It's a sobering thought to ponder for a moment, had it not been for the support of a few founders of a small, struggling record company in England, Elvis Costello would still be a frustrated computer analyst in Acton, an outlying district of London. The fact that he is now one of the most critically acclaimed new performers to emerge in the late '70s tells us as much about the true accessibility that is the beauty of rock and roll as it does about Elvis himself. In an era of twinkies and beer music personified by the likes of the Bee Gees, Toto and a virtual sea of blow-dried clone bands, Elvis is a present day rock Cinderella (with Red Shoes opposed to glass slippers) who, while he's having a great time, knows that in this business you can't stay all night. In a period of less than two years Elvis has released three albums that could be described as "urgent" in sound and message, whooshing that listener along through a rapid selection of 3- to 4-minute pop classics.
The urgency that's in Elvis' music comes through like a knife in his lyrics. Frustration and anger pour out of his songs with an intensity and accuracy you don't normally hear nowadays. His albums may be, as one British writer enthused "essentially a collection of Top 10 singles" — but they are also definitely not your typical syrupy disco drek and pompous mediocrity that's often found at the top of the charts. Nick Lowe's sparse and super-efficient production adds a sound that is the antithesis of today's emasculated slickness. Since Elvis despises solos, the (song) writing itself plays much more of a critical role.
"The songs are the most important thing" he remarked in an early interview. "There's no disguise. You can't cover up songs like that by dragging banks of f___ synthesizers and choirs of angels. They have to stand up on their own." While Elvis' music has expanded somewhat on his new album Armed Forces to include new instruments, denser production sound and a wider variety of styles the basic melodies that you'll be humming in your brain make Elvis' music the deceptively simple and timeless art that rock and roll really is. While other rock and roll writers delight in ripping off and re-hashing popular riffs. Elvis knows that a peculiar blend of style and image is what separates the greats from the also-rans that populate the bargain bins.
It's tough convincing the big record companies that a true original is worth 10 supper club rockers. "I have no illusions at all about the music business." Elvis once claimed. "It was no shock to be confronted by these idiots." After rejections from all the major labels in London, Elvis approached Stiff Records, a fledgling, basically New Wave label whose motto once boasted "If they're dead, we'll sign 'em." After a quick listen and enthusiastic response from Stiff biggies Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson. (Graham Parker's manager), Elvis was signed immediately and bestowed the luxury of a new amp and tape recorder.
On his days off from work, Elvis refined is songs and the help of veteran studio whiz Nick Lowe, recorded his first album using musicians from the band Clover. Because all the material was written within weeks, sometimes days, of the recording sessions, the songs have an energetic freshness that is detectable to the ears almost immediately. My Aim Is True became the title of the first album and was released in the summer of 1977 to many critics' delight. While songs like "Mystery Dance" and "Alison" were hailed as instant pop classics, punk ruled supreme in London. Elvis' association with Stiff, whose stablemates included the Damned and other New Wavers, and his own quirky, angry persona made Elvis live with a three-power-chord image while simultaneously complaining that he "hated hard rock bands."
Not an enviable position to be in. Then in the fall of 1977, Jake Riviera split from Stiff and took Elvis and Nick Lowe with him to form Radar Records. With a new start and a chance to steer clear of punkdom, Elvis, Nick and Radar were signed to CBS in the U.S. and My Aim Is True was released here soon thereafter. With a slightly more polished mix and the addition of one new song, "Watching The Detectives". Elvis set out to conquer America. Radio reaction was good in the large cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco etc. But the big programming chains that make AOR (Adult Oriented Rock) , the mushy hit-oriented monster that destroyed what was once known as progressive radio, wouldn't touch Elvis with a 25-foot C--- Report. As a result, sales and exposure were limited.
In order to add more power to his live act, Elvis quickly auditioned a small band, dubbed them the Attractions, and hit the road. A few months before Elvis had performed an opener for Graham Parker (that name again!) but the only company he had on stage was his trusty Fender and a small amp. Now he had the opportunity to incorporate bass, keyboards and drums, his live act as well as his new songs reflected this new-found power. On his first tour of the U.S. in the winter of 1977-78, many tough new songs not on the first album surfaced live.
America wasn't really sure what to make of Elvis Costello, let alone how to market and sell him and his records. Elvis' angry young man image became a popular theme and many writers were not only refused interviews but also often kicked out, free drink in hand, by the foot of one temperamental Jake Riviera. At one Toronto date, the press was in fact barred from the club at which Elvis was playing (or at least denied free tickets, an unpardonable sin). The rawness of Elvis and the Attractions live in the early tours coupled with his on and off stage rudeness made for some great stories, but the masses weren't biting. To the average Joe who buys a couple of albums a week, Elvis was like olives: O.K. for the gourmet, but not, it appeared, for every palate. People may not know what they like, but they think they know what they don't like.
CBS knew they had a talent, but what to do? First, they released "Alison" as a single, but felt it had to be sweetened just a bit for American ears. Strings were dragged out of the closet and Elvis found himself surrounded by the gentle "o-o-o-h" of what sounds like the Johnny Mann Singers. Still no AM play. Then, during the holidays in December, Elvis had a big break. The Sex Pistols had cancelled on Saturday Night Live and Elvis was the quick replacement. Launching his usual sneering assault Elvis did a rather frantic version of "Detectives" and stomped off-stage. On his second number, "Less Than Zero," he