How Elvis Costello invented nerd rock with his debut album

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Forty years ago this week, a computer operator from England cut a record after working a number of low-paying office jobs. Declan Macmanus would take the name Elvis Costello and release his debut album, “My Aim Is True.

The name change alone was gutsy; a young up-and-comer from England decides to share a name with the only other Elvis in rock ‘n’ roll, the King no less, who wouldn’t even be dead for another month.

“My Aim Is True” is a stunning display of this gutsy, young musical energy coupled with intricate and deliciously clever lyrics. It’s not uncommon to hear a turn of phrase in a lyric and not smile involuntarily at how effortless it is. The opening image of the first track sets the entire album’s tone, “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired…”

That track, “Welcome to the Working Week” is full of innuendo, angry young angst and bitter cynicism, all in less than two minutes. All of the following songs on the album are short punk-influenced melodramas. They delve into the distorted mind of the lanky wannabe-cool kid striking an awkward rock and roll pose on the front cover.

Even the one single from the album is off-center. “Less Than Zero” is about the 1930’s British fascist Oswald Mosley. The figure was such an obscure reference to U.S. audiences that they attached the only namesake they knew as a reference, Lee Harvey Oswald. Costello would later play live versions with revised lyrics accounting for this confusion.

Elvis’ backing band at the time, Clover, would later become The News of Huey Lewis fame. While they lack the aggressive punk chops of Costello’s later more famous backing band, the Attractions, they still play with emotional subtlety.

Take “Allison”, the standout track with lyrics that bear the album title. The song is ambiguous–cynical but heartfelt. Is his aim with Cupid’s arrow or something more sinister? The musical backing, played like a tender ballad, only adds to the intrigue. It’s a poisoned valentine sent by someone too nervous to ask the other person out.

Costello would later explore other strands of music from orchestral pop to country and western in his career. Some of these explorations would be more successful than others. Yet it’s his debut that set a trend and a sound, one later codified by his next few albums with the tighter more fiery Attractions.

It’s hard to imagine the onset of emo culture in the 90’s-00’s and most pop-punk in general if not for Elvis Costello. Even the entirety of nerd culture at large might have had a key characteristic missing for the decades to come. Bands like Weezer, They Might Be Giants and even Beck are self-deprecating, snide and their lyrics are bursting to the seams with emotional wit and wordplay. They all owe a debt to the lanky retro-throwback from London, England who in 1977 wrote about teenage angst, masturbation and British fascists.

 

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