"Elvis Is King Elvis Is King Elvis Is King..." So goes a declaration repeated ad infinitum on the small checkerboard squares lining the cover of Elvis Costello's album, My Aim Is True. This subliminal message, an obvious and cheap reference to an Elvis with a different surname, implies Costello merits similar status.
What My Aim Is True implies is not what the standing-room-only, first show audience at Bogart's Monday evening got. Costello's 44 minutes on stage clearly indicated where he stands in the Kingdom of Rock. He is not a king, a prince, a duke, an earl or a count. He is a commoner retracing the steps of Phil Spector, Johnny Rivers and lesser stars of the 1960s.
Costello began his performance in a most discourteous and unregal manner. He and his three-man band were 58 minutes late. Their bus broke down. Did this pretender-king apologize to the crowd? No. That would be beneath the haughty persona he presented on stage. He extended this haughty disregard to his musicians, too. The only time he acknowledged one of their number's presence was when he glared at keyboardist Steve Naive, who also answers to the name Steve Manson, for hitting a wrong note on "Watching the Detectives."
Bass guitarist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas were not even honored with a glare. They did receive equal treatment with Naive Manson when it came to being introduced to the audience. They weren't. Costello sang his first number "Welcome to the Working Week" in a voice bearing the sound of Johnny Rivers, circa 1964, recycled through the voice boxes of two present-day Rivers admirers, Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny Lyon. Like the aforementioned Rivers emulators, Costello records for CBS Records. This company must be trying to corner the market on people who revere Rivers and Phil Spector.
The Spector sound runs through the albums of Springsteen and Lyon. The former musician's recording, Born to Run, is a Spector paean. Costello's My Aim is True also pays tribute to the booming bass and echoing bass drum sound Spector perfected In the early 1960s. Costello could not duplicate the Spector echo chamber on Bogart's stage, but on "Radio, Radio" he borrowed several other tricks used by the famed producer.
While Costello sang forgettable lyrics like, "I want to bite the hand that feeds me," Naive Manson played a steady stream of eighth notes on a tinny-sounding organ. Bass guitarist Thomas duplicated this feat as drummer Thomas restricted his part to double-clutching thumps on the bass drum and standard early rock and roll licks on the snare drum and high-hat cymbals. For dramatic emphasis, again a la Spector, Costello and company joined forces and played eighth notes in unison.
Costello's music sounds as if he ran out of money in 1965, sold his radio and television and never bought another record. To say his musical vision is arrested in the past would be a mighty understatement. His songs may bear his name as their composer, but their impetus came from the works of others. His "Mystery Dance," the first of two encores he performed Monday evening, is a close cousin of Chuck Berry's "Rock & Roll Music."
"Mystery Dance" and its predecessor "You Belong to Me" and, for that matter, Costello's entire set, produced feelings of repulsion and attraction. The former appears upon hearing those three-chord riffs which every British act from the Rolling Stones to Herman's Hermits has used. They are threadbare and in need of a long rest. Costello's overuse of them does not improve their shabby condition.
What makes Costello attractive is the drive in his music. What he lacks in originality, he almost makes up in intensity. But this too is the result of mimicking other Englishmen, most notably the early Beatles. As the Beatles did in 1964, Costello kept the length of each song under three minutes. He performed his first 11 songs in 30 minutes. Each tune was so fast-paced and followed one another so quickly it seemed as if Costello had a plane to catch after the show and intended to be at the airport early. This frenzied feeling is to be expected. It goes with originals and copies of music by Spector, Berry and Rivers.