What if... Elvis Costello had joined the Fast Food Rockers after their first album?
Buddy Holly look-alike, Elvis Costello, fused the righteous anger of punk with a stinging intellectualism. Despite cultivating the outward appearance of a nerdy junior accountant from the 1950s (a look that singled him out in a genre pre-occupied with leather bondage trousers) he was perhaps a more experimental performer than many of his peers; not in the get-naked-and paint-your-cock-orange-to-make-some-kind-of-laboured-politcal-point sense of the word, but in the sense that he was receptive to a broader range of musical styles and collaborators. His lengthy career, coupled by an openness towards taking creative risks, has seem him deftly sidestep the poisoned chalice of being branded a “national treasure.” He has been less successful in avoiding the millstone of “critical acclaim.” This is essentially journalistic shorthand meaning that, outside of his ardent fan-base, nobody else can name a song he’s written in the past two decades.
Fast Food Rockers were a pop trio who dressed in bright primary colours. Their stage get-up gives us some insight into what might happen if a group of children, of nursery school age, were asked to collaborate on a new fashion range, made from recycled Superman and Wonder Woman costumes. Their name was a bit of a red herring as the closest the trio ever came to rocking out was on a cover of the theme from the movie Ghostbusters.
The group’s biggest hit - The Fast Food Song - was a playground chant, set to a dance beat, that name-checked popular brands of fast food. Creatively it was on a par with those CDs of nursery rhymes that you can buy if you are a parent and will, at some point, be forced to play in your car, instead of something by Darkthrone or Bathory. The song was incredibly annoying to anybody over the age of six and therefore doomed to be played at children’s birthday parties from now until the human race is snuffed from existence, after which it will radiate across the universe, both deterring and inciting invasions from other intelligent races. Despite this handicap and the lack of spending power of its target audience, the song went to number two in the UK singles chart and was only held at bay from the top spot by the overwrought Goth rock band, Evanescence.
A follow-up single did less well, while the debut album - It’s Never Easy Being Cheesy - ricocheted off the top 200 like a slice of stale pizza hitting the side of a wheelie bin. A Christmas single limped to number 25 and became the group’s final release.
I am going to imagine Costello joining the Fast Food Rockers in January, 2004, when the band were in commercial freefall and at their lowest ebb. Through force of personality and previous experience as a band leader he would have quickly established himself as the de-facto head of the group. The founding members of FFR were likeable, but anonymous, pop drones, who claim to have met at a fast food convention in Folkestone. It is doubtful that they would have offered much in the way of resistance to this benign dictator. Any act of rebellion or dissent would have been quickly put down by a barbed quip from Costello, who had previously crowned himself King of America. At this stage in his career you simply did not fuck with him.
By this time the Fast Food Rockers management were becoming disillusioned by the trio’s diminishing returns and were a few months away from parting company with the group. It is therefore unlikely that they would have put up much opposition to the new regime. Their indifference would have allowed Costello’s transition to power to take the form of a relatively bloodless coup. Relatively.
Once he had assumed control I predict that Costello would have taken the band in one of two directions:
The first possibly is that he would have kept the fast food theme, but attempted to steer it into more bitter-sweet contexts. Perhaps he would have written a song in which a man finds the name ‘Tony’ and a phone number, scrawled down on a McDonalds napkin in his wife’s handwriting. He may also have been tempted to use fast food culture as an allegory to explore some kind of existential void in the human soul.
This move could have potentially placed a strain on the previously cordial relationship between the group and the fast food chains, who are quite happy to have their brand-names mindlessly parroted, but less comfortable about being named as a third party in a case of adultery. There may also have been concerns about the use of trademarked products as metaphors, as opposed to being presented as actual menu items that you can purchase and eat.
The other alternative would have been to abandon fast food as a subject altogether and push towards songs about fine dining. In doing so, Costello would be taking a calculated risk, deliberately narrowing the audience of the group in the hope that a smaller, but more loyal, fan-base might allow for a longer career and glowing write-ups in The Guardian weekend section.
This would have undoubtedly alienated hardcore fans who would naturally expect more songs about burgers and fries, performed energetically by a fresh-faced, asexual trio, dressed in brightly coloured costumes; behaviour and attire that would have been frowned upon in fine dining establishments where there is often a dress-code.
Remember this is years before Jamie Oliver demonstrated that fast food needn’t be bad food, and that you could whip-up something vaguely Italian with pesto in it, in around 15 minutes.
Would the group’s hardcore six year old audience really warm to a song about the disintegration of a marriage during a child’s birthday party, in Hampstead, that incorporated a line about Polish finger food falling to the floor like autumn leaves?
In time the founding members of Fast Food Rockers might have wondered whether the addition of a lyricist, even one as highly acclaimed as Elvis Costello, was really worth selling out their ideal of making lightweight pop songs about pizza.
Lucy Meggitt, for instance, might have found herself, during some downtime in a tour of provincial theatres, doodling the motto “Live free or die” on hotel stationery, next to a biro drawing that resembled an eagle with its wings spread, hovering above a pair of crossed assault rifles.
In the end the inscrutable Elvis Costello, for whatever reason, did not join Fast Food Rockers. In his absence the group did what countless punk bands have threatened to do but didn’t: They released an album and a handful of singles, and then they spilt up.
I like to imagine that, prior to disbanding, the trio met up in a branch of McDonalds, where one member of the group wrote “4 real” on their forearm, using sachets of tomato ketchup.