Elvis Costello’s debut LP occupies an intriguing space in the classic rock narrative, by many accounts, it’s prototypical New Wave at the genre’s finest, but such distinction also ameliorates Costello’s defining portrait, sacrificing the teeth of Costello’s anger as merely sign of the times, a succinct songwriter who championed a form.Yet Costello’s educated social frustration is equally relevant today as it was in the turbulent 70s for British youth.
Drugs, Fame, and Rock & Roll
Then, The Beatles were relegated to ceremonial deities of a record store, their records sold but their relevance was limited to that of the old guard, their intrinsic parts had been revealed human; Lennon had turned his well earned clout into a social pariah, releasing few albums to limited success before becoming a “househusband” raising his son, McCartney had disowned his turbulent breakup (which had fueled his first two albums to a new band that was content to say nothing at all, Harrison’s celebrated success had turned into myopic platitudes about God, and Ringo desperately clinged to being “the luckiest drummer alive” while his career disintegrated in the excess of success. The Rolling Stones had released Exile On Main Street in 1972 and seemed content to rest on their laurels of rock & roll debauchery without making another significant record until Some Girls some six years later.
The radio seemed content with the new trope of singer-songwriters that played sweet sounding melodies that overwhelmed whatever societal message might have been present. Rock had become old, and simply unable to keep up with social progressivism. Woodstock may be looked upon fondly now, but it’s impact was limited by the time the mid 70’s rolled around; Dylan was in hiding, Hendrix dead, the Dead firmly entrenched in their increasingly digressive celebration of 60’s counter-culture.
From The Ashes, An Echo
Then, in the echoes of the sus law, which was facing more turbulence from a growing immigrant population in Great Britain, punk was born. British youth, disillusioned with the government, had formed a new kind of protest song; direct, simple, succinct, Punk became anthemic because it could be so quickly made and so easily played. Borrowing from the most basic of rock forms, three chords was often the only route needed for British youth to seethe at the societal oppression of the government (most famously in The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen”) The Clash released their debut in 1977, and while London Calling would be their definitive triumph (and a paradigm shift in punk rock form) their first LP captured punk rock in its rumbling youth, braggadocio with a call to arms with numbers like “I Fought The Law”, “White Riot” and Junior Murvin cover “Police and Thieves”. It would be a matter of time before Elvis Costello, then known as Declan Patrick MacManus, would transform a demo and a single into one of the greatest debut albums of all time.
MacManus had begun his musical career in a folk duo, but soon moved onto a more pub rock vein with a band called Flip City where he adapted his stage name to D.P. Costello, the surname being his father’s stage name. During the day, MacManus switched from rote job to rote job, working as a data entry clerk and a computer operator, only fueling his discontent with the meaningless work force and pushing him to find a record contract. Stiff Records, a label founded in 1976, would end up being his saving grace.
The demos that MacManus submitted to the label were bare acoustic numbers that nowadays would have been lauded as lo-fi and bedroom pop, but the truth of the matter was MacManus had no other venue with which to record his songs other than his bedroom armed with a tape recorder. (The remains of this can still be found on “Mystery Dance” but I’ll get to that later) Still for an upcoming label, MacManus’s name carried no sway and they initially wished him to be a songwriter for Dave Edmunds. Luck found that Edmunds wasn’t pleased with Costello’s style, a reaction that provoked the recording of the album in its present form in an effort to convince Edmunds to change his mind.
Armed with six four-hour sessions, and no artist to reinterpret the material, Stiff Records decided to give MacManus his chance, but wished to promote a more marketable name. Thus Elvis (from Elvis Presley) Costello (from his dad’s stage name) was born.
"Less Than Zero" was the first single released from the recordings, though it made no impact on the charts, it showcased the songwriting ability that Costello had to offer. Brash, compact guitar riffs and a scathing social commentary that center around Oswald Mosley, the former head of the British Union of Facists. It’s a thrilling attack on the powers of propaganda right from the get-go, "Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo/there is a vacancy waiting with the English voodoo" that isn’t afraid to call out society as well "Turn up the TV/ No one listening will suspect, even your mother won’t detect it/so your father won’t know" alluding to both teenage sex and governmental apathy.
Still, Costello wasn’t a star yet when “Alison” became the second single released and the sheer discrepancy in style between “Less Than Zero” and “Alison” gave a taste of the immense talent that was waiting to be recognized. To this day, “Alison” remains one of Costello’s definitive songs, and one of his most thought provoking lyrical narratives. A mid-tempo ballad out of nowhere, the flourishing lead guitar lines belie the cynical and at times sinister story line. Costello’s narrator is a man who time has passed by, whose love has gone unrequited, and whose fury is barely contained by surface commentary “From the way you look l understand that you are not impressed/But I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress” it’s conversational, yet the nature of how it unfolds gives the sense that the narrator is backed into a corner “Cause I don’t know if you are loving somebody, I only know it isn’t mine”. Near the end when the narrator cries out “I think somebody better put out the big light/ cause I can’t stand to see you this way” it can be equally interpreted that he’s either thinking of killing her or himself, which makes “my aim is true” an even darker ending.
Stiff Records decided to release the full album in the summer of 1977, with My Aim Is True as the title. The first song, ”Welcome to the Working Week” is Costello at his most sarcastic and concise, coming in at a brisk 1:24 clip and directly addresses his distaste for jobs taken for the sake of having a wage.
With Nick Lowe behind the boards for production, the overall sound of My Aim Is True is frenetic, with caustic electric guitars, rollicking keyboards and booming drums, and clearly the work of a man energized by his shot to say what he believes to a greater audience, if he were JFK it would be called vigor, but really it’s just rock & roll.
One of the major themes of this album is social apathy; why work being one of the first questions Costello asks while remarking that “your family had to kill to survive”, yet Costello is precocious in framing most of his work around traditional boy/girl love song narratives. In “Miracle Man”, he comments on a girl who keeps wanting, nay, expecting her man to deliver anything she wants to which he quips “But don’t you think that I know that walking on water won’t make me a miracle man” There’s a dig at society’s reliance and acceptance on Jesus/God as savior and only good. He furthers the social/religious undertones on “Blame It On Cain”, imploring the government to not blame their need for money on him, but on Cain, the Bible’s ultimate example of the perils of man. Change the C to a B, and you might as well have the GOP campaign slogan “it’s nobody’s fault, but we need somebody to burn” with all their false niceties about Obama being a good guy but ineffective leader. The trio of “No Dancing”, “Sneaky Feelings” and “Mystery Dance” play into the mindset of a narrator who doesn’t know how to handle love, the first being a Phil Spector send up, the second lays down a cynical groove that treats love as a “sneaky feeling” while “Mystery Dance” is a not so subtle tongue-in-cheek reference to sex.
It’s telling of just how cynical the 22 year old Costello was when he juxtaposes songs of sex and lust with a Faustian deal with Angels in “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”. In the song, Costello chooses to make a bargain with the angels for eternal youth in hopes of keeping the affection of a lover, while the angels want to live a mortal life. The idea seems like a boon for Costello until his lover grows tired of him and tells him to drop dead when that’s all but impossible. So he’s left disgusted with youth, forever trying to become bemused with his “deal with the devil”.
"Pay It Back" may just be the finest B-side on Costello’s debut with a groove that nimbly switches between lock-step and swing and a lyrical message that finds Elvis at his most direct and personal. A kiss-off to record companies that turned him down from being a star while he worked nights as a computer operator. The origin of this song dates back to his work with Flip City, including an early demo circa 1975 that shows some surprising Springsteen influence. The evolution both in the song’s rhythm and Costello’s cynical delivery is incredible.
Costello’s songwriting at the time of My Aim Is True was not only polished, it was prolific, he had finished the majority of the songs for Next Year’s Model by the time My Aim Is True hit the shelves.
It was “Watching The Detectives” that first introduced me to Costello, even though it wouldn’t be included on the original UK version of the LP, being released a solid 3 months after. Whereas “Alison” found Costello ever so slightly holding back, veering on a daggers edge of subtlety, “Watching The Detectives” throws more menace into the equation and begs the audience not only to notice the double meanings, but to actively seek out what the true story is. Whether it’s a woman just watching some creepy detective show on the television, or a woman being stalked and murdered is really up to you. Still, it would be a quirky but forgotten number in Costello’s repertoire if not for the unforgettable melody with a drum line that would make Stewart Copeland jealous. Not even The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” comes close to how apt this reggata de blanc fits the intent of the stuff from the islands.
An Overnight Success After A Seven Year Delay
Costello’s debut hasn’t exactly faded into obscurity, it’s properly lauded by critics and consumers alike and it launched Costello’s career. Still, listening to the album some 37 years after its release, you can’t help but note how timeless it still sounds. Perhaps that’s because it was recorded on such a small budget that demonstrates a simple rock backing is all you need.