One of the more important debuts of the ’70s arrived 44 years ago – Elvis Costello‘s My Aim is True. It came out this day in 1977, right in the midst of the punk revolution in his Britain; a few weeks later here in North America where Columbia Records had it rather than the upstart Stiff Records who signed him to the UK. Since that time, he’s rolled out 30 more studio albums and had allmusic declare Declan (his real name is Declan McManus) “the most evocative, innovative and gifted songwriter since Bob Dylan.”
My Aim is True wasn’t necessarily expected to change the world – even of the singer himself. He’d been playing in pubs for about six years but worked by day in an office as a data entry clerk. He wrote at night and on his subway commute. He would keep entering data in fact until the album was on the shelves when Stiff offered to match his salary there and give him some equipment if he’d quit and work for them. They originally wanted him to be a staff songwriter, mainly for Dave Edmunds, but Edmunds wasn’t big on that and when they heard his demo, they realized they might be onto something in his own right. He quickly got the album put together over just six, four-hour sessions in a London studio for about 1500 pounds (perhaps $15 000 today, a pretty modest sum) including the use of producer Nick Lowe. The two worked well together, and Lowe would produce the next four of his records as well, the ones often considered his strongest period.
Costello wrote the dozen snappy songs, played guitar and piano on many tracks but got help from Lowe himself as well as the band Clover (from which Huey Lewis arose, although Huey wasn’t in on this record) although they initially weren’t credited due to some legal concerns about labels and their contract. It was the only album he’d due until the end of the ’80s without his usual backing band The Attractions, but the different players didn’t seem to harm the results any.
The cover had Costello in thick glasses looking knowingly like a latter-day Buddy Holly, and his sound was at times rather straight-ahead, fast-paced (none of the songs come in over four minutes; the first track, “Welcome to the Working Week” clocks in at just 1:22”) pop-rock with a healthy amount of guitar and nods to such varied writers as Hoagy Carmichael, Burt Bacharach and Gram Parsons to the ears of Rolling Stone, which would by the way grade it a perfect 5-star. Although at the time termed “punk”. Costello, along with the likes of Lowe, Edmunds and Joe Jackson were in fact ushering in something of a new sub-genre of their own in the late-’70s, one incorporating some of the simple instrumentation and cynicism of punk with the energy of classic rock and the melodic flavor of AM pop…”post punk” if you will.
The album contained some songs now considered new wave or alt rock classics like “Less than Zero”, “Watching the Detectives” (which wasn’t on the earliest UK albums, as it was a standalone single there, however American copies and newer European ones included it) and “Red Shoes”, but at the time radio seemed oblivious to them, or indifferent. Only “Watching the Detectives” charted , to a respectable #15 at home and #35 in Australia. In Canada, it just grazed #60 and Stateside, it missed the Hot 100 altogether. The album though sold slowly but surely, largely on word of mouth and great reviews, getting to #14 in the UK, #24 in Canada and #32 in the U.S., where in time it would go platinum.
The Village Voice would call it the second-best album of the year and British publications tended to rave about it. Later on, through 2012, Rolling Stone would have it among the 200 greatest albums of all-time. They noted “only three months after Elvis Presley died” along comes a “”gangly, bespectacled 23 year-old Brit clutching a red Fender Jazzmaster guitar” daring to evoke the “Elvis” name. “Like the Sex Pistols and the Damned, Elvis Costello was very good at the bravado gesture early in his career”. But they point out, he also was a “staggeringly gifted songwriter” so no one should hold a grudge. Entertainment Weekly would later rate it an “A-“, the lowest rating they gave any of his first four albums, but still making it a very worthwhile “debut with lots to say!”
In the end, allmusic perhaps sum it up well by noting My Aim is True is a “phenomenal debut.”