Classic Albums: My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello (1977)


Elvis Costello’s debut LP occupies an intriguing space in the classic rock narrative, by many accounts, it’s prototypical New Wave at the genre’s finest, but such distinction also ameliorates Costello’s defining portrait, sacrificing the teeth of Costello’s anger as merely sign of the times, a succinct songwriter who championed a form.Yet Costello’s educated social frustration is equally relevant today as it was in the turbulent 70s for British youth. 

Drugs, Fame, and Rock & Roll

 Then, The Beatles were relegated to ceremonial deities of a record store, their records sold but their relevance was limited to that of the old guard, their intrinsic parts had been revealed human; Lennon had turned his well earned clout into a social pariah, releasing few albums to limited success before becoming a “househusband” raising his son, McCartney had disowned his turbulent breakup (which had fueled his first two albums to a new band that was content to say nothing at all, Harrison’s celebrated success had turned into myopic platitudes about God, and Ringo desperately clinged to being “the luckiest drummer alive”  while his career disintegrated in the excess of success.  The Rolling Stones had released Exile On Main Street in 1972 and seemed content to rest on their laurels of rock & roll debauchery without making another significant record until Some Girls some six years later.  

The radio seemed content with the new trope of singer-songwriters that played sweet sounding melodies that overwhelmed whatever societal message might have been present.  Rock had become old, and simply unable to keep up with social progressivism. Woodstock may be looked upon fondly now, but it’s impact was limited by the time the mid 70’s rolled around; Dylan was in hiding, Hendrix dead, the Dead firmly entrenched in their increasingly digressive celebration of 60’s counter-culture.

From The Ashes, An Echo

Then, in the echoes of the sus law, which was facing more turbulence from a growing immigrant population in Great Britain, punk was born. British youth, disillusioned with the government, had formed a new kind of protest song; direct, simple, succinct, Punk became anthemic because it could be so quickly made and so easily played. Borrowing from the most basic of rock forms, three chords was often the only route needed for British youth to seethe at the societal oppression of the government (most famously in The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen”) The Clash released their debut in 1977, and while London Calling would be their definitive triumph (and a paradigm shift in punk rock form) their first LP captured punk rock in its rumbling youth, braggadocio with a call to arms with numbers like “I Fought The Law”, “White Riot” and Junior Murvin cover “Police and Thieves”. It would be a matter of time before Elvis Costello, then known as Declan Patrick MacManus, would transform a demo and a single into one of the greatest debut albums of all time.

MacManus had begun his musical career in a folk duo, but soon moved onto a more pub rock vein with a band called Flip City where he adapted his stage name to D.P. Costello, the surname being his father’s stage name. During the day, MacManus switched from rote job to rote job, working as a data entry clerk and a computer operator, only fueling his discontent with the meaningless work force and pushing him to find a record contract. Stiff Records, a label founded in 1976, would end up being his saving grace.

The demos that MacManus submitted to the label were bare acoustic numbers that nowadays would have been lauded as lo-fi and bedroom pop, but the truth of the matter was MacManus had no other venue with which to record his songs other than his bedroom armed with a tape recorder. (The remains of this can still be found on “Mystery Dance” but I’ll get to that later) Still for an upcoming label, MacManus’s name carried no sway and they initially wished him to be a songwriter for Dave Edmunds. Luck found that Edmunds wasn’t pleased with Costello’s style, a reaction that provoked the recording of the album in its present form in an effort to convince Edmunds to change his mind.

Armed with six four-hour sessions, and no artist to reinterpret the material, Stiff Records decided to give MacManus his chance, but wished to promote a more marketable name.  Thus Elvis (from Elvis Presley) Costello (from his dad’s stage name) was born.  

“Less Than Zero” was the first single released from the recordings, though it made no impact on the charts, it showcased the songwriting ability that Costello had to offer. Brash, compact guitar riffs and a scathing social commentary that center around Oswald Mosley, the former head of the British Union of Facists.  It’s a thrilling attack on the powers of propaganda right from the get-go, “Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo/there is a vacancy waiting with the English voodoo” that isn’t afraid to call out society as well “Turn up the TV/ No one listening will suspect, even your mother won’t detect it/so your father won’t know” alluding to both teenage sex and governmental apathy.  

Still, Costello wasn’t a star yet when “Alison” became the second single released and the sheer discrepancy in style between “Less Than Zero” and “Alison” gave a taste of the immense talent that was waiting to be recognized.  To this day, “Alison” remains one of Costello’s definitive songs, and one of his most thought provoking lyrical narratives.  A mid-tempo ballad out of nowhere, the flourishing lead guitar lines belie the cynical and at times sinister story line. Costello’s narrator is a man who time has passed by, whose love has gone unrequited, and whose fury is barely contained by surface commentary “From the way you look l understand that you are not impressed/But I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress” it’s conversational, yet the nature of how it unfolds gives the sense that the narrator is backed into a corner “Cause I don’t know if you are loving somebody, I only know it isn’t mine”. Near the end when the narrator cries out “I think somebody better put out the big light/ cause I can’t stand to see you this way” it can be equally interpreted that he’s either thinking of killing her or himself, which makes “my aim is true” an even darker ending.

Stiff Records decided to release the full album in the summer of 1977, with My Aim Is True as the title. The first song, "Welcome to the Working Week"  is Costello at his most sarcastic and concise, coming in at a brisk 1:24 clip and directly addresses his distaste for jobs taken for the sake of having a wage.

With Nick Lowe behind the boards for production, the overall sound of My Aim Is True is frenetic, with caustic electric guitars, rollicking keyboards and booming drums, and clearly the work of a man energized by his shot to say what he believes to a greater audience, if he were JFK it would be called vigor, but really it’s just rock & roll.  

One of the major themes of this album is social apathy; why work being one of the first questions Costello asks while remarking that “your family had to kill to survive”, yet Costello is precocious in framing most of his work around traditional boy/girl love song narratives. In “Miracle Man”, he comments on a girl who keeps wanting, nay, expecting her man to deliver anything she wants to which he quips “But don’t you think that I know that walking on water won’t make me a miracle man”  There’s a dig at society’s reliance and acceptance on Jesus/God as savior and only good.  He furthers the social/religious undertones on “Blame It On Cain”, imploring the government to not blame their need for money on him, but on Cain, the Bible’s ultimate example of the perils of man. Change the C to a B, and you might as well have the GOP campaign slogan “it’s nobody’s fault, but we need somebody to burn” with all their false niceties about Obama being a good guy but ineffective leader.  The trio of “No Dancing”, “Sneaky Feelings” and “Mystery Dance” play into the mindset of a narrator who doesn’t know how to handle love, the first being a Phil Spector send up, the second lays down a cynical groove that treats love as a “sneaky feeling” while “Mystery Dance” is a not so subtle tongue-in-cheek reference to sex.

It’s telling of just how cynical the 22 year old Costello was when he juxtaposes songs of sex and lust with a Faustian deal with Angels in “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”.  In the song, Costello chooses to make a bargain with the angels for eternal youth in hopes of keeping the affection of a lover, while the angels want to live a mortal life.  The idea seems like a boon for Costello until his lover grows tired of him and tells him to drop dead when that’s all but impossible.  So he’s left disgusted with youth, forever trying to become bemused with his “deal with the devil”.  

“Pay It Back” may just be the finest B-side on Costello’s debut with a groove that nimbly switches between lock-step and swing and a lyrical message that finds Elvis at his most direct and personal. A kiss-off to record companies that turned him down from being a star while he worked nights as a computer operator.  The origin of this song dates back to his work with Flip City, including an early demo circa 1975 that shows some surprising Springsteen influence. The evolution both in the song’s rhythm and Costello’s cynical delivery is incredible.

Costello’s songwriting at the time of My Aim Is True was not only polished, it was prolific, he had finished the majority of the songs for Next Year’s Model by the time My Aim Is True hit the shelves.

It was “Watching The Detectives” that first introduced me to Costello, even though it wouldn’t be included on the original UK version of the LP, being released a solid 3 months after.  Whereas “Alison” found Costello ever so slightly holding back, veering on a daggers edge of subtlety, “Watching The Detectives” throws more menace into the equation and begs the audience not only to notice the double meanings, but to actively seek out what the true story is.  Whether it’s a woman just watching some creepy detective show on the television, or a woman being stalked and murdered is really up to you. Still, it would be a quirky but forgotten number in Costello’s repertoire if not for the unforgettable melody with a drum line that would make Stewart Copeland jealous.  Not even The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” comes close to how apt this reggata de blanc fits the intent of the stuff from the islands.  

An Overnight Success After A Seven Year Delay

Costello’s debut hasn’t exactly faded into obscurity, it’s properly lauded by critics and consumers alike and it launched Costello’s career.  Still, listening to the album some 37 years after its release, you can’t help but note how timeless it still sounds.  Perhaps that’s because it was recorded on such a small budget that demonstrates a simple rock backing is all you need. 


Classic Album Series: I’m Still In Love With You, Al Green (1972)

Al Green has become almost as cliche as a Barry White song, play anything by him and it’s just love-making music, damn good love-making music, but I think people rarely venture beyond the first few words of an Al Green song before it becomes background mood music, and it’s a damn shame. Sure “Tired of Being Alone” and “Let’s Stay Together” will go down in history as some of the most sensual songs not sung by a 32 year old man to a 16 year-old girl (see Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On”) but its too short-sighted, and too easy to just say that Mr. Green was probably the soundtrack to 1/3 of the population conceived after 1972.

To be fair, Al Green wasn’t trying to set the world on fire with poetic lyrics, his greatest strength was interpreting a song and filling it with emotion, an ability that can even make the simplest lyrics have deeper meaning. We crave authenticity in art, and Al Green’s delivery had that in spades. That is what turns “Simply Beautiful” from being sap into gold. In essence, that’s what makes Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You  a special album, even the weakest lyrical numbers on here become great songs just because of the emotion put into them.Description:

And yet, I haven’t even mentioned the circumstances surrounding Al Green, he had released Let’s Stay Together months before I’m Still In Love With You came out, an album that meant 1972 was already the year of Al Green with its tremendous title track and an even more stunning interpretation of the Bee Gee’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” but there’s a difference between the two releases that makes I’m Still In Love With You the better album for the same reason that Let’s Stay Together has more standout tracks and that is the production.

What makes “Let’s Stay Together” “I’ve Never Found A Girl” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” great songs is the fact that they stand out from the rest of the album, their production is on another level, for “Together” you’re instantly drawn to that warm low end, the punch of the horns with the syncopated drums that makes that introduction so productive, the riffing and bright horn play on “Girl”, and “Broken Heart” well I’d be damned if that song doesn’t lay the whole foundation for I’m Still In Love With You with that organ bubbling and smoldering in the background and Al Green’s vocals so intimate that the microphone was probably weeping.  

Side One:

I’m Still In Love With You

Much like Let’s Stay TogetherI’m Still in Love With You starts with the title cut, even aping the intro with the punchy horn and drum shuffle, but Green’s vocal comes out dream like, a drawing of breath “Spending my days, thinking about you girl…” as he trails off, in media res and without a doubt you know the title to be true. Already the arrangement has a different feel from his previous more energetic funk laden album, the organ whirls, the strings are warm, the sharpness is gone from the record. There’s also some great backing vocals here, and even a little funky horn break, but Green’s ability to sound breathless and overcome with emotion makes this an amazing song.

I’m Glad You’re Mine

There’s a simple reason why “I’m Glad You’re Mine” is one of my favorites on the album and it’s mostly due to the drumming, more specifically that off-kilter tom hit that sets the pace for the bluesy slow funk groove, but the swooning strings almost steal the show amidst a rising and falling organ and some great harmonizing vocals by Mr. Green.

Love and Happiness

Then, a sole slow guitar strum beginnings the slow open to “Love and Happiness” one of Al Green’s better known songs, and it’s the closest he gets to universal truths from his lyrics, it’s “something that can make you do wrong/make you do right”. Happiness is “being in love with someone” pure and simple.

What A Wonderful Thing Love Is

“What A Wonderful Thing Love Is”  which features one of the best guitar melodies and bass grooves in soul music, unveils itself to the listener, much like the eureka moment of realizing you’re in love with someone, it’s a beautiful shining moment, and Green effortlessly captures it here.

Simply Beautiful

“Simply Beautiful” is Green’s take them to church moment, building from a solitary acoustic guitar and simple drum arrangement, his performance simmers with nuanced emotion as strings and organs bring the song to its climax. But the pure heart and soul of the song is how his pleading vocal and guitar lines intertwine to become one.


Side 2:

Oh, Pretty Woman

“Oh, Pretty Woman” starts the second side of the LP, and it’s a cover of the famous Roy Orbison song done in Green’s soul style and the real highlight is the chorus wherein Green’s multi-tracked harmonies are love personified, warm and inviting, pleasing, soothing. While it may get the back-burner in relation to his beautiful cover that follows this one, it’s by no means a weak track.

For the Good Times

“For the Good Times” showcases Green at his best as an interpreter of other’s material. It makes perfect sense in hindsight that a soul singer could take country and make it work. Both are built out of stark heartbreak, but they played to different audiences. Country was the stereotypical genre of the blue-collar southern man while soul was the secular music that came out of the gospel music of the black church. Originally a Kris Kristofferson song, Green transforms the original into a slow waltz, accentuating Kristofferson’s original words with a back and forth vocal performance, echoing the sway of the arrangement.

Look What You’ve Done For Me

“Look What You’ve Done For Me” features an incredible groove that would be powerful even without the horn-backed chorus (which surprisingly detracts here), it features some of the better backing organ and guitar work on the album, while the drumming pops out of the pocket like a force to be reckoned with. The lyrics here are also incredibly heartfelt “But now the day has come/ to let you know where I’m coming from/ the best of my years to go to you/ is the only thing I can do” may seem trite but when you really do look at love, that’s one of the most sincere promises one can make, and there’s no sign that Green doesn’t mean it.

One of These Good Old Days

“One of These Good Old Days” is the last song on the album and features a quite celebratory arrangement and lyrics that reinforce the title of the album, talking about how much he loves his woman seen through an impending discussion. What’s quite fun is Green’s usage of call and response on here almost turning into a vocal round by the end with his trademark falsetto outcries.

If you love music as much as I do, you should by all means have this record. I’m Still In Love With You would be regarded as phenomenal even if Let’s Stay Together didn’t come out the same year, the fact that it did without a lapse in quality is even better.  Furthermore, writing about this record song by song was an even harder task just by the sheer cohesive output. The world that Al Green is able to both create and inhabit in his music is so emotive even within the same basic backing. Yet no one else could sound the same using the simple instrumentation that Green does here. The swirling organ, symphonic strings, slinking guitar lines and downright sexy vocals would never find an equal. The greatest joy of this album is the ability to just sit right down and listen to it straight through, each song distinctive, but still chapters of the same story.  


McCartney; In Which One Beatle Became One Man, Reviewed (1970)

The heart can be a horrible thing. Horrible in that it dissuades logic and reason and throws irrationality to the fore, and in 1970, the weaker strains of the heart were all The Beatles had left.


The narrative for the eventual Beatle break-up has two well-trodden beginnings: the death of Brian Epstein and the emergence of Yoko Ono —  with neither one placing blame on The Beatles themselves. In the ashes of the break-up such thought was heresy. The Beatles were musical gods, the Lennon-McCartney partnership etched into musical history. They had saved a generation from the death of Camelot, and no one could believe that the members of the inner circle were capable of their own undoing. Such was the power of The Beatles that individualism could not be deemed the cause. The heart played tricks on The Beatle-loving public, and even as time wore on the blame kept landing on individuals outside of the fabulous foursome.

Even with the lavish attention that was fostered on the quartet, we, the public, only had glimpses of each band member’s desires. Let It Be showed the band under tremendous strain, but we insisted that the arm-twisting of McCartney only be seen as him trying to keep the band together, rather than driving it apart.

Yet The Beatles were four men, and only four men, replete with differing ideas, who had nonetheless worked together well enough to coalesce into a sound that defined an era. Men can only be human, their acts the only thing that becomes immortal.  The Beatles had slipped the reins of being individual members; they were an entity that couldn’t possibly fall victim to human error. Such is the cruelty of the heart. They officially broke up in April of 1970, but their identity would forever linger, a ghost that would haunt their individual lives and careers as long as teach had a mortal coil.

Continue reading McCartney; In Which One Beatle Became One Man, Reviewed (1970)

Classic Album Series: Ram On….Give Your Heart To Somebody Soon…Paul McCartney’s Ram, Reviewed

While it is common fact that Paul McCartney officially called the Beatles quits in the spring of 1970, most people don’t realize the immense struggle it put McCartney through.  While Lennon, Harrison, and Starr went on with solo careers with the vigor of free men, it was McCartney who seemed to suffer.  This struggle was rampant through his songwriting of the time; usually a songwriter who prided on third person narratives and story-telling, McCartney was  writing about something completely new, himself.  “Two Of Us”, “Let It Be”,  “The Long and Winding Road”, “Carry That Weight”, even perhaps “Oh Darling”  are all not only skilled love songs and some of his best material, but they also reflect a man troubled on the inside.  McCartney, his eponymous debut still showed the scars of this massive breakup, with “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Junk” both showing the man with his heart on his sleeve, and the ragged production not only a sign of his talent but perhaps his mood at the time.

However, McCartney is too much of a showman, and too much of an immense talent to let such things bother him for long, although his writing partner was perhaps more famed for his fight for the working class, it was McCartney who had really come from one, and thus this hardship was almost a challenge for him to do better.  Music never seemed to be the issue, McCartney’s appreciation for music was only eclipsed by his talent for it, and of his previous band’s members, he was the most well rounded.  Yet this was an unknown commodity of the time, it was a scarce few people who knew that he had played drums on numbers such as “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence” as well as lead guitar on songs such as “Taxman”, “Good Morning, Good Morning” and the like.  Many musicians who have met the man in fact will attest that he is a guitarist of prodigious skill, and only limited by his choice to play bass.

So McCartney set about recording Ram in late 1970 and finished in March of 1971.  It had been recorded partly in McCartney’s home studio in Scotland, and it was finished in New York.  This accounted for the intriguing overall soundscape of the record, it wasn’t quite polished, but it wasn’t as ramshackle as its predecessor , McCartney, had been.  The inclusion of a formal studio led McCartney’s whimsical and homespun melodies to get full production treatment, and let his vision be un-compromised in scope.

Critics, hungry for the sound of his former band, were very harsh at first with the overall consensus being that it was full of whimsy but not much else.  However as time played its course, many began to find new insight into Paul McCartney’s second album, some even called it the first indie record, a label which given the range of styles found on the record, seems rather fitting.  The album, track by track, after the jump.

Continue reading Classic Album Series: Ram On….Give Your Heart To Somebody Soon…Paul McCartney’s Ram, Reviewed