Life at 33 1/3: The avenger of the nerds

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Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (Stiff)

A debut album that no one saw coming.  It burst through the heavy thunder clouds of punk rock and delivered a glimmer of hope for a terrified and confused recording industry.  Elvis Costello was definitely part of this new wave of music, he was angry and he was agressive, but he was still very much a singer songwriter of the old school, and he had a haircut they could relate to.  They didn’t care much for his cheeky choice of a professional name though.  “Elvis”, that was sacrilege.  There was only one.  Just a few weeks after the album was released it got even worse.  Elvis Presley died and suddenly Stiff Records’ “Elvis is king”-slogan backfired.  Some were furious.  How dare he!

Elvis’ debut LP does not sound as hot tempered and obstinate as the successor, “This Year’s Model”.  The reason being that the young Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (as his real name is) hadn’t fully developed his alter ego Elvis yet.  He was an artist “in progress” with a steady job, wife and children when the album was recorded during four six-hour sessions in late 1976 and early 1977.  These songs weren’t even meant for himself, but for Dave Edmunds.

At the time Costello was considered to be a promising songwriter, but since Edmunds only had shown lukewarm interest for the first few demos, the decision was made to record the songs properly.  Costello didn’t have any band, so producer Nick Lowe hired the American country rock band Clover, who were based in England, for the sessions.

As the recordings proceeded and new songs were added, written late at night while his wife and children slept, Elvis’ ambitions changed.  Why would he give these heartfelt songs to Dave Edmunds?  He wanted them for himself.  And thus they realised that they were actually recording a real album.

Two singles were released as teasers, the anti-fascist “Less Than Zero” and the embittered ballad “Alison” (with its controversial reference to a certain Mr. Oswald).  Embraced by the rock press, but they died in the record stores.  That didn’t stop Stiff Records from giving Costello the full album treatment, releasing “My Aim Is True” in July 1977.

Angry times in the UK.  The Sex Pistols had already stirred up the nation’s media with “God Save The Queen” and were at it again with the thundering “Pretty Vacant”.  On the Top 10 The Stranglers were lurking about with the suggestive and highly sexist “Peaches”.  The new wave tsunami washed through the corridors of the record business.  Dave Dee and Bill Grundy, to name but two, were… stunned.  And shocked.

“My Aim Is True” was perfectly timed.  It sailed into the tabloid fuss, aggravating loads when Elvis Presley died in August, but still getting away with it because these were real songs written by a guy who obviously mastered the art of songwriting.

But even though most tracks here sound like songs and not chaotic noise bombs, they do not offer much relief.  The knock-kneed insect with his cartoon like Buddy Holly-glasses oozed attitude.  The avenger of the nerds.  The lyrics were an acid bath boiling in frustration, rebellion against conformity and hypocrisy, vindictive attacks on people that probably knew who they were.  His irony was deadly accurate, already a master of words he played around with the language, you could never be quite sure that he meant what he said or said what he meant, he slithered around in clever wordplays, sometimes so vicious that his horn rims crackled.

Clovers refrain from giving the songs the California or Nashville treatment.  They are absolutely in synch with Costello’s intentions.  No smooth cleverness, it is all raw, rough and stripped down.  But they don’t explode in your face the way The Attractions would do a few months later on the sequel, “This Year’s Model”.  Costello the guitar player prefers it rough and metallic, but you can sure hear that he is no upstart.  There’s cleverness at play, a less is more.  He shows restraint when it cooks, and he never for one second loses control even if he wants to give that impression on the fast and aggressive tracks.

Elvis’ voice is very distinctive, he sounds like a man battling a cold; his voice almost cracks when he stretches for the high notes.  But technically his singing is mature and his phrasing superb.  His love for Burt Bacharach is already very noticeable, especially in the mighty “Alison”.  All the tracks are strong, but my personal favourites, apart from “Alison”, are: “Mystery Dance,” “Blame It On Cain”, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “Less Than Zero” and “Waiting For The End Of The World”.

There are those who do not like Elvis Costello, indeed, some can’t even stand him.  I find that incomprehensible.  “My Aims Is True,” “This Year’s Model”, “Armed Forces” and “Get Happy !!” is one of the strongest four album sequels in rock history.

Released: July 22, 1977

(All songs written by Elvis Costello)

Produced by: Nick Lowe

Contents: Welcome to the Working Week/Miracle Man/No Dancing/Blame It on Cain/Alison/Sneaky Feelings/(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes/Less Than Zero/Mystery Dance/Pay It Back/I’m Not Angry/Waiting for the End of the World

NB: The October 1977-single “Watching The Detectives” was added to the American version of this album as it was released in December 1977.  The Attractions are backing Elvis on that track.

Personnel:

Elvis Costello – vocals, guitar, piano and drumsticks on “Mystery Dance”

Nick Lowe – backing vocals, piano, drumsticks and bass on “Mystery Dance”

John McFee – lead guitar, pedal steel guitar, backing vocals

Sean Hopper – piano, organ, backing vocals

Stan Shaw – organ on “Less Than Zero”

Johnny Ciambotti – bass, backing vocals

Mickey Shine – drums