Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Past Master: Richard Crouse's Elvis is King. Costello's My Aim Is True

Elvis Costello, in a publicity still for his debut album in 1977. (Photo: Getty Images)

I turned 19 years of age the day My Aim Is True (Stiff) by Elvis Costello was released on July 22, 1977. It was one month before another Elvis, by the name of Presley, died. And while the two events seemed to be unrelated, for Richard Crouse, movie critic and music lover, it was the end of one era and the beginning of the next in the history of rock n’ roll. In his short but concise study of Costello’s debut album, he writes that My Aim Is True was the perfect antidote for the Pink Floyd-Led Zeppelin “bombast . . . free from any prog rock pretension.” Crouse’s book, titled (intentionally in lower case), elvis is king. costello’s my aim is true (ECW Pop Classics), dives into one of the most important stories in music history in detail without sentimentality. It’s a refreshing look at Costello’s bold entry into the music scene whose timing, according to Crouse, was spot on. He writes that My Aim Is True is “a perfect blend of artist, music and zeitgeist.”

Elvis Costello’s been on the music scene for so long it’s hard to believe his debut album is over 40 years old. Yet for Crouse, who is “transported to the back room of the place I grew up” in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, every time he hears “Welcome to the Working Week,” it’s a “blast of nostalgia and emotion.” These two key ingredients inform his book while opening up our own relationship to music in general. As Bette Midler declared during her concert in Toronto a few years ago, “if you love a song when you’re young, you’ll love it when you’re old.” No finer point has been made about the freedom to be nostalgic about the songs we grew up with. Songs, and therefore albums, mark our time, along with weddings, birthdays, and funerals. But for me, nostalgia aside, Crouse’s book is most engaging when he talks about Costello’s transformation to stardom in such a short period of time during 1977.

Declan MacManus emerged from his early years as singer in a pub rock band called Flip City to massive popularity as a solo artist. When he dropped off his demo to the fledgling label Stiff in late 1976, Nick Lowe, musician and composer, was the in-house “producer” who took a liking to MacManus’s music and his edgy presentation during an audition. Crouse writes that Lowe wasn’t overly impressed at first until he heard "Alison," “the song that fully changed [his] mind." Based on the strength of the songs on his demo, Lowe was assigned to produce an album at Pathway Studios. Crouse tells that story very well in Chapter 4. I got the feel of the cramped room in which music history was being made and how MacManus overcame the restrictions of working with his new band mates John McFee (guitar), Mickey Shine (drums), and Lowe (bass), whom he had never played with before. The results are amazing, as any fan of My Aim Is True will attest. As Crouse says, “It championed Stiff’s mandate, sound over technique and feeling over style.”

With the album completed for the paltry sum of 500 pounds, Stiff founders Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera decided MacManus needed a new look and a name that distinguished him from the so-called established acts, such as The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, and The Ramones: all punk bands with a particular image and sound. In a bold move MacManus agreed to change his name to Elvis Costello, which was abstracted from the aforementioned Presley and MacManus’s grandmother’s maiden name, Costello. It stuck, along with a costume change: tight sports jacket, narrow tie, and giant rimmed glasses a la Buddy Holly. As Crouse points out, the timing of Costello’s debut was artistically and commercially perfect, because Stiff Records wanted their new star to succeed in a big way. For Robinson and Riviera that meant an artist “bred as an independent brand who could stand apart from established acts.” Elvis Costello was born on July 22, 1977.

Crouse devotes a whole chapter to deconstructing My Aim is True, song by song. It’s a worthy exercise filled with just enough analysis to engage the reader while leaving the reader to engage in the music. I found myself going back to revisit the record in its entirety due to the author’s balanced approach to discussing the tracks, their origins, and their meanings. It’s the minutiae that hang me up and leave me cold, but Crouse’s efficient work in this chapter makes for just enough information, thank you very much. That said, he’s not nearly critical enough about the songs for which Costello was accused of being misogynistic, such as “I’m Not Angry.” I think a few more lines about how Costello’s songs can be misinterpreted warranted some pages. However, Crouse pretty much nails the Costello themes of sexual insecurity, bad relationships, and anger at the establishment: all hallmarks of the punk era in 1977.

Crouse closes the book with a first-rate synopsis of Costello’s exhausting late-1977 tour (24 shows in 28 days), which climaxed with an auspicious December debut on Saturday Night Live in which Costello, against executive producer Lorne Michaels’s instructions, changed, while on the air, a performance of “Less than Zero” for “Radio, Radio.” which messed with the show’s timing. I remember watching him do so but I did not know that Costello was subsequently banned from the program for 12 years as punishment. Three months later, Costello debuted at the El Mocambo in Toronto to rave reviews, a show I couldn’t get into because of the long queue around the block. Crouse’s book is well sourced and informative, with the right mix of personal and anecdotal history. So far the ECW Pop Classics series only features one book about music in its catalogue, and it's a worthy start.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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