Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” Reviewed
Back in 1987 I wrote in Creem that you can tell the strength of an Elvis Costello album by its outtakes, and 30 years later it remains more than true of his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True. There are the songs that didn’t make it on from his earliest demos, songs that made it on B Sides (or the US Edition) and songs he would rewrite and include on his sophomore album a year later. Perhaps Elvis thought that three of his greatest pre-My Aim Is True songs didn’t fit the Elvis persona, though why so is hard to imagine. It could be “Imagination (Is a Powerful Deceiver)” was too long for the punky quick draw, though with its knock out payoff, “I’ll go out of mind if I’m losing your touch,” it seems to fit in, “Poison Moon” and the physical brutal “Wave A White Flag”, literally a violence against women we wouldn’t find again for years (not till “B Movie”’s “punchlines you can feel”) seem a little off topic. As for B Sides, “Radio Sweetheart” and “Watching The Detectives” are classics that didn’t make it on, “Radio Sweetheart” might have just hit the finish line, but “Watching The Detectives” is as misplaced on the US My Aim Is True as “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” is at the end of the US Armed Forces. Odder were the songs rewritten for This Year’s Model. “Living In Paradise” –much better in demo form, and “Radio Soul,” a lost masterpiece that Costello reworked into his radio denouncement “Radio Radio” (which, incidentally, also didn’t make it on This Year’s Model and began life as a single).
I got into Elvis Costello just the slightest touch late, up to my eyeballs in punk in 77, I still managed to miss the initial releases, “Less Than Zero” and “Alison,” but I was lazing about my apartment with one of my best friends nursing a very harsh hangover watching Tony Wilson’s (some day soon of Factory Records) Granada TV show “What’s On” when he introduced us to Costello performing “Red Shoes” before a show that evening at the Free Trade Hall. I saw it, I pulled my buddy up, and we drove to the city and caught the “Live Stiffs” tour with Elvis, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe and others. The next day My Aim Is True was released and I was waiting outside Virgin Records to buy it.
At the time Elvis looked more like me than I looked like me, his skinny tie and snarl was the embodiment of punk angst as teddy boy self-fulfillment, you’ve heard of Frankenstein meets Abbott And Costello, well this was Presley Meets Abbott And Costello. I thought it was all true, I’d forgotten Bowie and Ziggy Stardust and Aladin Sane, I didn’t for a minute think Costello was playing a role. I think we all felt it was true. I also had no idea who George Jones was (I was a Hank Williams guy through and through), so the George Jones if George Jones was Joey Ramone and never got laid aspect wasn’t quite clear. I did think Buddy Holly, and a little later I could hear the “Not Fade Away” ism of it all. But in 1977, My Aim Is True felt completely unique, it felt like something nobody else had ever done or ever thought of. How does it feel to have a girl turn you down and walk off with your friend? What can you do with it? Where do you place it in your mindset? Everybody writes heartbreak songs, it is part of the pop firmament, but they didn’t write it like this, they didn’t write “I’m the one you see at night and I don’t want to do it all in vain”. Costello was 22 years old and married with a son, but not here: here he was a fumbling, dismissed, romantic loser who used his words as a harsh revenge against the sexual inadequacy and consistent dismissal by women of him.
Nobody had done that before and NOBODY had done it with such astonishing lyrics. Elvis Costello didn’t exist but here he was any way, in little over 30 minutes, he took us from “Welcome To The Working week” to “Waiting For The End of The World,” fast, tuneful power-pop as country offshoot: relentless sublimity of fraught desire. The only mistake, he should have switched “Less Than Zero” with, not “Imagination” but “Radio Sweetheart”. It was not a political album as such and he would have been better off on topic till overthrow, till the world ends. Six songs on the first side, which closes with “Sneaky Feelings” (“I want to get right through the way I feel for you but I’ve still got a long way to go”) before opening Side Two with “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and continues with another five songs. At fifteen minutes a side it can take you easily from first attempted kiss to final slap on the face just in time for you to turn it over. But the extreme self-consciousness of the album, from the cool but wonky album cover photograph to the arrogant though not inaccurate “Elvis Is King” motif, to the punky yellow and black typography to tight as hell song construction, this was very studied –anarchy was the last thing on Elvis, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, and Nick Lowe’s mind. Elvis kept stepping through mirror images of himself but years before he would claim the only two emotions he understood were guilt and revenge, his Catholicism, that at the time felt like super cool reference points, were actually part of his Irish Catholic soul. “Miracle Man,” “Blame It On Cain,” “Red Shoes,” and “I’m Not Angry,” all have the ghost of the God Of Wrath hanging over them, and he used that as another shading in his feigned persona.
That wasn’t what I heard at the time. I also didn’t hear Clover as a less than punchy country rock band from the US. It sounded to me like what we would later call New Wave, extremely catchy pop songs about getting fucked over by girls as they pursued your better looking friends. It sounded like “Miracle Man,” one of the most unsettling acts of rebellion as majestic sexual rejection. Though the second song on My Aim Is True, it works as a proper introduction to Costello’s first three album, that tastier than tasty lick to usher you in to a place where Costello gives in completely to desire with “I could tell you that I like your sensitivity but you know it’s the way that you walk”. So first he places her on a sexual pedestal, he Madonna’s her, then he kicks her down and sex shames her, and finally he gets to the place where he is going: “I’m the one you see at night and I don’t want to do it all in vain”. Nothing he does will get this girl who is sleeping with all his friends, he is so jealous and so riddled with desire and so hurt and he has no escape valve, no way round her at all. Even if he was Jesus (him again), even if he walked on water, he STILL COULDN’T GET THE GIRL. It is 1977, we are in London, riding the underground, and thinking about girls (a girl? Every girl) On the first song he introduces you to This Year’s Model as she gets rhymically admired on Page Three of the Sun, by song two he has already reached the point of no return and it never gets any better. That’s his success rate with women. Oh, EC gets laid on “Pay It Back” and he sure wishes he hadn’t. But “No Dancing”? “I know that she has made a fool of him”. “Blame It On Cain” equates sex with original sin, “Alison” is as wretched a love song as any one has ever written, and “Sneaky Feelings” can’t get through. “Red Shoes” is a metaphysical dumping of Biblical proportions, “Mystery Dance” is rockabilly as impotence, “Pay It Back” finds EC stuck between a doctor and a magistrate, “I’m Not Angry” is furious in jealousy and shame as she sleeps with another guy in another room, and “Waiting For The End Of The World” finds us back in the underground.
There has never been a portrayal of male inadequacy its equal. Both the music and the lyric is world class rock and roll, rock star sexiness, perfect power rock in step with 1977, in step with the Pistols and the Clash, and Stiff Artists The Damned for that matter, the distilled honest roar of rock, and yet not three chord wonders, he is already a sophisticated songwriter mutating on country and rockabilly. Everybody may be able to do it but nobody can do this. If you listen to Costello’s Flip City demos, you can hear him trying to get there, you can hear “Third Rate Romance” as a blueprint to songs about unsuccessful sexual encounters. But as Declan McManus became Elvis Costello his vision of this act he was performing became clearer and more concentrated, you don’t make an album like My Aim Is True by accident, and you don’t write about a sexual apocalypse when you are a married man without making a decision upon subject matter. That subjective objective sneerdom is why the album veers into misogyny, and why Costello had to deal with the question of being a woman hater later in his career. If he was writing about himself and a woman, that would be one thing, but he took the form of a man to write about women as a sex and the scary thing, and still misogynistic thing, is, it rang true. “Red Shoes” and “Miracle Man” are definitive accounts of sexual politics for college guys, for those of us who go back home with a hard luck story. And it isn’t just that he dressed women down in his love, and was therefore enacting our revenge, more important it was done with an astonishing, bracing set of songs. The lyrics equate sex and miracles, and less than miracles, were a complete vision of sadness masked as anger. “Why can’t you give me anything but sympathy?” he asks and really, that’s the answer we were looking for and couldn’t find. Nothing on the album isn’t great, every song is a masterpiece and the only thing approaching a misstep (though not as a song, the political gotcha for the UK extreme right’s Oswald Mosely is masterful… as was the rewritten lyric for a different Oswald a couple of years later) is “Less Than Zero”. “Watching The Detective,” on the US version, a modified reggae riddem, is musically not quite right, as well. But those are less a complaint and more variants perhaps to do with memory. So much so that I stutter when I sing “Alison” because on my original vinyl copy I had a scratch on that track and it skipped.
Still, Costello’s reasons are hard to decipher. Perhaps, for Elvis, it was a memory album of his teen years but his autobiography doesn’t seem to back that idea as he was quite successful with the ladies. Then what? Perhaps, coming from a broken home left him self-destructive, self-doubting. However, Costello seemed mostly middle class: he certainly wasn’t raised in the council flats that brought us everyone from Steve Jones to Stormzy. So if neither via the music nor via the class structure he was punk, how exactly was Costello part of the modern age? In this way, he remade himself as a physical jerk, a misfit, a loser because in punk up was down, ugly was pretty, failure was success and Elvis was part of a 1950s comedy duo. By his very next album, Costello had moved beyond this specific Costello, and not just the muscular Attractions but those tranqulizers, synthesizers, wouldn’t you rather be sleeping with models between the buttons Stonesy vibe, was no longer the Costello persona we had known (speaking of outtakes, from This Year’s Model: his the Damned cover “Neat Neat Neat” and George Jones inspired “Stranger In The House” had already bypassed the “She said drop dead and left with another guy”ism of My Aim Is True). It was one moment in time by a guy who didn’t even exist that set so many men free. He never managed to do it again, neither did we.