Elvis Costello's My Aim is True turns 35

Categories: Music History

Yet however miles ahead of his contemporaries Costello was as a songwriter, he was seriously lagging in the style department. Of all the enduring worth of late-'70s British punk records, it was unarguably one of the most heavily stylized of all rock's incarnations. Stiff Records attempted to take this angry-glitter attitude into their marketing department, employing witty phrases like "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him float" on their adverts, or "contains no hit singles whatsoever" on album sleeves. The idea to bestow on their new young talent the name of rock and roll's most treasured hero -- Elvis -- was one more punk rock marketing gimmick from Stiff, an attempt to shake the etch-a-sketch of history, to burn down the library, to defiantly state that nothing is sacred and all is up for grabs.

The performer himself -- who had been using the maiden name of his paternal great-grandmother, Costello, for some time by then -- had his reservations about the name-change, but in the end didn't put up much resistance.

Besides, he knew a thing or two about gimmicky promotional tactics himself. Just weeks before My Aim is True was released, Costello, along with his newly minted band, The Attractions, set up a generator-powered sidewalk show outside London's Hilton Hotel, where CBS Records happen to be hosting their annual international conference. Hoping to secure a US record deal, Costello drew a reasonable crowd on the sidewalk, which contained a handful of reps from CBS. "All these guys were actually standing there and applauding," Costello told Trouser Press. "But the Hilton didn't see the humor in the situation and called the police. The police also didn't see the humor and arrested me. It's wasn't a big deal... just a crazy stunt." A stunt so crazy it landed young Costello a CBS/Columbia contract by years end.

This stunt, along with a growing word of mouth about the just released album, swelled Costello's public relevancy, landing him on the cover of Sounds and Melody Maker: two of the magazines he'd poured over as a factory worker living in the suburbs. The record both added to, and yet was separated from, the infamous collection of UK punk records released just prior to it. Later that year, Costello's record company put on a Stiffs Greatest Stiffs live revue, a 24-date UK tour boasting Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis and The King himself. The tour would be recorded and packaged into a live album; yet despite recently opening up for Santana before a 12,000-person audience, along with the serious buzz about his debut LP, Costello refused to play any songs from the album. When the audience protested, Costello dug in his heals, establishing his punk credibility (not for the first or last time), shouting back at the crowd: "if you want to hear the old songs, buy the fucking record!"

Much of the quotes and facts in this essay were taken from the book Elvis Costello: A Biography, by Tony Clayton-Lea.

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