Saturday, 2 June 2018

Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True (1977)

Oh I used to be disgusted....

  

Released July 1977

Recorded at Pathway Studios, London

Running time 32.56

Released in 1977, My Aim Is True has, for me, always been something of a strange album. Fresh from the cleansing experience of Never Mind The Bollocks, The Clash and The Ramones along came Elvis Costello, looking like an even geekier Buddy Holly and backed some (comparatively) old, musically experienced veterans playing a sort of jangly amalgam of "pub rock" and "country rock". Was this what the great punk revolution was all about? No sooner than it had started, the "New Wave" was upon us. Despite Costello's acerbic lyrics (by the way, Elvis Costello's lyrics are always described as "acerbic", (just as any Van Morrison review will contain the word "curmudgeonly"), there was precious little protest in the air on this rather (in places) tuneful and somewhat homely workout.

Regarding the album's creation, Costello was working as a data input clerk and called in sick to record this album, cut, amazingly, in six four-hour sessions at a cost of £1000. Granted £1000 went a lot further back then, but in record-cutting terms, the whole thing was truly remarkable. Because of that its sound has always been a bit "lo-fi", but it certainly isn't that bad and it sort of went with the home-produced punk ethic anyway. Stiff Records then matched his wages and gave him a contract. 

Costello was duly hyped to the nth degree by Stiff Records' (comparatively) amateur but ubiquitous hype-ists. He almost became famous before he was famous. Amateur or home-produced or not, the hype worked and Costello on the "Stiffs tour" with Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric became the hottest ticket in town. Everyone wanted to see this (apparently) knock-kneed, bespectacled odbball. 

TRACK LISTING

1. Welcome To The Working Week

2. Miracle Man
3. No Dancing
4. Blame It On Cain
5. Alison
6. Sneaky Feelings
7. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
8. Less Than Zero
9. Mystery Dance
10. Pay It Back
11. I'm Not Angry
12. Waiting For The End Of The World               

On to the songs and their comparative lack of punkiness - yes, Less Than Zero seemed a bit of an angry song, about fascism, apparently, although to be honest what he was going on about was often not clear. Waiting For The End Of The World had a touch of down home nihilism about it, I guess. I suppose I could punch the air to Blame It On Cain, just about. Don't get me wrong, I like all of these songs, especially the short, bassy punch of Welcome To The Working Week and the hooky (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes. Miracle Man had another huge rumbling bass line and a dense drum backing. Costello's voice is sneeringly brilliant on this one too.

All good stuff. I just had a problem with the cultural identity of this particular album. I didn't have any problems once The Attractions had been formed and the excellent This Year's Model heralded a run of truly wonderful albums.

As I said earlier, My Aim Is True has always sat outside from the others. Maybe it is just me but I found its music somewhat out of touch with the zeitgeist, too jangly, too old school, at times too country. "This Year's Model" onwards featured that trademark organ and bass dominated Attractions sound, which is just not present here. Tracks like the country-ish Sneaky Feelings and Pay It Back are just nowhere near being anything remotely punky. It was remarkable, really, that stuff like this went down well at the time. I'm Not Angry is in the same style, but its cynicism redresses the balance somewhat, while the vaguely slow rock'n'roll influence of No Dancing remains as a rather unique creation. Similarly, the short, frantic Mystery Dance has some of the same qualities.

Just listen to the live versions of some of these songs played in 1977 and 1978 included on the "deluxe edition" of this album and on the Live At El Mocambo CD. The difference in intensity and overall sound between them and Clover is seismic. Steve Nieve's organ sound, Pete Thomas's drums and Bruce Thomas's bass drives the whole thing along with so much more attack, verve and ingenuity. The sound quality is excellent too. 

Oh, my goodness, I am forgetting the gorgeous ballad, Alison. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of material on here with potential, but it was a potential that would take until the next album to fully realise. What we had here was an oddity of a punk record that was deemed so largely due to its stripped-down sound, punk-style artwork on the cover, afore-mentioned acerbic lyrics and Costello's geeky, anti-hero look. Once I had accepted that it was not punk, musically, but had something similar in much of its imagery and attitude, I was sold on Costello and would remain so for many more decades.

Regarding this album, I still enjoy the occasional listen to it though, in no way do I dismiss it completely. As debut albums go it is more than acceptable and it brings back great memories. Actually, listening to it now, through a good sound system, it sounds blooming great - full, bassy and thumping. Clover, all is forgiven!

Try to get an edition that includes the non-album single Watching The Detectives on it too.

Incidentally, the track listing for the live material is -

LIVE AT THE NASHVILLE ROOMS, LONDON, 7 AUGUST 1977

1. Welcome To The Working Week
2. Blame It On Cain
3. No Dancing
4. Waiting For The End of The World
5. Night Rally
6. Hoover Factory
7. No Action
8. (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea
9. Miracle Man
10. The Beat
11. Less Than Zero
12. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
13. Lipstick Vogue
14. Watching The Detectives
15. Lip Service
16. Mystery Dance
17. Alison

*

There were also notable tracks from the period that didn't make it on to the album:-

Watching The Detectives

This provided Costello with his first hit single and remains one of his most famous songs to this day. It hit the charts in October 1977 and was the first Elvis Costello song I ever heard. It has a vaguely reggae beat (very much clunky "white reggae", though) and concerns someone who wants to watch detective shows on TV all the time. The genesis of the song, an early example of Costello's lyrical cynicism is described thus by Costello himself -

"...I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I'd been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to another inductee's record, the Clash's first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote "Watching the Detectives..."

It features different musicians from those who played on My Aim Is True. 

Radio Sweetheart

A country-sounding, upbeat song was left off the album and ended up as the 'b' side to Less Than Zero. It would have suited the general country rock-ish, jangly sound of the album, though, as it features some twangy steel guitar. It also has some nice bass and sharp acoustic guitar too. It is a lively and appealing track. 

Stranger In The House

This very country song appeared again in 1978 (see This Year's Model) but it originated on the sessions for My Aim Is True. However,  it was thought to be commercial suicide in 1977 to release a Country & Western song in the midst of punk, a genre whose coat-tails Costello was hanging on to. It shows that his liking for C & W music went way back, though. This early demo is certainly very country, full of steel guitar. It was re-recorded for the Almost Blue sessions as a duet with country singer George Jones. I like it a lot, I am not sure I would have been so keen in 1977.

C+

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