The trick to a successful debut is having a single that is going to get it noticed. For Elvis Costello’s debut outing, My Aim is True, the launching pad for the album was the almost jazzy tones of an unrequited love story. Whilst the song might not have brought immediate commercial success; it did catch the ears of fellow musician Linda Ronstadt whose cover version became a moderate hit and brought Elvis Costello to the attention of a wider American audience.
Now, from these humble beginnings, it resides as one of the eras defining tracks and one of Costello’s best-loved tunes. It is befitting, therefore, that the origin of the song has an equally humble genesis.
“I’ve always told people that I wrote the song ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket,” Costello writes in his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.
It’s the old instant love affair that has besieged a thousand public transport journeys and temporarily bedevilled the lives of a trillion wistful shopping trips, and it would seem that Costello was even more head over heels than normal. “She had a face for which a ship might have once been named,” he continues. “Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour.”
During this lulling encounter, Costello became smitten, but already being married, he did not conjure a lustful fantasy, but rather he prognosticated how he thought her life might turn out, poetically writing: “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 were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.”
He then concludes, “I was daydreaming… again…” However, it is this tender everyday escapism that lends the song and its story, in particular, a playful familiarity to which most people can relate. This denoted Elvis Costello’s ability to transfigure the everyday into moments of poetry. Unlike most showy songwriters, Costello’s tale is one of sexual frustration rather than triumph. His unrequited love was always destined to be no more than a fantasy, which imbues the song with a charm that a thousand gyrating sex pests have failed to capture on screeching guitar solo records.
The song has also been misinterpreted as a murder ballad many times over the years owing to the potential double meaning of the line “My aim is true,” which later became the album title, but as Costello told Rolling Stone, “It isn’t.” Adding, “It’s about disappointing somebody. It’s a thin line between love and hate.”
After the encounter and the song’s inception, Costello turned to The Detroit Spinner’s song ‘Ghetto Child’ for choral inspiration and later experimented with studio innovation when he finally got the chance to craft his debut with his songwriting hero Nick Lowe on production. As he told Esquire, “We put these cheap synth strings on the track before there were really even synths. They said, ‘The strings will make it a hit!’ It was never a hit.”
It wasn’t long, however, until he caught on and during the leaner period, the Linda Ronstadt royalties had kept him afloat (although he later donated them to the African National Congress). And it wasn’t long before he became an international obsession for many both disenfranchised guitar music fans in the era for whom punk was maybe a little too thrashy, as the author Bret Easton Ellis explained, “I was obsessed with Elvis Costello… Elvis Costello became the man for me for very many years.”