Hi-Fi News & Record Review, January 2015

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Hi-Fi News & Record Review

UK & Irish magazines

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Elvis Costello


Steve Sutherland

Recorded after hours, this debut LP launched the career of an unlikely rock hero. Steve Sutherland re-examines My Aim Is True, now available on 180g vinyl

I really want to tell you about the parcel, but first you need to understand the impact the release of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather had on lots of blokes around these parts.

Perfectly decent chaps with perfectly normal lives would enter the cinema only to emerge a couple of hours later gesticulating wildly, suddenly in touch with all their inner emotions and convinced that they were now playing a lead role in some grand macho opera.

Some changed the way they spelled their names to make them sound more Italianate, some took to talking an awful lot about abstract concepts like honour and respect, some took to walking with an exaggerated swagger, and some took to slathering Brylcream on their hair, dressing kinda spivvy and drinking cappuccinos. I can't tell you how silly it all was.


Anyway, to cut to the chase, one of the characters in the movie that seemed to resonate deeply with these blokes for some strange reason was a particularly unpleasant thug called Luca Brazi who was a kind of Mafia enforcer and Marlon Brando's go-to guy whenever some serious, don't-f ***-with-me message-sending ultra-violence was deemed necessary.

Luca, if memory serves, finally got garrotted in a bar after being stabbed through the hand and this time the message got relayed back to Papa Brando: "Luca Brazi sleeps with the fishes." Which means, apparently, that they've dumped his remains in the river. I believe it's the same as being told someone's wearing a concrete overcoat.

Whatever, it's the fish that concern us here. 'Cos that's what the extremely stinky brown paper parcel that ended up on my desk at Melody Maker was stuffed full of — rotten, dead fish. Mr Elvis Costello, it seems, was sending me a message.

I can't recall which of Mr Costello's interminably dull mid-career albums I must have slagged off to warrant this melodramatic death threat but, at the time, I remember thinking he must have been a bit of a dummy to send such a clichéd response to my review. I mean, he wasn't actually going to have me killed, was he? But looking back now, I've come to appreciate that, unlike all the other playacting little Godfathers over-dramatising their petty little lives for a month or so until the next fad took hold, Mr Costello was sincerely neck-deep in this acting tough malarkey for the long haul.

After all, in 1977, around the release of My Aim Is True, his debut album and the one we're here to eulogise, Mr Costello told NME's Nick Kent that, "the only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for writing all these songs, are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions that I know I can feel."

He also shows Kent a bent nail he keeps in his pocket for when he gets into fights and tells him that he has a little black book full of the names of all the business people who've crossed or frustrated him in his bid to establish a career in music up to this point. New names, he assures Kent, are being added by the day.

And Kent was nearly one of them, choosing to chat to Wilko Johnson of headliners Dr Feelgood in the Marquee dressing room rather than check out Mr Costello's band-in-a-previous-life, Flip City, who were supporting.


The article, which was published in August 1977 around the time My Aim Is True was released by the fledgling independent Stiff label, was entitled: "D P Costello of Whitten, Middlesex, it is your turn to be the future of rock & roll."

The D P refers to the singer's time spent trundling around the pre-pub rock circuit under the moniker D P Costello.

His real name was actually Declan Patrick McManus, but his dad – a musician too – occasionally traded under the Costello brand so his son took it on as a tribute.

He then started calling himself Elvis once he'd fallen under the influence of a feisty fellow called Andrew Jakeman who had managed Chili Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and The Feelgoods under his own gangster-ish nom de plume, Jake Riviera. Riviera had selected Costello from a pile of hopefuls who'd sent cassettes to the new Stiff label and soon had him penning ditties for Welsh rocker Dave Edmunds who, for some reason, rejected them.

So, using cheap down-time at Pathway Studios in Holloway with ex-Brinsley Schwarzer Nick Lowe behind the mixing desk, they banged out an album over six four-hour sessions for the princely total sum of two grand, using Clover, an American country rock outfit lurking around town, as the uncredited backing band.

And what a strange and seismic album it turned out to be: a weird and wired hybrid, musically pretty traditional with an occasional whiff of reggae thrown in, lyrically completely unique.


The opener, "Welcome To The Working Week," sets the tone with the words: "Now your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired," its references to masturbation and barbed-wire wordplay (he feels like a juggler running out of hands!) born of a deep-seated loathing, aimed both at himself and the hard, cruel world in which he just doesn't fit.

This is an album about being a loser in life and a no-hoper in love, but it doesn't romanticise these situations like the famous '70s singer-songwriters did and doesn't once plead for our pity. It writhes and it hurts and it gets all nasty, like a punked-up version of Mr Costello's only avowed hero, Gram Parsons.

Delivered with a barely suppressed sneer, Costello's songs exhibit a wicked way with words. Take the album title, My Aim Is True: are his intentions honourable or does he dream of shooting the girl? The title's taken from "Alison," the album's pivotal track which, if you weren't really listening, could be taken for a love song. But lend and ear and… ouch! "Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say." Impotent threats are Mr Costello's calling cards.

"The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" goes: "I said, 'I'm so happy I could die.' She said, 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy." No-one had ever heard anything like it.

And it wasn't just the ladies Mr Costello had it in for. "I'm Not Angry" rails against the crap data-processing job he had before Stiff came to the rescue, while "Less Than Zero" lambasts the BBC for a documentary they screened going easy on fascist leader Oswald Mosley.


And it didn't even stop there! Oh no! Styled like a bitter and (literally) twisted Buddy Holly (all knock-knees and spittle), Mr Costello went the whole ten yards and beyond to get his album noticed.

First he plugged in outside a convention of CBS record executives in London and busked a protest at not being picked up by an American distributor. He got arrested and his album got a deal. Then he broke America on his own terms, taking the opportunity to play Saturday Night Live when The Sex Pistols couldn't get visas and, inspired by what Jimi Hendrix once did on the Lulu show, he stopped playing "Less Than Zero," the song he was scheduled to play, and launched into something new called "Radio Radio," which was critical of the corporations who owned the airwaves. It was a song which he had been specifically requested not to play.

An SNL ban followed toot sweet and bad boy Elvis was on his way. He's surely mellowed by now, but I'm still watching my back all the same.

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Hi-Fi News & Record Review, January 2015


Steve Sutherland profiles Elvis Costello.


Hi-Fi News reviews the 180g vinyl release of My Aim Is True.

Images

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Page scans.


My Aim Is True

Re-release verdoct

Hi-Fi News

This Mobile Fidelity release has been half-speed mastered from the original analogue tapes by Shawn Britton. The gatefold sleeve is made of heavy cardstock and inside carries photos of the original analogue tapes inside their boxes. Unlike the UK Stiff original, this MoFi reissue also includes "Watching The Detectives," recorded by Costello in 1977 with future backing band, The Attractions. Cleaner and somewhat brighter-sounding than the UK original, this 180g reissue comes heartily recommended.


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Cover and contents pages.

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