It was dark when I awoke. I could hear the rats scuttling across the rehearsal room floor. It was just as I had been warned. If the lights went off, the rats came out. Feeling for my shoes, I edged to the light-switch and illuminated the drinking party passed out on another ragged sofa. I tried to get back to sleep with lights on. I was going to make a record the next day.
I was down at Headley Grange, a Swansong / Phonogram safe-house that that had previously featured in the rural adventures of Led Zeppelin. It was not exactly a scene of baronial splendour. However, it was, serving as home for Clover, a Marin County band tempted to England by Stiff Records founders, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson.
In 1976 I was operating an I.B.M. 360 computer in an office next to a lipstick factory. My duties included printing out invoices for the moustache waxes of the occasional Duchess who visited the company's West End salon. Some of the work was more tedious.
I'd already had my demo tapes sent back by most of the record labels in London. Recently, I'd attempted a few impromptu auditions in the offices of startled publishers. They tolerated my "have-I-got-a-song-for-you" act with fixed smiles but still found time to take calls from their wives or bookies in mid-performance.
Since 1970, I'd been playing the clubs and pubs of Liverpool and London in semi-pro bands or as a solo singer. I'd even been into small demo studios on a few occasions but had little to show for it. My most recent audition tape had been cut in the bedroom of my flat on a borrowed Revox reel-to-reel. D.J. and writer, Charlie Gillett had played a few selections on local London radio and was talking about cutting single for his Oval label. Then I read about Stiff Records opening for business.
I told my boss that I had to go home "sick" and traveled on the Tube a few stops to the Stiff Records office. A charming girl opened the door and politely received my hand-written tape box and that was that. No big interview, no audition, no cigar-chomping mogul.
Bizarrely, back at the Tube station, I actually ran into Nick Lowe, then Stiff's sole recording artist. I'd been a fan who bugged him at gigs since running into him in Liverpool at "The Grapes" public house in Mathew Street, opposite "The Cavern". That was back in 1972. Now he asked when I was "going to tread the boards again". I told him about my tape and went on my way.
The Alexander St. office quickly became a place were I went after work or instead of work. The Riviera / Robinson team not only ran Stiff but they managed Graham Parker and the Rumour. They were also attempting to launch the Nick Lowe / Dave Edmunds group, Rockpile. There was a state of constant war with Swansong, Mr. Edmunds' record label, who didn't quite see things the same way. Upstairs, the Blackhill Management office had connections to Pink Floyd and Peter Green. They were also looking after Ian Dury. It was, to say the least, a volatile place. Filing cabinets took a terrible hammering from winkle-picker shoes and the glazier had to be called when a fraught telephone negotiation concluded with a full bottle of strong cider being hurled through the plate glass front door.
Initially, Stiff were interested in me as a songwriter for Dave Edmunds. Nick Lowe had taken a shine to my demo of "Mystery Dance" but Dave was proving harder to convince. I was put into a tiny 8-track studio in North London called Pathway to cut a version of the song. Clover's John McFee and Mickey Shine played guitar and drums with Nick taking care of bass and the production. When it came to the piano overdub Nick stood poised with a drum stick to run down the keys while I hammered out very rudimentary chords. We also cut "Radio Sweetheart" with McFee on pedal steel guitar. I realized that most of the songs on the tape that had aired on Charlie Gillett's radio show just didn't speak up enough to be heard.
Each time I arrived at the Stiff office I had another bunch of tunes to present. At one point it was seriously suggested that I share a debut album with Wreckless Eric, supposedly in the style of the "Chuck meets Bo" release on Chess. I just happened to visit Pathway on the day of Wreckless' first session. While Mr. Lowe took him round to the pub to build up his courage, I cut enough new demos to make nonsense of this idea.
I started to phone in sick again to my day job, so I could rehearse at Headley Grange and then travel up to London to record. We were able to cut all of My Aim Is True in a series of six, four-hour sessions at a cost of about £1000 pounds.
Pathway Studio was no bigger than the average front room with a control booth barely able to contain two people and the 8-track mixing board. Nick Lowe was now the full time producer. We had the full Clover line-up – minus the singers, Alex Call and Huey Lewis — jammed into this tiny space. John Ciambotti was on bass and Sean Hopper played keyboards in addition to Shine and McFee. I was pinned behind an acoustic baffle with my amp and a vocal mike. It was rather like recording in a telephone booth. Overdubs were barely an option. Everything is heard pretty much as it was played.
I'd found both of Clover's earlier releases on Liberty Records at a second-hand shop in south London. One of them came without its sleeve. I'm not so sure that they had heard any of records that I had been listening to recently. Their rehearsal shorthand for "Red Shoes" was "the one that sounds like The Byrds" and the group picked up the feel of tunes like "Sneaky Feelings", "Pay it Back" and "Blame it on Cain" with ease. Perhaps they were not quite so sure what was going on in songs like "Welcome to the working week," "I'm Not Angry" and "Waiting for the end of the world" but they were recorded before we could worry much about it.
In a time when guitar solos could still last for days, John McFee was only given a few bars of "Blame in on Cain" and "I'm not angry" in which to step out. For "Waiting for the end of the world" he played a fuzz-tone pedal steel guitar but his most memorable contribution is in the introduction and fade of "Alison." Other than that Nick Lowe made sure that nothing unnecessarily fancy got on to the tape.
When I think about how Nick produced this record I have a mental picture of a big cloud of Senior Service smoke and his arms waving wildly about the tiny control booth. He was emotional, hilarious, incredibly enthusiastic and generous, though I certainly wouldn't have embarrassed him by saying any of this at the time. He was just being "Nick". Whatever he was doing, it worked.
All of this was pretty new to someone living in the suburbs. I got most of my musical ideas from records. With a young family to provide for, I didn't have the money for going to clubs. The morning after the Sex Pistols created outrage by swearing on national live television, I was in a commuter train carriage full of scandalized tabloid headlines and high blood pressure.
Something was supposed to be changing. I spent a lot of time with just a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album, listening to it over and over. By the time I got down to the last few grains, I had written "Watching the Detectives". The chorus had these darting figures that I wanted to sound like something from a Bernard Herrmann score. The piano and organ on the recorded version were all we could afford.
I wrote "Alison" and most of these songs late at night, singing sotto voce, so as not to wake up my wife and young son. I didn't really know what they sounded like until I got into the studio. I had based the chorus of "Alison" on the Detroit Spinners' "Ghetto Child" but I don't think I mentioned this at the session. The faster tunes often came to me when riding on the Underground, particularly "…End of the world", which was a fantasy based on a real late night journey.
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was written on the Inter-City train to Liverpool between Runcorn and Lime Street stations, a journey of about 10 minutes. I had to keep the song in my head until I got to my Mother's house where I kept an old Spanish guitar that I had had since I was a kid. The lyric is a funny notion for a twenty-two year old to have written.
There was at least as much imagination as experience in the words of this record. Whatever lyrical code or fancy was employed, the songs came straight out of my life plain enough. I hadn't necessarily developed the confidence or the cruelty to speak otherwise.
Stiff Records had followed up Nick Lowe's "So it Goes/Heart of the City" with pretty regular releases but over the next few months I wondered whether they would ever issue one of my tracks. Not having a band or being part of either the New York or the London punk scene I had to wait while they issued various singles and E.P.s by The Dammed and Richard Hell — not to mention Plummet Airlines and The Pink Fairies — before the catalogue got to "BUY 11".
"Less than Zero" was a song that I had written after seeing the despicable Oswald Mosley being interviewed on B.B.C. television. The former leader of the British Union of Fascists seemed unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930's. The song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument.
I continued with my computer job after my first single came and went without troubling the charts. I'd been given a new name: "Elvis Costello". It sounded like a dare. People had weirder names than that in those days. I didn't give it another thought until August 1977. It also seemed that the squarer I looked the better the camera liked it. The cover image of this album was one of the few usable frames as the rest of the session reveals how comical the whole knock-kneed stance seemed to the photographer and subject.
The single release of "Alison" was also a commercial failure but it was finally agreed that My Aim Is True would be released in the summer of 1977. I was asked to quit my day job and turn professional. The "management company", Messrs. Riviera and Robinson, said they would match my less than spectacular office wages. My record advance consisted of £150, a new cassette tape recorder and a Vox battery powered practice amp. I took some of my new found wealth and bought back a copy of Hard Day's Night that I had recently been forced to sell to pay the gas bill. About three weeks later I was on the cover of a music paper — an overnight success after seven years.
Now the process of recruiting a band could begin. I was helped out at the auditions by Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar — the rhythm section of The Rumour. We played the same two songs from My Aim Is True for several hours as the good, the bad and the ugly candidates displayed their talents. Before this drove us to do something rash, we learned a couple of brand new tunes. By the end of the afternoon they sounded good enough for a session at Pathway to be scheduled. One of them, "Watching the Detectives" later became my first serious chart single and was obviously not included on the original U.K. release of My Aim Is True. The newly discovered, Steve Nieve — still going under his family name of "Nason" — added the organ and piano parts at an overdub session a few weeks later.
Although the microphone levels were set very "hot" to create the unique drum sound of "Detectives", we went into a version of "No Action" before any adjustments could be made. This take has been missing for several years but having finally come to light, the listener may enjoy it in all its distorted glory.
There were only three proper out-takes from My Aim Is True. The first is "Radio Sweetheart", my professional recording debut and a track originally intended to be my first single on Stiff Records. The second is an early version of "Living in Paradise" — also thought to have been "lost" until recently — which was re-written and recorded with the Attractions for "This Year's Model".
The final out-take is "Stranger in the House". This was left off the album, as including a country ballad was not thought to be a smart move in 1977. The track was later given away on a free single with "This Year's Model" and a duet version the song was recorded in Nashville with George Jones in 1978. It was released several years later on George's album "My Special Friends".
The remaining tracks on the second CD come from the years leading up to My Aim Is True. "Imagination (Is a Powerful Deceiver) now sounds to me like a very early attempt to write a song like "Alison". This is a "pre-professional" recording made with the band Flip City on a seven-track board — one track was always malfunctioning — at Hope and Anchor Studios, Islington, sometime in 1974/75. There is no personnel listing for the session but it is included with thanks to the former band member: Mich Kent (bass), Malcolm Dennis and Ian Powling (drums), Steve Hazelhurst (guitar) and Dickie Faulkner (percussion) together with the sound and management team: Mike Whelan and Ken Smith.
The rest of the tracks come from a home demo recorded sometime in late '75 or early '76. This bedroom tape has picked the name "The Honky Tonk Sessions" after the Charlie Gillett radio show on which most of these songs were first broadcast. Despite the sharing lyrics and titles with later songs, the style of the writing is utterly different to that of My Aim Is True.
Listening now to these blatant imitations of various American singers and songwriters is like looking at embarrassing old photographs. I hadn't really found my own voice. However, you might be able to tell which records I had in my collection. I certainly learned quite a bit while shamelessly attempting to copy Randy Newman, Hoagy Carmichael, John Prine, Lowell George, The Band and many others. It was just part of my apprenticeship.
-- Elvis Costello