People will often refer to Elvis Costello's early work as punk rock, which might confuse modern punk listeners who don't hear anything resembling punk in his debut album, My Aim is True. Well, part of that is that punk rock sounded a lot different in 1977, part of it is that his punk side shone through more with his second album, but it's also because Elvis Costello came from the British pub rock scene, and My Aim is True is not so much a punk album as it is a pub rock album with a punk rock influence.
Pub rock was sort of a cousin or an uncle of punk rock. The two genres were linked in that pub rock was both a precursor to punk and a genre that existed alongside it. What the two genres had in common was that both of them were a rebellion against the overblown excesses of prog rock and glam rock.
Punk rock started in the mid to late 1970's and sought to return to the simplicity of the early days of rock and roll in the 1950's, but with more aggression, distortion, and a lot of downstroke guitar strumming.
Pub rock started earlier in the 1970's and, instead of punk's chord based aggression approach, pub rock embraced the rhythm and blues origins of early rock and roll. Pub rock and punk rock existed concurrently (although some would later say that punk rock ultimately killed pub rock) and there were a number of artists who had one foot in each camp. Perhaps most notably, Joe Strummer was in a pub rock band called the 101'ers, which he abandoned to join the Clash two weeks after the 101'ers had signed their single deal (although he did try, unsuccessful, to convince the 101'ers drummer to join the Clash).
While there are a number of pub rock artists that went on to success, including Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Graham Parker, and Dr. Feelgood, Elvis Costello was probably the biggest success story to come out of the pub rock scene.
The first track of My Aim is True, "Welcome to the Working Week," is the most punk song on the album, with a rhythm and blues style guitar over a distinctly punk rock drum beat. But the very next track takes us deeper into pub rock territory with "Miracle Man," focusing on that rhythm and blues style with a classic rock and roll hook. It continues with a few more fast paced R&B songs, "No Dancing" and "Blame it on Cain" — with the latter really pulling heavily from the B in R&B — before slowing it down to show people what old fashioned rhythm and blues can do with a love ballad.
"Alison" is both the song that the album derives its name from, and probably Elvis Costello's most famous song. In my life, I have met three different Alisons who were named after this song. The song is far ahead of its time, both drawing from old fashioned rhythm and blues, while simultaneously foreshadowing the R&B stylings of the 1990's.
Similarly, "I'm Not Angry" pulls from classic rock and roll while integrating organ music that lays the groundwork for some of the new wave artists that were starting to develop at the time. "Watching the Detectives," which only appears on the American version of the album, became his first certified hit single as he dabbled in reggae and, like "I'm Not Angry," started to tap into the then fledgling new wave movement.
The cover of the album features a checkerboard pattern and on the black squares are letters that read "Elvis is King," an obviously punk rock statement suggesting Elvis Costello had usurped the "King of Rock and Roll" Elvis Presley. It was an unfortunate coincidence that Elvis Presley would die less than a month after the release of My Aim is True. Still, there was a certain punk rock bravado to that statement on the cover, akin to The Clash's famous chorus "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones."
Costello wouldn't stick with the pub rock style for long. His follow up to My Aim is True, titled This Year's Model, introduced his new backing band, The Attractions, and featured a sound that was more of a combination of punk, pop, and new wave. He would continue with that through most of the 80's before starting to branch out into a multitude of genres. Since then, he's done albums of country music, jazz, a baroque pop album with Burt Bacharach, and even a classical music album recorded with a string quartet. His most recent album, Wise Up Ghost, was recorded with hip-hop/funk artists The Roots, who now also double as The Tonight Show Band. But it all started with some jangly guitar, a girl named Alison, and My Aim is True.