The nervous-looking youth in the National Health specs was loitering by the bar of the Vine pub, just along the road from the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool’s Mathew Street, occasionally stealing a glance at the long-haired musicians gathered round a small table. He’d been to see them play countless times, but had yet to pluck up the courage to approach any of them.
It was one of the musos, leader of pub rock figureheads Brinsley Schwarz, who made the first move. “Somebody pointed out that the guy we saw at all the gigs was over by the bar, and I just thought it was time I went and said hello to him,” remembers Nick Lowe. “I asked him if he wanted a pint, although to this day he claims that he bought me a drink. We chatted for a while, and that was about it. I didn’t see him again for a couple of years until he walked into the Stiff Records office with a demo tape.”
The youth was Declan MacManus, soon to be Elvis Costello, and the tape contained the seeds of what was to become his first album. My Aim Is True, released 30 years ago in July, set Costello on one of the most prolific, varied and lauded career paths of any singer-songwriter. A restless, fearless and fiercely intelligent individual, his place at rock’s top table has long been assured, courtesy of two dozen further long-players which have paid little regard for pigeonholes or notions of sticking to any single genre.
More than comfortable with citing Joe Strummer, George Jones, Cole Porter, Robbie Robertson, John Lennon, Berry Gordy and Dusty Springfield as equal influences in his own work, he's also gone on to collaborate with several heroes and legends, from Johnny Cash to Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney to Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen to Allen Toussaint, and Roy Orbison to Chet Baker.
But it all began in the winter of 1976/77 in a tiny studio called Pathway in Islington, north London, with a formidable set of songs recorded over a combined period of just 24 hours, at a cost of around £1,000. As opening salvos go, My Aim Is True has to be one of the most important, impressive and enduring debuts of all time.
Stiff made its debut in the summer of 1976 with a single called "So It Goes," by the now solo chief singer and writer of the Brinsleys, Nick Lowe, and it was that link to a brief meeting on Merseyside a couple of years earlier that prompted Declan MacManus to visit the fledgling label's offices. He'd been slogging around the pub circuit fronting the band Flip City, their set a mish-mash of Dylan and country-rock covers with a handful of the singer's original tunes, but had made little headway. Not that his arrival at Stiff resulted in the immediate opening of too many doors, label bosses Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson seemingly more interested in the songs than the singer himself.
"Initially, Stiff were interested in me as a songwriter for Dave Edmunds," Costello wrote in the liner notes to the 2001 reissue of My Aim Is True. "Nick Lowe had taken a shine to my demo of "Mystery Dance," but Dave was proving harder to convince." (Ironically, Edmunds would have his first Top 20 hit for six years with another Costello song, "Girls Talk," in 1979)
The label didn't have a well-oiled marketing campaign when it set out its stall. Fuelled by the energy and DIY ethic of punk rock though it may have been, it prided itself on being a home for wayward mavericks. Beyond the obvious timeliness of acts like The Damned and Richard Hell, its early signing policy was geared towards giving a leg-up to all manner of miscellaneous talents that took its fancy: the formative Motorhead, hippy rockers The Pink Fairies, art school troubadour Ian Dury, R&B also-rans Roogalator and dishevelled pop oddity Wreckless Eric.
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," wrote Elvis. "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.),
With Lowe as the de facto house producer at Stiff, it fell upon him to mould young MacManus into a saleable commodity, and he would do so with more than a little help from an unlikely source: struggling American country rockers Clover. Clearly a band out of time, they were scratching around for gainful employment, if only to make enough cash to buy plane tickets home.
"Elvis had the great good fortune to rehearse his songs with Clover," says Lowe. "They were fantastic musicians, but they practically arrived at Heathrow on the day that punk started, so they were immediately redundant, if you like. Their career was over before they got out of the airport!
"They were living down in Headley Grange, where Led Zeppelin lived for a while, a big old draughty Jacobean manor. Elvis went to see them and they really sorted his songs out. My job in that area was made a lot easier, as they put an awful lot of work into the music."
On paper, the musicians may have appeared ideal to a little muscle to the songs of a young artist who'd been playing variations of country-rock in London pubs for the previous 18 months, but Costello had moved on, eager to add wider brush strokes to his canvas.
"I'm not so sure they [Clover] had heard any of the records that I had been listening to recently," Elvis says in the 2001 liner notes. "Their rehearsal shorthand for 'Red Shoes' was 'the one that sounded like The Byrds', but 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."
With the songs' arrangements almost in place, Costello and Clover made intermittent visits to Pathway to record them proper. Working around the singer's day job as a computer operator at the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory in West London, they logged six four-hour sessions in the space of a couple of months, with Lowe behind the console to make further adjustments.
"When I think about how Nick produced the record, I have a mental picture of a big cloud of Senior Service smoke and his arms waving wildly about the tiny control booth," wrote Costello. "He was emotional, hilarious, incredibly enthusiastic and generous, though I certainly wouldn't have embarrassed him by saying any of this at the time."
Today, Lowe plays down his contribution, but concedes that he had a hand in reining in the singer's tendency towards elaborate, Dylanesque wordiness, and fondness for songs with upwards of a dozen verses.
"All his songs seemed like that to me, they were all a bit Desolation Row, and seemed like they went on forever. I thought he was really good, except that I didn't know what he was on about half of the time. There were just too many words lot me, too many words and too many chords. But he was definitely something, and I think my role initially was as a sort of editor. I'd tell him, 1 think you've said that enough now, what's this hit about? Why don't you turn that hit into another song?', that sort of thing.
"I think all I did, really, was bully him a hit. I did sort of play the producer every now and then, saying stuff like, 'OK, kid, that's enough'. That didn't last very long, though! By the time of the second album I was playing a much more subservient role [Lowe would go on to produce a further five Elvis albums]."
Costello was rarely precious about his songs, and took most advice on board. Bootlegs of old Flip City demos reveal how far the music developed, and what changes were ultimately made. "Welcome To The Working Week", the opening track on My Aim Is True, features lyrics salvaged from the earlier, long-abandoned "Wreck On The Slide," while the album's second cut, "Miracle Man," started life as a comic tale of loser sportsmen called "Baseball Heroes."
A lot of the time, Elvis wasn't sure what he had himself, the final sound and structure only emerging at the Pathway sessions: "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. 1 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 'Waiting For The End Of The World,' which was a fantasy based on a real late-night journey. 'Red Shoes' was written on the Inter-City train to Liverpool between the 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."
But Stiff was still in its infancy, and reluctant to dip a toe in the albums market too soon. The label even held back on issuing Elvis singles while they formulated a gameplan, their young star-in-waiting hiding his time by helping out around the office, coining the self-mocking marketing tag-lines on labels and sleeves that were such an important part of the Stiff identity.
"I made up some of the slogans, I was the one who came up with 'surfing on the new wave'. It was just asking to be done," he told Record Collector's Peter Doggett in 1995. "As far as I can remember, Polygram invented new wave as a slogan to sell a bunch of crap American records like The Runaways and things like that, just so that they could shove it on a compilation album with the likes of The Boomtown Rats and The Dead Boys. The name sort of stuck, but I just thought all those slogans were stupid, except the ones that Stiff made up to make fun of the others.
"I used to go there after work, I suppose it made me feel like I was more involved in the music business, while still holding down a day job. I was the first artist signed to Stiff, but I was the 11th release, and that's because others like The Damned and Richard Hell were very much tied to the moment. The timing of their records was very crucial. It felt quite frustrating when they'd say I was gonna be released fifth, or seventh, and it eventually turned out I was released 11th."
The first single, "Less Than Zero," appeared in March 1977, quickly followed by "Alison" and "Red Shoes," each garnering blanket praise in the music press but failing to make an impact on the public at large.
"I wanted to get on with it, but of course when the records came out they didn't change my life. The first single did nothing, the first three singles did nothing, but once I'd amassed enough material from these sessions to make an album Jake and Dave urged me to turn professional. They said they'd pay me the same as my day job, which wasn't a fortune so it was easy to match it. I turned professional the week the record came out."
Costello's advance from Stiff consisted of a new cassette recorder, a practice amplifier, and £150 cash, a small fraction of which was immediately spent on a replacement copy of The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, which he'd earlier been forced to sell to
pay a gas bill!
Within a few weeks, Elvis was gracing music paper covers and his songs were being pored over by journalists who'd earlier been praising the rage and rhetoric of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. He may have seemed out of step with the mood of the times, but writer Graeme Thomson, author of what's considered the definitive Costello biography, Complicated Shadows, believes the young man with the angry love songs and a hippy backing band fitted right in.
"I think the press were quite relieved that someone had come along who had the energy and attitude of punk who could also write really good songs," he suggests to RC. "The big names at the NME or Melody Maker had been around for a few years, and although they might have been writing enthusiastically about punk, their core musical tastes hadn't really changed that much. Lyrically, and the way he presented himself, Elvis managed to sneak himself under the door."
Perhaps more than any other single artist, Costello became the figurehead of 'new wave', the ultimately meaningless phrase he'd earlier mocked, which provided a tidy tag to hang on to anyone who was too pop for punk, or vice versa.
"I never saw any of the punk bands until later," he told Peter Doggett. "I liked The Clash very much, their first record was quite influential in its spirit more than its music. I wasn't at all interested in the McLaren axis, I thought it was completely fake. I liked the records, because I thought Chris Thomas made a great sound with the Pistols, but I'm not sure if they had a tremendous amount to do with it. I didn't really care whether I was part of it or not. It gave me a degree of propulsion, and in retrospect it's been seen as calculating."
My Aim Is True reached No 14 in the UK albums chart, and although its sales have since been dwarfed by the majority of the records Costello went on to make, it's nonetheless regarded as a high water mark in a career littered with creative and critical triumphs. Another elaborate reissue with previously unheard bonus material is due before the end of the year, and Elvis himself is planning to mark its anniversary year with a special performance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco in October. He'll be backed by the original Clover musicians (many of whom went on to form Huey Lewis & The News), playing the entire album in its original running order.
Some of those songs, most notably "Alison" and "Red Shoes," have rarely left his live set over the last 30 years, but others haven't been let out to play since the late 70s. Not that they've in any way become dated; if anything those first dozen tracks have continued to inform his music.
"I think My Aim Is True sounds like a blueprint for what he does best," says Thomson. "It's not a fully-fledged document of his genius, but albums like King Of America or even The Delivery Man from a couple of years ago both have elements of that first record in them. When I was writing my Elvis book it struck me just how much of the album is looking back to where he's come from and signposting where he was going to.
"It's a funny little corner of his discography. Anyone who got into Elvis through later records, like Trust or Blood & Chocolate, would be quite surprised when they first hear it, by how tame it sounds. What you have to remember, though, is dim great songs will always out, and this is Costello on top form, rarely bettered."
Two new Costello compilations, The Best Of The First 10 Years and Rock & Roll Music, are out now on Universal.
Another revamped deluxe edition of Aim Is True will be released later this year.