It was right before his first single was set to be released. The owners of Stiff Records were pleased with the song, ‘Less Than Zero’, but not with the man who made it. Specifically, they couldn’t see how audiences would connect with a man named Declan MacManus. A change to D.P. Costello, based on his father’s former stage name Day Costello, still wasn’t right. They needed something punchy, memorable, and transgressive against the sacred cows of rock and roll. This was punk, after all.
Or something like it. Elvis Costello never actually played “punk rock”, at least in the way that most people hear the genre. Costello wasn’t looking to kill the past and murder the hippies along the way – this was someone who had his first musical epiphany after a Grateful Dead concert, after all. While the energy of punk was there, Costello also liberally pulled from rockabilly, reggae, beat music, doo-wop, and pub rock.
The resulting music wound up being the cutting edge in a new schism from punk and into a new genre that valued solid musicianship and a diverse range of styles. “New wave” was just beginning to crest when Elvis Costello dropped his debut album, My Aim Is True, in July of 1977. The following month, the original Elvis would be dead, and almost by fate, a new Elvis began pushing modern music forward like a torch had been handed to him.
This was a lot of responsibility for a 22-year-old data entry clerk from London. But what Costello had working for him was a unique voice, a razor-sharp wit, and a singular point of view that could address British politics without sacrificing his appeal to American audiences. Nobody in America needed to know that ‘Welcome to the Working Week’ was reflective of the economic drudgery of late ’70s England or that ‘Less Than Zero’ took aim at British fascism advocate Oswald Mosley.
Costello couldn’t do it alone, though. Behind him was a quartet of musicians that made up the American band Clover, the same outfit whose frontman during this period was a blues harmonica player named Huey Lewis. Lewis was left in San Francisco while guitarist John McFee, bassist John Ciambiotti, keyboardist Sean Hopper, and drummer Micky Shine were flown over to England for the sessions. It wouldn’t be until the months after recording was complete that Costello formed the first incarnation of his most famous backing band, The Attractions.
At the time, it was impossible to know whether songs like ‘Mystery Dance’ and ‘No Dancing’ were taking the piss out of ’50s style rave-ups and Phil Spector girl groups. That’s an easy conclusion to come to, considering how Costello was already supposedly doing a premature dance on the grave of Presley, but the truth was that Costello was looking to update the records that he had a genuine love for. By his side was one of punk’s more forward-thinking figures, producer Nick Lowe.
Lowe was already carving out a space in the punk scene that allowed for new styles to emerge. He favoured a stripped-down production style that worked well for Costello and his makeshift band, and Lowe’s experience as a musician and songwriter allowed Costello to refine his own compositions with the help of a peer rather than a record company suit.
The aggression of punk wasn’t really in Costello’s DNA, but it came to the fore thanks to the energy of the musicians and the aggravated lyrics throughout most of My Aim Is True. Tracks like ‘Miracle Man’ and ‘I’m Not Angry’ seem to show Costello taking his frustration out on the opposite sex, but Costello himself was quick to point out that his barbs found many targets other than just women.
“I’ve even seen the ‘m-word’ attached to my name lots of times. Misogynist,” Costello told The Los Angeles Times. “I think the songs are more about being a young man trying to work out what those feelings are supposed to be about. I’m not always writing the idyllic love song because maybe somebody does that better than me. Some of it’s from real life. I’ve lived parts of those songs. But I don’t think they’re misogynistic. I wonder if the people who think that are the ones with the problem.”
The ultimate example was the album’s central ballad, ‘Alison’. A heart-rending summation of discontent and lost love, Costello still couldn’t escape the perceived violence that some listeners interpreted from the song’s lyrics. It wouldn’t take long for Costello to completely disown the punk scene, but for the time being, he looked to use the genre’s popularity to his advantage while subverting its rougher edges. With a smooth guitar tone and heavenly harmony vocals, ‘Alison’ was the first step toward Costello’s future away from punk.
The second major leap would come after the initial sessions for My Aim Is True were complete. ‘Watching the Detectives’ came just as My Aim Is True was being pressed and readied for release in the UK, and after it climbed up the UK Singles Chart in October, Costello’s American label Columbia added the song to the US version of the album released in November. It stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the other songs on My Aim Is True, but it proved to be an early indicator of Costello’s songwriting progressing at a ferocious rate.
Costello’s reputation had grown in the US, so much so that My Aim Is True was the biggest selling import LP in the country. But by the time he arrived in America, Costello had already shed his association with punk. “His music is not punk-rock and should never be labelled so,” a memo sent to Columbia executives read. It was a savvy move, considering how the notoriety of the Sex Pistols had created a black cloud that hung over other punk bands in the US. Just to hammer the point home, Costello refused to play a number of songs from My Aim Is True during his first US tour, having already crafted most of the tracks that would appear on his follow-up, This Year’s Model.
Despite sounding like the future to fans and listeners, Costello was intent on moving forward the second that My Aim Is True hit store shelves. When given the opportunity to perform on Saturday Night Live, Costello infamously baulked at playing ‘Less Than Zero’ only a few seconds in, launching into the brand new song ‘Radio, Radio’ and getting himself banned from the show in the process. When he would perform ‘Less Than Zero’ in America, Costello would change the lyrics to reference Lee Harvey Oswald in what became known as the “Dallas Version”. Costello was on a mission to constantly evolve, whether his audience was following or not.
His best efforts couldn’t stop My Aim Is True from defining Costello’s career then and now. The most complete and fully-realized album that he ever made, Costello managed to make an all-time classic that resonated far beyond the genre that he initially found himself pigeonholed into. In that way, Costello could never really escape My Aim Is True because it was the best representation of who he was, and currently is, as an artist – clever, iconoclastic, and completely distinctive.