Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True
Released July 22nd, 1977 on Stiff Records
In the early 1970s, Declan MacManus was another weekend-warrior pub rocker in the London club scene, working day jobs as a data entry clerk in order to fund both his family and his love of playing music. The man came by it honestly; his father, Ross MacManus, played jazz trumpet under the stage name of Day Costello, and the two of them did a commercial together for lemonade three or four years before My Aim Is True thrust the younger MacManus onto the rock ‘n’ roll stage. It was also the result of gobs of hard work, of course; the man who would be Elvis Costello spent his time after his wife and young son were asleep writing songs. Those songs were painstakingly recorded into demos, and those demos shopped around. Meanwhile, he continued to toil in obscurity for much of the 1970s, playing in a pub rock band called Flip City until one of his demos caught the attention of Stiff Records, an independent London label that convinced him to change his name. Elvis, from The King, and Costello from his father’s stagename = Elvis Costello.
Success was anything but a sure bet, even with indie label interest. At first the label wanted him to write songs for someone else. Then when they realized that Costello’s own songs came off much better, they decided to let him cut a record and release a couple of singles from it, “Less Than Zero” and “Alison”. Both singles failed to do much damage in the charts, but Stiff Records pressed on and released the entire album; they also went all-in with a promotional campaign that gave away free copies (special edition free copies, at that) to friends of people who bought the album.
Such tricks – great marketing strategies though they might be – are not, strictly speaking, completely necessary to sell an album like My Aim Is True. Sure, they help, but the strengths of the album are readily apparent immediately. “Welcome To The Working Week”, the poppiest bit of sarcastic bitterness you’ll ever hear, starts off with the line “Now that you’re picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired”. He literally starts the record off with a crack about masturbation. And that’s not even the best part! Throughout the album he bangs out a series of songs that are part pub rock, part 50’s rock ‘n’ roll inspired genius (check out the Buddy Holly pose on the album cover for more on that inspiration) and all cynical asshole. The first two are the result of his upbringing and his toils in rock ‘n’ roll obscurity. The last goes a long way toward explaining why he was slotted in to the white-hot punk rock movement in the summer of 1977. My Aim Is True may not have the snarl and viciousness of the Sex Pistols or the Clash, but it was just as frustrated, just as bitter, and in places just as political. “Less Than Zero” was the anti-fascist anthem, a big concern in Britain where the economy was teetering on the edge of collapse by the late 1970s. The song itself would become famous when Costello began playing it on Saturday Night Live, before cutting out to “Radio, Radio”, declaring that the song was meaningless in America (and earning himself a Lorne Michaels ban for nearly ten years). “Watching The Detectives” was another such track, outlining the absurdity and obsession of TV violence while borrowing some of that Clash-inspired 1977 reggae bounce (literally inspired; the song came about after 36 hours of coffee and the first Clash record on repeat). “Alison”, meanwhile, was a soulful ballad about infidelity that Costello claims contains a secret homage to the Detroit Spinners (and also gave the record it’s name) and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is pure pop bliss with a sour interior.
My Aim Is True was a stellar debut, a record that made Costello feel as though, after years of grubbing away in the underground, he’d become something of an overnight success. It would be the beginning of a run of similarly great albums that would carry the man and his burning cynicism into the mid-1980s.