"Let's talk about the future now we've put the past away" was the prescient last line off "Less Than Zero" (c/w "Radio Sweetheart") (Stiff BUY 11) released March 25, 1977. A searing 90-second indictment of ageing fascist Oswald Mosley, it marked the obituary of both Declan Patrick MacManus and D P Costello, and the birth of Elvis Costello.
Costello had been intimidating A&R men in their offices for months before his debut. The intense 21-year-old would beard them in their den, and try and cram as much of his 20-minute set in before he was evicted. If he couldn't get his guitar in the door, Costello would dispatch demo tapes, and rumour has it that his was the first to arrive on Jake Riviera's desk when Stiff opened its doors for business. A chance meeting with Stiff house producer Nick Lowe led to Costello signing with the fledgling label.
Moonlighting from his job as a computer programmer at Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics (the "vanity factory" of "I'm Not Angry"), Costello began recording tracks at Pathway Studios. The backing band were Clover, later to metamorphose into Huey Lewis And The News (Lewis himself was not on the sessions — "I took a vacation.") A different mix of "Less Than Zero" surfaced in the first week of April 1977 on A Bunch Of Stiffs (Stiff SEEZ 2), the label's second album, a compilation which also featured Graham Parker, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric.
The B-side of Costello's first single was the undiluted C&W of "Radio Sweetheart." A lifelong Country aficionado, Costello would put further backs up in 1981 with the release of his own Nashville Skyline, Almost Blue. "Sweetheart" wasn't available on album in Britain until 1984 when it appeared on Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers, which was an early attempt to sweep up some of Costello's awesome detritus.
The second single, "Alison"/ "Welcome To The Working Week" (Stiff BUY 14) came out in May 1977, and while nearly drowning under a tidal wave of superlatives, the great buying public were "overwhelmed by indifference". "Alison" achieved a spurious notoriety when Linda Ronstadt included it as one of three Costello covers on her Mad Love album, of which the composer was less than enthusiastic ("torture…dreadful… duff…waste of vinyl etc). In a week that also saw the release of the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen," "Alison" dipped out of view, but not of hearts and minds.
May 27 saw Costello's debut under his new name at West London's Nashville, a performance which transfixed Melody Maker's Allan Jones, and which led to his conducting Costello's first interview, which MM ran in their June 25, 1977 issue. July 9 saw Costello quit his job at Elizabeth Arden; a gig supporting Wayne County at "the South West's top rock centre" Penzance's The Garden on July 14, witnessed Costello's first appearance with The Attractions.
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" / "Mystery Dance" (Stiff BUY 15) slipped out on July 7, and according to the composer it was "dreamed up during the kind of hallucination that you can only have between Runcorn and Liverpool Lime Street (travelling time approx ten minutes). With lines like "I said 'I'm so happy I could die' / She said 'Drop dead!' then left with another guy" Costello was cementing his reputation as the most literate, perceptive and angry writer of the New Wave ("The only two things that matter to me… writing all these songs," Costello told NME's Nick Kent in August, "are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about.")
While the world wasn't exactly holding its breath for the Elvis Costello debut album, certain influential parties in the rock press were declaring an interest, and the release of My Aim Is True (Stiff SEEZ 3) on July 22 confirmed their intuition. Recorded with the help of Clover and producer Nick Lowe on two tracks, it lacks the punch Costello was muscling with The Attractions, but remains a priceless souvenir of Costello's first steps.
My Aim Is True is shot through with venom, even the beguiling "Alison" is deceptively bitter. "Mystery Dance" crackles with suppressed vitriol while "I'm Not Angry" snaps with the iconoclastic chorus: "There's no such thing as an original sin."
The album concluded with the apocalyptic "Waiting For The End Of The World"; on the evidence of these 12 tracks, the knock-kneed geek on the cover had aisle seats for Armageddon.
Costello's debut album had been recorded over a 24-hour period, with accumulated sick days and holidays from his day job. Early in August in another Stiff scam, Costello was arrested for buskling outside the CBS Sales Convention at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. The full weight of the law descended on the busker's shoulders, and Costello was fined £5 for obstruction.
Finally, with an album under his belt and a band to boot, Elvis And The Attractions hit the road with a vengeance. From mid-July to September, the Costello blitzkrieg raged, culminating with an inappropriate appearance at the Crystal Palace Bowl on September 10, supporting Carlos Santana!
Barely drawing breath, Costello went on to the Stiffs Live Tour, 24 shows from October 3 - November 5 in the company of labelmates Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis. Costello was previewing material from his forthcoming second album in his short set, as well as covers including the Everly Brothers' "Price Of Love," The Merseybeats' "Really Mystified," The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" and Bacharach & David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" — the latter, along with a fiery "Miracle Man" appear on 1978's Live Stiffs album.
While Stiffing on the road, Costello's fourth single "Watching The Detectives" / "Blame It On Cain" (Stiff BUY 20) gave him his first hit, reaching number 15 in November 1977. Recorded in May with The Rumour's Andrew Bodnar and Steve Goulding the B-side "Blame It On Cain" and "Mystery Dance," was the first opportunity to hear Elvis And The Attractions together on record.
"Detectives" was Costello par excellence - "She's filing her fingers while they're dragging the lake" - but proved to be his last Stiff release.
From November 15 - December 16 Elvis And The Attractions undertook their first American tour, and finished with an appearance on American TV's highly rated Saturday Night Live show, in lieu of the Sex Pistols. Halfway through "Less Than Zero," Costello cut the song short and announced: "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song" and crashed into a bitter "Radio Radio."
North American audiences were convinced that the "Mister Oswald" in "Less Than Zero" was a reference to Lee Harvey Oswald, and the "Dallas version" of the song appears on the radio-only promo album Live At The El Mocambo (CBS CDN 10) recorded in Toronto on Costello's second American tour in January 1978.
With the thrust of a cannonball shot from his own gun, Costello had savaged 1977 with a four-single salvo, a clutch of classic gigs and a debut that left critics drooling for more.
Looking back nearly 15 years from the vantage point of today's pop, when the big decision is which remix to put on the B-side of the fourth single to be lifted from the same album, Costello's workload during the first nine months of his professional career was back-breaking.
1978 dawned bright and clear, and by the end of January Elvis was off to conquer America again. His first release of the year marked his debut for his new label, Radar. Put together by Costello's manager, Jake Riviera and run by Andrew Audar (now in charge of The Stone Roses' Silvertone), Radar was part of the massive WEA conglomerate. "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" / "You Belong To Me" (Radar ADA 3) made Number 16 in the UK and remains one of Costello's most vivid vignettes, a caustic four-eyed glance over his shoulder to "Swinging London." Costello punctures the myth with lines like "They call her Natasha, but she looks like Elsie."
A fortnight later, This Year's Model (Radar RAD 3) confirmed Costello as the pre-eminent figure to emerge from the New Wave abattoir. On accepting Capital Radio's award for the year's best songwriter, Elton John stated: "I don't think I deserve this. I haven't had a record out for a long time, and I think this award should go to Elvis Costello."
This Year's Model roared off the blocks with the staccato, cursory "No Action" and rounded off with the cautionary "Night Rally." A free single, "Neat Neat Neat" / "Stranger In The House" was given away with the album; "Neat" was a slowed-down cover of The Damned's first single while "Stranger" was a hangover from the My Aim Is True sessions, but held back according to Costello "due to the curiously allergic reaction to Country-styled songs in those severe days. Later recorded by George Jones, with unfortunate interruptions by the author."
The album also proved just how aligned Costello and the Attractions had become. Now he had a band who could match his every move. He had never lacked the conviction. After 12 months under the spotlight, the sky was the limit.