Excerpt of Elvis is King: Costello’s My Aim is True, by Richard CrouseBy TNB Nonfiction
March 22, 2015
Liverpool, Nova Scotia, is the hub of the Lighthouse Route’s scenic drive along the province’s South Shore. Blessed by Mother Nature, it’s picturesque, book-ended by beautiful beaches, parks, and forests. As the home of the third oldest lighthouse in the province, it’s also rich in history but not exactly the center of the pop culture universe.
Even less so in the 1970s when, as a music and movie obsessed kid, I went to Emaneau’s Pharmacy every week to pick up magazines like Hit Parader and Rona Barrett’s Hollywood. Perhaps because I grew up in a renovated vaudeville theater (it’s true!) I was deeply interested in a world that seemed very far away, and those weekly and monthly magazines were my only connection to music and movie stars.
Liverpool wasn’t on the flight plan for the people I saw in those pages.
Sure, there were rumors that James Taylor and Carly Simon had a beach house nearby, but nobody ever saw them at Wong’s Restaurant, the only eatery in town. And Walter Pidgeon was thought to have come to visit an old friend, but the Mrs. Miniver star, who was born in 1897, wasn’t quite cool enough to be on my list of must-meets or even must-get-a-glimpse-ofs.
Those magazines were my only source. The local movie theater—a gigantic reno-ed opera house—was months behind in getting the new releases, and local department stores like Steadman’s and Metropolitan (known locally as the Metoplitan because of the blown-out “r” and “o” bulbs on the sign that was never repaired) didn’t carry the LPs I was reading about. On paper, I read about The Ramones, Television, the Sex Pistols, learning everything there was to know about the brash new music coming out of New York and London—Johnny Rotten said “fuck” on national television!—before I had ever heard a note of their music. Somehow, though, I knew I would love it.
One singer grabbed my attention above all others. Elvis Costello.
Maybe it was the glasses. I wore specs at a time when no rock star had eye-wear unless they were impossibly cool Ray-Bans to shade delicate, hungover eyes from the public glare. Maybe it was the name. To me, Elvis Presley was the irrelevant Vegas act my Aunt Jackie listened to, but I liked the a) ambition or b) possible foolhardiness of taking the name of the King of Rock and Roll. Most of all, I loved his story.
Like me, he was raised in Liverpool—OK, it was Liverpool, England, but we both grew up on the banks of a river called Mersey, just in different countries.
I dug that he recorded his first album in just 24 hours while playing hooky from his day job as an IBM 360 computer operator in a “vanity factory.” How cool was it that he got arrested after strapping an amplifier to his back and busking for CBS executives on a busy London street?
In 1978, I asked my brother, Gary, who had wised up and moved out of Liverpool, to hunt down an LP called My Aim Is True by this guy named Elvis Costello. Gary knew his way around a record store and on his next visit home brought a stack of records, the likes of which would never find their way to the racks at Steadman’s. Leave Home by The Ramones. Low by David Bowie. Marquee Moon by Television and Little Queen by Heart. He missed the mark on that last one, but on top of the pile was the record I had read so much about.
Framed by a checkerboard pattern with inlaid lettering that reads Elvis Is King was a garish, yellow-tinted photo of a knock-kneed, bespectacled rock star in waiting. His dark rims—Buddy Holly was the last of the greats to wear horn-rims —framed intense-looking eyes.
Discarding the cellophane, I threw the record on my cheap Lenco turntable. Here’s where the story gets hazy. I remember the opening line of “Welcome to the Working Week,” and although I didn’t have a clue what “rhythmically admired” meant, I understood I would never have to listen to the corporate rock of the Little River Band or Pablo Cruise ever again.
Finally someone was making music that spoke to me. Even if I didn’t get the lyrics—we didn’t hear a lot about the former leader of the British Union of Fascists Oswald Mosley in my Liverpool—I understood the passion. I got the anger. It also had a good beat and you could dance to it.
I listened to side one through to the needle hitting the smooth space before the paper label. “Welcome to the Working Week,” “Miracle Man,” “No Dancing,” “Blame It on Cain,” “Alison,” “Sneaky Feelings,” and “Watching the Detectives.” Nineteen minutes and 20 seconds of something I’d never heard before.
Flip. Side two. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “Less Than Zero,” “Mystery Dance,” “Pay It Back,” “I’m Not Angry,” and “Waiting for the End of the World.” Sixteen minutes and 33 seconds.
Just under 40 minutes of pop-punk songs that changed everything for me. I flipped that record over, and over, and over until I knew the words to all the songs. From that moment on, I would never again listen to music that didn’t speak directly to me. It turned me into an exacting—and probably sometimes insufferable—music fan no longer sat-ed by the sugary sounds that spilled out of my radio.
To me, this was art. The slick sounds of REO Speedwagon, Air Supply, et al. may have been more ear-friendly, but this was visceral. I heard the snarl in Elvis’s voice, the cynicism dripping off every line, and, for me, that was the noise that art made. It was liberation from my small town. Lines like about women filing their nails and dragging the lake had no connection to my life, but the delivery system—Elvis’s raw energy and anger—spoke to me in a way nothing had before. The music came lunging at me like a drunk with a broken bottle. I have never forgotten it.
He sang like he meant it. He sang like he was bored, mad, and bored of being mad.
He sang like I felt. He sang to me.
When I first started listening to My Aim Is True and then, years later, began writing this book, I regarded Elvis Costello as a fully formed entity, a mature artist who had burst on to the scene, rarin’ to rock. During the writing of the book, however, I spent hours listening to the album in a way I never had before. I played each song on permanent repeat until I had an Elvis epiphany. Listening to his youthful, vital wail, I realized he wasn’t formed at the time, but a burgeoning artist, bursting at the seams. The cumulative effect of years of rejection and indifference, coupled with the excitement he must have felt at finally recording an album with real musicians, surges off the record, jumping out of the grooves. He was caught on the threshold between Declan MacManus and Elvis Costello, between being a family man in a dead end job and the vitriolic singer-songwriter pushing against the conventions of the music industry.
The British music scene was in a similar period of flux, the aging rockers growing complacent, the young punks hammering at the door. In a year populated with classic records, his idiosyncratic collection of pop songs stood out with its sometimes-inscrutable lyrics that conveyed all-too-familiar emotions. It’s a record both challenging and accessible, and its stripped-down DIY ethos appealed to the punk-rock crowd while the melodies drew in the older folks. Both fresh and familiar, it paid tribute to the past but simultaneously pointed the way to the future.
Costello would go on to write bigger hits, to create a more sophisticated sound with the Attractions, but there is something elemental about My Aim Is True, a sound that could only have been produced by a man at that stage in his life, at this stage in rock music, that he never duplicated on any other album. Like the groundbreaking roar of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced or the fearsome sound of N.W.A.’s first outing, Straight Outta Compton, My Aim Is True captured the right sound for the right time; a perfect blend of artist, music and zeitgeist.
Excerpted from Elvis is King: Costello’s My Aim is True © 2015 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.
RICHARD CROUSE is the regular film critic for CTV’s Canada AM, CTV’s 24-hour News Channel and CP24. His syndicated Saturday afternoon radio show, Entertainment Extra, originates on NewsTalk 1010. He is also the author of six books on pop culture history including Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils and The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, and writes two weekly columns for Metro newspaper. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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