burst onto the music scene 40 years ago this month with what was then, and is still now, regarded as one of the best rock ‘n’ roll debuts ever, My Aim Is True.
The album, released July 22, 1977, offered a reprieve from the excesses that were emblematic of the genre in its day. Setting the tone was a now-iconic cover, with Elvis checking several Eisenhower-era boxes in a sneering Presley pose with pompadour and thick black-rim glasses. Costello has said it was intended as a send-up of rock posturing, but instead it recaptured a bygone era of tighter songs unencumbered by showy virtuosic displays. Nine of the 12 tracks—not including “Watching the Detectives,” which was included on the U.S. release—clock in at under three minutes. Costello was backed by members of a San Francisco rock group called Clover, including keyboardist Sean Hopper, who went on to co-found Huey Lewis and the News. (Though Huey himself was absent from the sessions, that fact does make this mixture of rock criticism and homicide from American Psycho especially hilarious.)
My Aim Is True was also released a month before the death of Elvis Presley, which enraptured critics such as Dave Schulps in Crawdaddy, who felt obliged to clarify things since Costello’s name change from Declan McManus preceded it: “My Aim Is True heralds the arrival of a truly superb artist by any standards. Elvis (and don’t get the wrong idea, he was being called that long before the death of The King) is a sparser yet even harder rocking version of Graham Parker.”
To mark 40 years since My Aim Is True’s release, we scoured the bottomless Paste Cloud and found great audio and video footage of Costello performing the songs from the album, mostly on his first American tour in 1978.
Costello fostered his angry-young-man persona on stage. It was integral to the album’s mood, too, with songs, being “spat out” with a “very fierce beat.” But there is rock’s first real nerd factor at work, too. Consider “Mystery Dance,” which, rather than bragging about sexual prowess in a way that had long been a rock ‘n’ roll trope, confessed to complete incompetence. “There should be songs to sing for the people who don’t have a voice,” he said in 1989.
Let’s start with Costello ripping through “Mystery Dance” at San Francisco’s Winterland on June 7, 1978. He’s joined by his then new band, The Attractions, who would back him capably through various sonic incarnations including soul (“Get Happy”), country “Almost Blue” and Beatlesque pop craftsmanship (1982’s “Imperial Bedroom,” the album that Costello is commemorating this year on tour).
Here’s Elvis saying he’s actually not angry as angrily as humanly possible, at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J., on March 5, 1978:
The venomous singing style is quite removed from the capable crooner he would ultimately become. Witness it in peak form in this Winterland performance, from June 7, 1978, of “Blame It On Cain.”
“When they step upon your face, then wear that good-look grin
I gotta break out one weekend before I do somebody in
But every single time I feel a little stronger
They tell me it’s a crime, well, how much longer?”
This version of Costello’s very first single, “Less Than Zero,” from May 7, 1978, features a fascinating dichotomy of an organ sound right out of a carnival with Elvis’s proto-punk posturing.
Costello wrapped things up on My Aim Is True (at least on the U.K. version) in a fittingly apocalyptic way with the loopy, incessantly catchy “Waiting for the End of the World” and its ambivalent refrain: “Good Lord, I sincerely hope you’re coming ‘cause you really started something.”
But even then, Costello showed a surprising vocal and emotional range, given how convincingly he pulls off the ballad “Alison,” which only sounds sentimental to the inattentive while giving the album its title.
“Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
cause I can’t stand to see you this way.
Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.”
The biggest radio hit on My Aim Is True is a successor of sorts to “Mystery Dance.” “Watching the Detectives,” an organ-heavy ska number in the style of two-toned Brit roots heavyweights The Specials (who actually formed in 1977) shows that song’s singer having moved on to now having a cold-blooded lover who would rather watch television.
“Long shot at that jumping sign
Invisible shivers running down my spine
Cut to baby taking off her clothes
Close-up of the sign that says ‘we never close’
He snatches at you and you match his cigarette
She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet
I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.”