MY AIM IS TRUE
40th ANNIVERSARY THE STORY OF ELVIS COSTELLO’S ICONIC DEBUT
Most musical historians can agree that 1977 was the year that Punk-Rock broke into the mainstream. Punk’s brash, no nonsense approach had revitalized rock music. The goal of the movement was to simply bring rock back to a simpler, three-chord style approach opposed to the twenty-minute solos that were common in the early ‘70s during Prog-Rock’s heyday. Where the new hard edge genre had succeeded musically, it had failed to produce a key lyrical figure. During the summer of ’77, a singer-songwriter from London would soon take the title of Poet Laureate of Punk.
The phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, albeit a tired cliché, could describe the life of Elvis Costello rather well. His father, Ross McManus, was a singer and bandleader in the ‘50s and ’60s playing in local nightclubs covering the hit singles of the day. Through his father’s record collection, the then young Declan McManus discovered the Beatles, Dusty Springfield and Motown.
“As the Beatles’ success grew and grew during 1963,” writes Costello in his autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, “I waited for each new single with increasing certainty that my Dad would bring it home to learn it and that it would eventually become mine.”
At the age of 13, Costello began to pick up the guitar, starting out with Fleetwood Mac’s “Man of the World”, which he taught himself how to play out of a book. Soon after, he began writing his own songs and performing them in folk and poetry clubs in Liverpool.
By the early ‘70s, Costello was gigging semi-professionally in bands of his own, most notably Flip City, playing Folk-Rock inspired by the hip Laurel Canyon artists of the day. One album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue is cited as having a deep impact on him, so much so that he physically wore out the grooves of the LP.
“I had heard the demos of Flip City but I didn’t really think much of them,” said My Aim is True producer, Nick Lowe. “None of them were very good players, including Declan, but the ambition he had for himself was way, way beyond his actual ability.”
At the age of 20, he married his girlfriend Mary Burgoyne, who soon became pregnant. To support himself and his new family, he found a job as a computer operator in Elizabeth Arden, working with IBM’s monstrous 360-model. The job, fairly mindless, gave Costello time to tinker about with new songs. What was soon to become My Aim is True was, according to the song-writer, mostly written while at work or on the tube ride home.
“I didn’t have any knowledge of an audience when I was writing the songs on My Aim is True,” said Costello. “I just knew I had to write some songs that would get me out of the bedroom. I was married to my first wife and had my young son and I didn’t really have the money to be going out to join in what was going on uptown, it was the new (punk) scene happening.”
In 1976, Costello’s solo acoustic demos attracted the small record label, Stiff, and was soon offered a contract. However, before heading into the studio, the singer-songwriter would make a drastic change to his sound. After hearing the new British Punk bands, Costello decided to ditch his acoustic and bring out his CBS-era Fender Telecaster to add an aggressive bite to his marvellously crafted tunes. After radically changing his sound, he then made another drastic choice by adopting a new name. He certainly wasn’t the first artist to take on a stage name, yet Costello’s was a tad more daring than someone like Elton John. Using the same first name as the King of Rock and Roll, who was still alive at the time, was an incredibly bold decision by the young musician.
Another key ingredient to his new persona was his image. Costello ditched his feathered hair and flannel shirts, instead wearing patterned blazers and skinny ties. Along with his thick rimmed glasses, he bore a striking resemblance to Buddy Holly. Not only did his nerdy image set him apart from the ‘70s rock-god image, but even in the punk scene he stood out. In spite of the dorkiness of his image, he still came across with a punk vibe. His look was unique, and however contrived it was, it seemed to have given him a “I don’t give a fuck that I don’t look like Robert Plant” attitude. Costello made being a nerd cool.
He entered the studio with session musicians from the Country-Rock group, Clover and New Wave icon, Nick Lowe to produce. Lowe would go on to produce seven more of his albums during his career. Costello and co. would record the album around his day job, sneaking in sessions at night which kept the young songwriter away from his wife and young son, Matthew.
After the first few sessions of My Aim is True, Costello stumbled upon a rather odd looking guitar in a pawn shop in West London. It was finished in a custom walnut varnish color, with a tortoise shell pick-guard. At first Costello thought it was a Stratocaster and that the previous owner had customized the body, but in fact it was a Fender Jazzmaster, a model of guitar that had been discontinued by the popular guitar manufacturing company. The Jazzmaster, a common guitar in the early ‘60s, and along with the then extinct Jaguar, were primarily used for Surf-Rock. Costello would finish recording his debut LP with the Jazzmaster and due to its ‘60s nostalgic vibe, would inspire the opening lick to “Watching the Detectives”. The guitar would soon become synonymous with his name and in 2008, when the Jazzmaster celebrated its 50th birthday, Fender issued a limited-edition copy of Costello’s own guitar.
The songs on My Aim Is True date back to 1973. In particular, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, one of the albums first compositions was written by Costello on a train ride home from his day job. When Costello played the song for Clover, their guitarist John McFee came up with the jangly Byrds-like intro which was a perfect example of Costello and his then backup back band coming together. Despite coming from two different continents and having completely different musical backgrounds, the two artists blended their styles quite seamlessly. Tracks like “Less Than Zero” and “Waiting for the End of the World” were inspired by the Velvet Underground, a band that Clover were unfamiliar with. This in the end helped Costello create a sound that was more his own.
“I’ve always told people that I wrote ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket,” writes Costello in Unfaithful Music on perhaps the most well-known song on My Aim is True; after all the album takes its name from a line in the song. “Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that would be left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.”
Since it’s release as a single in May 1977, “Alison” has become his most scrutinized song by critics and as well as fans. “What does he mean when he sings ‘My aim is true’? Does he mean his intentions are good? Does he mean he has a deadly shot with a pistol?” The quest to find the hidden meaning in the brilliant wordsmiths’ first iconic tune has been endless. Along with being a beautifully crafted pop song, the mystery around the song has probably also made it so iconic. And who could forget John McFee’s sentimental guitar licks that reek of California Country-Rock, yet somehow it works here with the British new wavers sensitive vocals. It ranks at 323 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time.
It’s hard to believe such an iconic album may have never seen the light of day, in its full-form anyway. Costello had taken to dropping by the Stiff Records head office frequently after the recording sessions had commenced to inquire about the status of his album. Several months later, he found out the label had intended it to be released as a split album with fellow Stiff new waver, Wreckless Eric,whom Costello has described as a “horrible little git”. At Costello’s persistent protests, the label gave in to him having his own full-length LP- a very wise choice from the Stiff executives.
The album was first released on July 22, 1977 during the midst of the Punk-Rock phenomenon. Despite the musical versatility of the album, My Aim is True and Elvis Costello became synonymous with Punk. Of course, “Alison” and the bluesy “Blame it on Cain” are miles away from Punk, but tracks like “Less Than Zero” and “Welcome to the Working Week” had similarities to the burgeoning genre. Perhaps the reason he was billed alongside the Damned and the Sex Pistols is because there was no other way to categorize him.
Costello’s debut at the time was only available in the U.K. since his indie label had no distribution in America. Several months after the release of his album, Costello staged a “protest” outside of CBS building to convince the executives to sign him. He was later signed and the album was released the following year on Columbia Records in the United States.
Not long after it’s release in the U.K., Costello quit his day job and prepared for a tour. However, he was still without a regular backing band since Clover had only been a temporary solution for recording sessions. He collected gifted keyboardist Steve Nieve, who played on the “Watching the Detectives” single, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums. These three musicians became the Attractions and would be Costello’s primary band for nearly a decade, appearing on some of his most prolific albums.
From the release of My Aim is True critics noted Costello’s incredible lyrical ability. His snarlingly bitter lyrics were a breath of fresh air in the singer-songwriter camp of the day. The opening lines to “Welcome to the Working Week” and in fact the album, describe a girl’s picture being used as masturbation material. This topic stood out from the Jackson Browne’s and James Taylor’s of the day. Even if they had written about such a subject they wouldn’t have the originality to pen a phrase as unique as “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired.” Just the fact that he opened the album with these lines is a bold statement indeed but because he refrained from using cliched euphemisms like “choking the bishop” or “waxing your carrot”, and instead used “rhythmically admired” allowed him to get away with talking about masturbation at the beginning of the record. It’s cheeky and brilliant and very Punk Rock.
My Aim is True was the start of the “angry young man” stereotype that came to describe its creator. But in fact, the songs aren’t really that angry. Hell, there’s even a song called “I’m Not Angry” on the album. The songs do not particularly reflect an angry person as their composer, but more of someone who writes with a sense of bitterness, regret and sexual frustration. In “I’m Not Angry”, he describes what it’s like to listen to his ex have sex with another man, while in “Miracle Man” he paints a graphic picture: “I’m doing everything just trying to please her/Even walking around on all fours/I thought by now it was gonna be easy/But she still seems to want four more.” These style lyrics describing ones’ perpetual sexual frustration can be found throughout his career on something like “King Horse” or “I Want You”.
In “Less Than Zero”,however, it seems as though he is getting some on a girlfriends’ parents’ couch who happen to be upstairs. To drown out the sound they turn up the TV program that features the British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosely. A unique little tale of teenage lust and fascism-only Elvis Costello could pen such a tune. The song would later be used for the title of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel. The esteemed author has mentioned Costello in several of his novels and has praised Costello’s brilliance in various interviews over the years.
Despite critical acclaim, the album did not put Elvis Costello into the average record buyers’ collection. It would be over the course of several decades that the album gained notoriety, eventually becoming renowned as one of, if not the best, debut album of all-time. Last month, CBC ranked it in the top five debut LPs of all-time along with Music From Big Pink by the Band and Closing Time by Tom Waits. In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked My Aim is True at 168 on their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time.
In 1978, Costello and the Attractions released This Years Model, once again produced by Nick Lowe. The album cemented his place in the British punk scene with its more abrasive approach to music and of course Costello’s bitter lyricism. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Costello would be the most consistently brilliant wordsmith to be lumped in with Punk Rock. His lyrics weren’t as angry or pissed off as Joe Strummer’s but they still hit you with the same brute force. Instead of screaming “London’s Burning”, he crooned the beautiful “Shipbuilding” to show his discontent with the British government. Costello was punk for intellectuals.
My Aim is True is a special record in Costello’s acclaimed discography as it gives us a glimpse of a young artist finding his way without a permanent backing band. It’s basic, no frills production courtesy of Nick Lowe is unique to this album as opposed to his following releases. But what makes the album so special is that it is the first of many great albums released in a span of five years that gave the world its greatest singer-songwriter of the era. Who else could have gone from New Wave to R&B to Country and Baroque Pop in half a decade and pull it off? Only Elvis, and it all started here, with My Aim is True.