Music History

Elvis Costello's My Aim is True turns 35

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In the early 1970s, a bespectacled English waif named Declan MacManus -- later to be known as genre defining songsmith, Elvis Costello -- was pulling off a con in am Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory. "I read the papers all day long because... No one realized that the computer did all the thinking," Costello told Q Magazine in 1996, speaking of his job as a computer operator in the factory. "I wore a white coat and everyone thought I was a rocket scientist because I was the only one who knew how to work the machine. Everyone thought I was a genius. It was brilliant. I just skived all the time... I took my guitar in. I'd stay late, sometimes work 36 hours just on coffee and write two or three songs and read the music press."

In the mid-1970s, English pop music was beginning its cultural decline. It was a time that many reflect on as being overindulgent, technically proficient yet primally unexciting drab of ten-minute solos and epic themes (see Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth rock opera). Though by the second half of the decade, a decidedly baser, more barbaric movement of sound and fashion began to fill the pages of the music magazines that young Costello was reading. The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were attempting to reinvent English culture and youth rebellion, and were doing a damn good job of it. As a part-time musician, Costello was all for it: knowing that his songs were better.

Born into a family of music industry insiders, Costello's mother often took her young son to concerts at the Liverpool Philharmonic, where she worked for a period as an usher; she would later find work at Brian Epstein's NEMS music shop, introducing her child to whole other dimensions of music mythology. His father would sustain a life-long career in the music business, performing trumpet in the popular Joe Loss Orchestra and recording minor successes as a singer. In 1973 Costello would cut one of his first recordings, singing backup on the award winning Secret Lemonade Drinker TV ad, written and performed by his father. Having this behind-the-curtain view of the music-into-money operation would later give Costello a unique advantage over his contemporaries, inspiring him to criticize the industry with songs like "Radio Radio," and to know just how far he could take his pranks on media insiders.

Mostly unsatisfied with both the glam and prog rock coming out of England, and the hippie-fied folk ballads coming out of America, young Costello drifted into the London pub rock scene with his band, Flip City. Now viewed as the cultural predecessor to punk rock, the pub rock movement was described by future Costello producer and collaborator, Nick Lowe, as being "the regrouping of a bunch of middle-class ex-mods who'd been through the hippie underground scene and realized it wasn't their cup of tea." Like punk, it was a reaction to the arena rock shows -- with it's massive stage sets, light shows, and check-out-my-big-cock guitar solos -- preferring a more stripped down, primally accessible form of drinking music.

Though by this time Costello was married with a child, working a full time job and writing songs either on the subway, at work, or after work at home, quietly tapping the piano keys so as not to wake the wife and baby. Hardly a bohemian existence, this lifestyle kept Costello in a disciplined world of consistent productivity, sharpening his craft and avoiding the indulgences of drink, drugs and women that trap most creatively inclined men.

After splitting with Flip City -- yet retaining a few songs he'd written with the band -- Costello began sending demo tapes around to all the major labels of the time, enduring rejections left and right until the summer of 1976 when the London based Stiff Records took an interest. Still living in the suburbs, Costello was only aware of the burgeoning punk scene through the pages of rock magazines like NME, Sounds and Melody Maker , only vaguely aware of Stiff Records, the label that would put out the first "official" punk record, Damned, Damned, Damned.

Casually assigned as producer of Costello's debut album, Lowe would turn out to be an incalculable asset to Costello's early career, producing his first five albums and penning the mega-hit "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" (not to mention having a respectable career of his own). The two were already pretty chummy from their pub-rock days, and neither wasted any time getting to work on what would be a very exciting project. Recorded in a series of six, four hour sessions at a cost of 1,000 pounds, Costello would call in "sick" to work in order to complete My Aim is True. Within a matter of months, he would quit his job at the Elizabeth Arden factory to become a full time musician.

The title of the record is plucked from Costello's second single, "Allison," a tune rooted in a theme that would remain consistent throughout the punk-crooner's songwriting career: desire and betrayal. Perhaps the reason so many disaffected, High Fidelity-style young men latched on to Costello's music, was the way he would describe a conflicting ardor for, and silent rejection from, the women of his life. It was a pose that many a proud males have taken on: I hate you, but you still own my heart. Less a Morrissey type of self loathing, yet not quite a Johnny Rotten fuck-you-bitch, Elvis Costello existed in the kinetic middle-ground of love and revenge. "Oh I used to be disgusted/ now I try to be amused," he sings on "(the Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."

This method was also applied in the political realms, like in the anti-fascist "Less Than Zero;" or in protest of a cultural fascism in the media with "Radio Radio": he preached against evils, but rarely provided a specific framework to fix things. It was clear to the minds behind Stiff Records that they had a unique voice on their hands, someone who both embodied the rage and indignation of the punk movement, yet had a lyrical and musical eloquence to express those frustrations, like a marriage of Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett.

Yet however miles ahead of his contemporaries Costello was as a songwriter, he was seriously lagging in the style department. Of all the enduring worth of late-'70s British punk records, it was unarguably one of the most heavily stylized of all rock's incarnations. Stiff Records attempted to take this angry-glitter attitude into their marketing department, employing witty phrases like "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him float" on their adverts, or "contains no hit singles whatsoever" on album sleeves. The idea to bestow on their new young talent the name of rock and roll's most treasured hero -- Elvis -- was one more punk rock marketing gimmick from Stiff, an attempt to shake the etch-a-sketch of history, to burn down the library, to defiantly state that nothing is sacred and all is up for grabs.

The performer himself -- who had been using the maiden name of his paternal great-grandmother, Costello, for some time by then -- had his reservations about the name-change, but in the end didn't put up much resistance.

Besides, he knew a thing or two about gimmicky promotional tactics himself. Just weeks before My Aim is True was released, Costello, along with his newly minted band, The Attractions, set up a generator-powered sidewalk show outside London's Hilton Hotel, where CBS Records happen to be hosting their annual international conference. Hoping to secure a US record deal, Costello drew a reasonable crowd on the sidewalk, which contained a handful of reps from CBS. "All these guys were actually standing there and applauding," Costello told Trouser Press. "But the Hilton didn't see the humor in the situation and called the police. The police also didn't see the humor and arrested me. It's wasn't a big deal... just a crazy stunt." A stunt so crazy it landed young Costello a CBS/Columbia contract by years end.

This stunt, along with a growing word of mouth about the just released album, swelled Costello's public relevancy, landing him on the cover of Sounds and Melody Maker: two of the magazines he'd poured over as a factory worker living in the suburbs. The record both added to, and yet was separated from, the infamous collection of UK punk records released just prior to it. Later that year, Costello's record company put on a Stiffs Greatest Stiffs live revue, a 24-date UK tour boasting Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis and The King himself. The tour would be recorded and packaged into a live album; yet despite recently opening up for Santana before a 12,000-person audience, along with the serious buzz about his debut LP, Costello refused to play any songs from the album. When the audience protested, Costello dug in his heals, establishing his punk credibility (not for the first or last time), shouting back at the crowd: "if you want to hear the old songs, buy the fucking record!"

Much of the quotes and facts in this essay were taken from the book Elvis Costello: A Biography, by Tony Clayton-Lea.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse