of the songs. That was not to be as Costello only featured them on the gorgeous yet bitter “Suit of Lights.” Even though Costello decided to record an entire album with The Attractions for Blood & Chocolate, resentment and distrust ran rampant both ways between the band leader and the band. As Costello wrote in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink about Blood & Chocolate:

“Playing with spite was the whole point of that record.”

Nick Lowe produced the Blood & Chocolate sessions at Olympic Studios in London and helped construct a specific sound for the album as Costello recalled:

“The live room was big enough for a full orchestra, so we filled it with our live monitor system and played at something approaching stage volume. Although it is commonly thought that high volume in the studio creates an uncontrollable sonic picture, this approach seemed to suit the material entirely.”

Is Lowe responsible for the dishwasher sound on “Uncomplicated”? Possibly, as Costello later wrote:

“[He] took hold of my willfully ‘stupid’ rhythmic ideas and drove them to extremes on ‘Uncomplicated.’”

The extremity of the performance is matched by Costello vocals as he wails the opening lines of the song:

Blood and chocolate
I hope you’re satisfied what you have done.

Imagining that this song is playing in a movie theater as Costello sings that first line and a man leans over to the woman next to him and whispers helpfully, “That’s the name of the album.” “Blood and chocolate” is a perfect marriage of symbols for a collection of songs demonstrating the extremes of a relationship. The sentiments behind the second line bleed into the next song on the album called “I Hope You’re Happy Now.” Costello’s hopes towards the person that these songs are targeted at are filled with sarcasm. These emotions and themes pair well with the musical accompaniment of the songs which is created by a group of people who are driven by spite. Bitterness, derision, and contempt all make for excellent rock ‘n roll music. Costello continues singing:

You think it’s over now
But we’ve only just begun.

With these lines, could Costello be singing about a relationship or are they instead directed at the listener? The song and even the album can be summed up by Costello and company bashing away with this rocker of a song and singing the words “I hope you’re satisfied what you have done.” It all could be over with these lines that encapsulate the entire Blood & Chocolate project, but, too bad listener, “we’ve only just begun.” Costello moves on to the next verse:

I asked for water
And they gave me rosé wine.

In a set of liner notes, Costello writes about this specific line from “Uncomplicated”:

“I asked for water in a Parisian bar. My ‘French’ was not working any miracles. They gave me rosé wine. That’s how the trouble begins.”

In writing about this unfortunate encounter with the French, Costello chooses to re-write a song by Howlin’ Wolf called “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”:

By singing “Oh, I asked her for water, oh she brought me gasoline,” Howlin’ Wolf is saying that his baby has murderous intentions towards him. For Costello, the substitution by the server at the Parisian bar is certainly less potent than the situation in Howlin’ Wolf’s song and is undoubtedly more French. Even though Costello isn’t talking about murder, alcohol can be just as flammable as gasoline, hinting at all sorts of destruction to come, whether towards others or to oneself. 

The song moves into the chorus with Steve Nieve’s organ answering Costello’s vocals as he sings:

It’s in your eyes
It’s in your eyes
It’s in your eyes
It’s in your eyes

With this chorus, Costello strips away everything else that he has employed in his songwriting and reduces the song all down to one thing: sex. The lustful looks of the significant other towards the narrator results in feelings that are “uncomplicated.” Costello isn’t reaching for any great, overarching themes or employing intricate, several-layers deep puns and wordplay. It’s all very simple in this song: passion, fever, and desire. The music matches the sentiment as Costello hoped to write a one-chord song to pair with his most direct set of lyrics. The raucous rock ‘n roll music itself is uncomplicated, matching the theme of the song; sex in the lyrics and in the music. 

In the second verse, the dishwasher sound seems to get louder in the mix and the playing by the band is even crazier. Earlier in the song, Costello references “A horse that knows arithmetic / And a dog that tells your fortune.” Meeting the absurdity of these requests, the dishwasher needs to be a part of the lunacy of the song.  Costello ends the second verse by singing:

When you’re over me
There’s no one above you.

The lust is on full display. Everything is uncomplicated when you are overwhelmed with passion of this kind. Costello sings the chorus again and after that, a second guitar enters into the proceedings. The first guitar stops and gives space for the new guitar sound. Then the two guitars hit back and forth, fighting for space with each other within the song as if they are two dogs snarling at one another. For the rest of the song, Costello switches between singing the chorus and repeating the lines from earlier in the song:

You think it’s over now
But this is only
This is only
This is only
The beginning.

With these words, Costello is talking from the point of view of the narrator with the promise that the passion shown is “only the beginning” of a relationship. Once again, Costello is also speaking to the audience with these words, saying that although the song may be ending, it’s not the end of what will be heard for the rest of Blood & Chocolate. There’s more loud, blaring, and uncomplicated music to be heard from Costello and The Attractions. Despite, or maybe because, the only unifying bond between the band and the bandleader is contempt, they sound like they are having a blast as they create an intense and extreme cacophony of sound. This is the ideal context for Costello to sing about lust, the most basic subject in all of rock ‘n roll.

Image: James Gillray, Harmony before Matrimony, Etchings Hand-colored 1800-1810, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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