Counterbalance No. 116: Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’

Elvis Costello
My Aim Is True
Stiff / Columbia

Klinger: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired / You can have anyone that you have ever desired”. When the first line of the first song on your first album is a reference to onanism, it’s pretty clear that you’re out to make a statement. But such were the lines Elvis Costello drew. And not just lyrically—I can only imagine what it must have been like for critics to see the former Declan McManus on the cover of this LP, looking like a cross between Buddy Holly and Gollum. It’s no surprise that this album caught folks’ attention in 1977. Costello was willfully geeky in a world of blow-dried coifs and satin jackets, pumping out short punchy songs at a time when it seemed that excess reigned. I can certainly say that Elvis had a big effect on me—I suddenly realized that you didn’t have to look like Barry Gibb or Keith Richards to make music, and I got a reminder that great songs could still clock in at under two minutes. (Whether or not it was a good idea to hear Costello’s curdled views on romance in my formative years is another story.)

Still, My Aim Is True is a pretty different animal from This Year’s Model, Costello’s first appearance on the Great List, so I’m eager to hear your take on it, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: You can say masturbation, Klinger, we are both adults. No need for the oddball biblical references (although thanks for the reminder about how funny—intentionally or not—the Bible can be at times). On a related note, God ended up smiting Onan for that. Could you imagine if God was real and really killed people for jerking off? I have a feeling that the majority of Elvis Costello fans—and probably Costello himself—would cease to exist in a rapture-induced puff of smoke. POOF! Imagine that, a world without music critics (because they are all wankers). Or the majority of people in general for that matter. I would love to see that. Mind you, it wouldn’t happen, for obvious reasons, but even if it did, I’d probably be one of the first to get the lightning bolt.

Klinger: I think we’re getting into a weird area here.

Mendelsohn: Anyway, I love this album. There are more than a handful of truly excellent songs on My Aim Is True. I’m talking the divine intervention-type song writing. Preternatural, even. The rest of the songs are just so-so, but I think I think that only because they have to compete directly with the rest of the material on this record. But that’s like seeing my favorite baseball player hit a lead off home run and then being disappointed when they only hit triples for the rest of the game. It results in some pretty unfair expectations.

Klinger: Well, there certainly are a number of songs that have followed Costello throughout his career—”Less Than Zero”, “Alison”, and probably “Watching the Detectives” (especially since it’s now the theme for History Detectives on PBS. Now I can’t listen to this song without hearing Wes Cowan say, “Was this arrowhead really used during Custer’s Last Stand?”). Although I absorbed this album at just the right age—I think I was 14—so I might have trouble hearing even the so-called lesser tracks as anything but iconic.

Mendelsohn: The one thing that does strike me right off the bat is the lack of the Attractions, the backing band that Costello wouldn’t pick up until his next album, This Year’s Model. Nothing against the guys from Clover, but the Attractions took Costello’s songs to a whole other level. This may also have something to do with improving production values over Costello’s following albums.

I don’t want to say My Aim Is True sounds cheap, but it has that gritty, debut, DIY rock sound that is more hindrance than helpful to Costello’s sound at this point. That about encapsulates the extent of my “issues” with this album. I can see why This Year’s Model was the first record to make the Great List, but I’m a little surprised that it would take us this long to get back such a strong record, especially when you consider Costello was going completely against the grain by releasing a power pop-filled record full of nothing but hooks and raw, earnest energy. Is this record a casualty of the math? Nineteen seventy-seven was a big year in terms of critically acclaimed releases that included the Sex Pistols, Television, the Clash, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, and Kraftwerk.

Klinger: Yes, that’s entirely likely, but you’re also onto something when you say that Costello’s sound wasn’t fully formed yet. San Francisco group Clover (who later brought singer/harpist nicknamed Huey Lewis to the forefront and morphed into beloved ’80s band the News) and Costello had one of those “two countries separated by a common language” dealies a lot of the time. So while Elvis wanted “Waiting for the End of the World” to sound like the Velvet Underground, the band lacked the familiarity to meet that sound. Similarly, the band surprised Costello by hearing “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” as a Byrds-esque number. Still, their rootsier inflections help songs like “Pay It Back” and “Blame It on Cain” achieve the Band-like sound that had been an early influence on Costello.

Mendelsohn: I like the rootsy touches that crop up through out the album, that and the early rock influences on songs like “Less Than Zero” and “No Dancing”. Costello and company show off an uncanny ability to push those sounds into a new decade by marrying them with the high energy ethos of punk. “Mystery Dance” doesn’t sound like it made it out of the early ’60s but then you can’t win them all. On the flip side is “I’m Not Angry”, a song that, to my ears, comes off a precursor to hard rock in places, but still seems to fit the over reaching tone especially as it moves seamlessly between the urgent, driving guitar riffs and the almost country-fied breakdowns.

As debuts go, My Aim Is True is a solid record with a lot of different ideas that Costello somehow manages to wrangle into a cohesive piece. It’s not without its faults, but those were easily dealt with on This Year’s Model. It just dawned on me—Costello completely dominated the dreaded sophomore slump. Although I think it’s probably just music critics and fans who ever put much stock in that supposed curse.

Klinger: Oh yeah, we music nerds might go on about that, but Costello took that sophomore slump, danced on its head, and went cock-a-doodle-doo. In fact, by most critics’ reckonings he didn’t make a false move (musically, at least) until 1981’s countrified hoedown Almost Blue. But even that misstep (and it really isn’t very good) could be seen as an extension of Costello’s traditionalist tendencies, which are laced all through this record. In addition to the roots influences, you also hear bits and pieces in individual songs, like the way he references the Beatles’ “I’ll Get You” in “No Dancing”, or repurposes the Spinners’ “Ghetto Child” for “Alison”. In fact, in retrospect it seems odd that so many people viewed him as something of a break from the status quo (and Status Quo, come to think of it).

Mendelsohn: Well, when you consider the biggest selling albums of the year were Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (look out! foreshadowing!), and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, it’s not hard to see Costello as the outsider, relegated to the sidelines with his funny glasses and awkward demeanor. He was gleefully mining the sounds of his youth while everyone around him was participating in some coke-fueled largess at the expense of the listening public’s ears. Overall, what Costello was doing wasn’t all that original but within the context of time and place, he might as well have been on a different planet. Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees, and Meat Loaf were releasing albums that would combine to sell well over 120 million copies while Costello was writing songs about self-pleasure and romantic dysfunction in the nerdiest way he could — as opposed the slick, sun baked dysfunction proffered by the Fleetwood. I’m glad Costello did it, but viewing his entrance into the 1977 rock ‘n’ roll arena as anything other than a bit of an anomaly might be disingenuous at best or completely revisionist at worst.

Klinger: Well of course he was an anomaly. I’m not suggesting that My Aim Is True was any kind of commercial juggernaut or a serious threat to the Laurel Canyon junta that had consolidated their power in conjunction with the Carter Administration (although here in the States My Aim Is True charted in the respectable 30s). What Costello really represented to the industry was a somewhat more palatable version of punk’s back-to-basics music and sugar-free lyrics. They ended up calling it New Wave as a way to pitch it to retail and radio, but it was all part of a larger movement—one that would gain greater prominence the 1980s. In the evolution of music, Costello and his ilk were like those smart little monkeys that were hiding in the trees while the lumbering dinosaurs toppled all around them.