Elvis Costello's My Aim is True turns 35

Categories: Music History


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In the early 1970s, a bespectacled English waif named Declan MacManus -- later to be known as genre defining songsmith, Elvis Costello -- was pulling off a con in am Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory. "I read the papers all day long because... No one realized that the computer did all the thinking," Costello told Q Magazine in 1996, speaking of his job as a computer operator in the factory. "I wore a white coat and everyone thought I was a rocket scientist because I was the only one who knew how to work the machine. Everyone thought I was a genius. It was brilliant. I just skived all the time... I took my guitar in. I'd stay late, sometimes work 36 hours just on coffee and write two or three songs and read the music press."

In the mid-1970s, English pop music was beginning its cultural decline. It was a time that many reflect on as being overindulgent, technically proficient yet primally unexciting drab of ten-minute solos and epic themes (see Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth rock opera). Though by the second half of the decade, a decidedly baser, more barbaric movement of sound and fashion began to fill the pages of the music magazines that young Costello was reading. The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were attempting to reinvent English culture and youth rebellion, and were doing a damn good job of it. As a part-time musician, Costello was all for it: knowing that his songs were better.

Born into a family of music industry insiders, Costello's mother often took her young son to concerts at the Liverpool Philharmonic, where she worked for a period as an usher; she would later find work at Brian Epstein's NEMS music shop, introducing her child to whole other dimensions of music mythology. His father would sustain a life-long career in the music business, performing trumpet in the popular Joe Loss Orchestra and recording minor successes as a singer. In 1973 Costello would cut one of his first recordings, singing backup on the award winning Secret Lemonade Drinker TV ad, written and performed by his father. Having this behind-the-curtain view of the music-into-money operation would later give Costello a unique advantage over his contemporaries, inspiring him to criticize the industry with songs like "Radio Radio," and to know just how far he could take his pranks on media insiders.

Mostly unsatisfied with both the glam and prog rock coming out of England, and the hippie-fied folk ballads coming out of America, young Costello drifted into the London pub rock scene with his band, Flip City. Now viewed as the cultural predecessor to punk rock, the pub rock movement was described by future Costello producer and collaborator, Nick Lowe, as being "the regrouping of a bunch of middle-class ex-mods who'd been through the hippie underground scene and realized it wasn't their cup of tea." Like punk, it was a reaction to the arena rock shows -- with it's massive stage sets, light shows, and check-out-my-big-cock guitar solos -- preferring a more stripped down, primally accessible form of drinking music.

Though by this time Costello was married with a child, working a full time job and writing songs either on the subway, at work, or after work at home, quietly tapping the piano keys so as not to wake the wife and baby. Hardly a bohemian existence, this lifestyle kept Costello in a disciplined world of consistent productivity, sharpening his craft and avoiding the indulgences of drink, drugs and women that trap most creatively inclined men.

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