Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired, you can have anyone that you have ever desired.
Those are the opening lines to Elvis Costello’s debut album “My Aim is True” and my first real introduction to the artist formerly known as Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus. Elvis Costello had been on my radar for a long time as someone who I had a lot of respect for, but no real knowledge of his catalog outside of a few “hits”. So when I finally got around to digging in, I naturally started at the beginning, and holy smokes what a beginning. I remember feeling tingles of excitement throughout my body, one of those rare moments where something hits you just right. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but this angry, snarky, catchy rock and roll wasn’t it, and whatever I was expecting, this was far better.
Whether my opinion means anything is debatable, but I think “My Aim is True” is one the best debut albums of all time. There’s not a single song on it that doesn’t deserve multiple listens. In my case I kept in pretty constant rotation for a good six months, until I knew every lyric, every chord, every key change… I tend to become transfixed on certain artists and albums, and this was no exception.
The only two things that motivate me and that matter to me are revenge and guilt. – Elvis Costello
When Elvis Costello first appeared on the English “Pub Rock” scene he was pissed off. About what, I’m not so sure. It seemed like everything and nothing, all of it justified. The Sex Pistols were angry at the world, Elvis Costello was angry at the people in it. He wrote about the things that bothered him, and would use his words to cut them to pieces. It was beautiful, dark, full of snark, complicated, and catchy as all get out. Anger with a pop sensibility…. Sounds like something that would be right up my alley.
Probably the one thing that exemplifies this better than any other moment is his first appearance on Saturday Night Live. They were picked to replace The Sex Pistols, who pulled out at the last minute, and about thirty seconds into their second song “Less Than Zero” Elvis stopped the band and told them to play an unreleased track called “Radio Radio”.
This stunt got him banned from SNL for nearly a decade. Rumor has it that Lorne Michaels was flipping Elvis the bird off camera for the entire song. For what may have been career suicide for most this only served to cement his reputation as the nerdy rocker that didn’t give a fuck about what you wanted. The songs were decidedly “New Wave” but the attitude was all punk.
The band you see backing him here are “The Attractions“, made up from Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas. They served as Elvis’s backing band up until the mid 80’s, most of the “classic” Elvis Costello songs came from this lineup. Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas still play with Elvis to this day under the moniker “The Imposters”. His debut album however was backed by another band called “Clover“, an American band who later went on to form “Huey Lewis and the News“. Though due to contractual reasons they were booked as “The Shamrocks” on the album credits.
Okay, so enough with the history lesson. That’s not the reason I’m writing these, and in the case of Elvis Costello I would have write an encyclopedia to cover everything. He’s one of the most prolific songwriters in modern times, having released 30 studio albums alone, he’s one of my biggest inspirations and I can still easily say that I haven’t listened to all of his music.
This is about what inspires me, and why it inspires, and for Elvis Costello the inspiration is not only drawn from the fact that his music speaks to me, it’s also drawn from the fact that he makes so much of it. Moving between rock and roll, country, bluegrass, folk, pop, classical, new wave and lord knows what else. It’s not always a home run, but it’s always moving in a new direction, trying to scratch some new itch. A lot of artists talk the talk of wanting to branch out and try new things, but it’s a rare few that actually go out there and do it. To risk alienating a fan base simply to satisfy yourself as an artist. It’s not just something I respect, it’s what keeps an artist relevant to me. I’ve heard what they’ve done, I want to see what they can do. It’s not always going to be perfect, and it might not always resonate with me like some of their previous work, but the beauty of an artist like Elvis Costello is that if the last album wasn’t quite your cup of tea, just wait for the next one.
Stay inspired, and keep moving.