Within a few weeks of the UK release of Elvis Costello’s 1977 debut LP, My Aim Is True, Elvis Presley was dead. The 22-year-old London-born singer-songwriter, known to family and friends as Declan Patrick MacManus, had co-opted the King’s first name only a few months before. It was a piece of provocation dreamed up by Costello’s gonzo manager, Jake Riviera, and quickly resonated as a brazen marketing tactic that took the piss out of a supposedly untouchable piece of pop iconography. (“It sounded like a dare,” Costello would later write.) This “tactic”, if you will (though note that neither Costello nor Riviera meant the allusion as an insult), was not lost on American audiences, some of whom were offended and shocked by the insolence of this Buddy Holly-lookin’ imposter when My Aim Is True reached the US, via Columbia Records, in November, merely months after Presley’s death. Whether people were appalled or intrigued was a distinction that held no particular consequence to the bottom line: the birth of Elvis Costello did what it was supposed to do—put his name on the lips of the world. Timing, as they say, is everything.
The notion of a musical regime change is underscored by the album’s cover art, which has the phrase “ELVIS IS KING” embedded throughout its checkerboard pattern. Costello and his manufactured identity didn’t so much assume the proverbial throne as hijack it: My Aim Is True is not music for the masses, but music to subvert the masses. That sort of calculated deception ran deep in Costello’s promotional and artistic methodology; he dressed like Buddy Holly but sang from a place of tangy bitterness, and songs like “Alison” hid their tortured narratives under illusory lite-rock sheens. He was inextricably a figure of a rock ‘n’ roll lineage yet altogether eager to distance himself from its bloated truisms.
The album dropped in the midst of the English punk tumult, sandwiched in between debut LPs by the Clash and the Sex Pistols, and the DIY modesty of its aesthetic bore some resemblance to that of the punk crowd. It was recorded cheaply (roughly £1,000) and on the fly, in less than a total of 24 hours spread out over the course of several months. Between November 1976 and January 1977, Costello, his hired band (the Marin County, California-based country-rock outfit Clover), and producer Nick Lowe spent roughly 16 hours recording and five hours mixing a set of songs that Costello had allegedly written in two weeks. Costello was writing prolifically during this period (he already had his next record, This Years Model, written by the time My Aim Is True was released), and it shows in the glib economy and perky fizz of the songs. “Welcome to the Working Week” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” crackle with restless propulsion and nervy discourse, while “Miracle Man”, “Blame It on Cain”, and “Mystery Dance” merge new-world punk attitude with old-world songwriting finesse.
Oddly enough, My Aim Is True remains the true anomaly in Costello’s catalog. It’s a batch of unaffected pop and rock tunes with no allegiance to the new wave or a self-imposed genre. In later albums, Costello’s wordplay would become more kinky and obtuse, his voice more entitled and operatic, but here he’s just a kid from the pub-rock circuit with an ear for Randy Newman and a voice yearning for the timbre of Rick Danko. He’s probably never written a song more perfect than “Alison”, despite its status as an overplayed radio staple. “Less Than Zero” is an early takedown of fascism, one of Costello’s favorite targets. “Watching the Detectives” would predict his fascination for twisting up sexual impulse, menace, and ambiguity in the grip of a great hook. Costello’s essence is here, in all its wiry and confident thrift, in this first of many albums about (when all is said and done) girls, girls, girls.
Hip-O’s new “deluxe edition” is the second double-disc reissue of My Aim Is True in six years, and the fourth time the album has been reissued since the early ‘90s. If that sounds like overkill, it probably is: each reissue offers different archival extras, and yet no single edition can boast every demo and outtake from the period. The extras that the “deluxe edition” offer overlap with some (but not all) from Rhino’s 2001 edition, like the early demos of “No Action” and “Living in Paradise”, and the studio versions of “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House”. The Hip-O release adds a handful of previously unreleased demos from the Pathway Studios sessions, including early works-in-progress like “Blue Minute”, “I Don’t Want to Go Home”, and “I Hear a Melody”, many of which contain lyrical and/or melodic pieces that pop up revised in later compositions. Missing, however, are tracks like “Imagination (Is a Powerful Deceiver)”, a great early track Costello recorded with the band Flip City, as well as the “Dallas Version” of “Less Than Zero” and the acoustic “bedroom demos” first featured on Rykodisc’s 1993 reissue. While none of these demos or outtakes are stronger than the album’s official tracks, it’s nonetheless frustrating to have a wealth of bonus material scattered throughout multiple releases.
The second disc of the Hip-O edition is an unreleased live show from London (complete with soundcheck) in August 1977. It’s notable for being one of the earliest shows Costello performed with his newly hired backing band, the Attractions, the group that would support him for the next nine years, and for this fact alone, the concert is a valuable historical document. The Attractions were still working on their chemistry in August 1977, however, and their performance at London’s Nashville Rooms isn’t the sort of amphetamine-fueled transcendence heard on bootlegs from 1978-79 tours, or on the Live at the El Macambo disc issued by Rykodisc in 1993. Steve Nieve’s Farfisa organ puts the Attractions’ unique stamp on Costello’s songs, but the band lacks the punishing momentum and intensity that it would soon wield. Songs like “Waiting for the End of the World” and “No Action” are played at a lumbering half-speed, while “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” is more robo-funk than slashing commentary. Before long, their playing would confidently match the emotional defiance of Costello’s songs and back up My Aim Is True‘s pop-icon mutiny with brute force—though the album itself has rebellious muscle to spare.
// Notes from the Road
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