Watching the Detectives (song)

"Watching the Detectives" is a 1977 single by English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. His fourth single overall, it was his first hit single on any national chart, peaking at #15 in the UK and also charting modestly in Canada, Australia and the U.S. The song featured on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time at No. 363.

"Watching the Detectives"
Single by Elvis Costello
from the album My Aim is True (US) Non-album single (UK)
Released14 October 1977 (1977-10-14)
Format7-inch single
LabelStiff (UK)/Columbia (US)
Songwriter(s)Elvis Costello
Producer(s)Nick Lowe
Elvis Costello singles chronology
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"
"Watching the Detectives"
"(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"
Music video
"Watching the Detectives" on YouTube

The song

The song, with a lyric about a lover who would rather watch TV, sung over a simple reggae beat,[3] was described by Rolling Stone as "a clever but furious burst of cynicism", and they also described the song as "indisputably classic".[4][5] Allmusic's Mark Deming described the song: "a skeletal minor-key melody that slowly but effectively wound itself into a solid knot of fierce emotional tension, pushing the bitter lyrical atmosphere further into the darkness".[6] Costello described how he wrote the song:

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 another inductee's record, 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".[7]

Costello considers "Watching the Detectives" his favourite song from the first five years of his career.[8] He later performed the song with a big band arrangement, which he admitted was "a desecration to people who love the tenseness of the original recording", but explained that "the story that's going on, and the musical allusions in the original arrangements, relate very much to the realization of this song as an orchestral piece using the film music feeling and the swing rhythms of '50s detective shows."[8]


Original single releases

The single, produced by Nick Lowe, was recorded in May 1977. The backing band on the song were Steve Goulding on drums and Andrew Bodnar on bass guitar, both from Graham Parker's band, The Rumour.[9] Keyboard overdubs were added later by Steve Nason (later better-known as Steve Nieve).[9] It was the first top 40 hit in the UK Singles Chart for Costello, reaching No. 15 and spending a total of eleven weeks in the chart.[10][11]

The UK and US singles (released in October and November 1977 respectively) featured different B-sides. The UK single was backed by two live tracks from an August 7th performance at the Nashville Club, and these live tracks were credited to Elvis Costello and the Attractions. (This was the first appearance of The Attractions on a record; the A-side is billed solely to Costello.)

The US single is backed by "Alison", the lead track from Costello's second UK single.

Track listing

UK Stiff Records release

  • Release date: October 1977
  • Format: 7"
  • Catalogue No.: BUY20
  1. "Watching the Detectives"
  2. "Blame it on Cain (live)"
  3. "Mystery Dance (live)"

US Columbia Records release

  • Release date: November 1977
  • Format: 7"
  • Catalogue No.: 3-10705
  1. "Watching the Detectives"
  2. "Alison"

Chart placings

"Watching the Detectives" reached No. 15 in the UK Singles Chart. It also charted in several other countries including Australia, where it reached No. 35, and Canada (#60). In the United States it reached No. 108 on the Hot 100.

Inclusion on albums

The song was not included on the original UK releases of either My Aim Is True, which preceded it, or This Year's Model, which followed in March 1978. It was, however, added to the US release of My Aim Is True (March 1978). Two live versions of "Watching the Detectives" from 1978 were released, one from 6 March on the Canadian promotional album Live at the El Mocambo, and another from 4 June on the Live at Hollywood High EP, which came with initial copies of the Armed Forces album (January 1979). A later live version was included in the Costello & Nieve box-set in 1996. A live medley of "Watching the Detectives" and "My Funny Valentine" recorded in Tokyo was included on the Cruel Smile album by Elvis Costello & the Impostors in 2002. The studio version was also included on several 'best of' compilations of Costello's work, including Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers (1980, Stiff), The Best of Elvis Costello – The Man (1985, Telstar), Girls Girls Girls (1989, Demon), The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1994, Demon), and The Very Best of Elvis Costello (1999, Universal TV).[10]

Cover versions


  1. Larry Canale (1 November 1986). Digital Audio's Guide to Compact Discs. Bantam Books. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-553-34356-4.
  2. Suzanne Bourgoin (9 September 1994). Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Gale. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8103-8553-5.
  3. Larkin, Colin (1998) The Virgin Encyclopedia of Indie & New Wave, Virgin Books, ISBN 0-7535-0231-3, p.101
  4. "Watching the Detectives – Elvis Costello", Rolling Stone, 9 December 2004
  5. Conner, Shawn (1999) "Elvis Costello Shows Maturity in Vancouver", Rolling Stone, 2 June 1999
  6. Deming, Mark "Elvis Costello – Watching the Detectives", Allmusic, Macrovision Corporation
  7. Crandall, Bill (2003) "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Costello", Rolling Stone, 28 February 2003
  8. Harrington, Richard (2006) "Elvis Costello's (Really) Big Band", Washington Post, 14 April 2006
  9. Gimarc, George (2005) Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter's Guide to Underground Rock 1970–1982, ISBN 0-87930-848-6, p.95
  10. Strong, Martin C. (2003) The Great Indie Discography, Canongate, ISBN 1-84195-335-0, p.36-39
  11. Watchin' the Detectives, ChartStats
  12. Richardson, Derk (2001) "It's 'Dirty Work,' But Jenna Mammina's Got To Do It: Bay Area jazz vocalist reworks new rock standards", SF Gate, 30 August 2001
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