In November 1977, just three months after the death of Elvis Presley, along comes a gangly, bespectacled twenty-three-year-old Brit clutching a red Fender Jazzmaster guitar, looking like some knock-kneed punk version of Buddy Holly, complete with the skinny tie and jacket that would become the de rigueur costume of late-1970s New Wave. The tiny black-and-white-checkerboard boxes of the record cover proclaim, Elvis is king.
Like his fellow Englishmen the Sex Pistols and the Damned, Elvis Costello was very good at the bravado gesture early in his career. Yet underneath his punky pose lurked a staggeringly gifted songwriter who had made it his business to devour the history of American popular music, from Hoagy Carmichael to Burt Bacharach, from Hank Williams to Gram Parsons, from Louis Jordan to Smokey Robinson.
Working a day gig as a computer operator for Elizabeth Arden, Costello had cooked up a formidable songbook, but until Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson of Stiff Records signed him to their fledgling label, no London record company was swayed by Costello’s talent. With members of an obscure Marin County, California, band called Clover — a group that would form the basis of Huey Lewis and the News — as well as producer Nick Lowe, Costello made his first album in six sessions for under $2,000.
My Aim Is True — to be reissued in August on Rhino Records as a double-disc, bonus-track-laden package — was one of the great debut albums in the annals of pop music. Balancing the rage of punk with the formalism of the century’s best songcraft, the album delivers passion and intelligence in equal measure. From the tender vitriol of “Alison” to the knowing arrogance of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” to the free-associative Dylanisms of “Waiting for the End of the World,” Costello shows himself to be a budding pop master. And while at times he is almost too clever for his own good, a problem that will become more pronounced as his career progresses and his easy virtuosity becomes even easier, one cannot but be charmed by the young Costello’s charisma. For a short time in the late 1970s, Elvis was indeed king.