So, here’s the weird thing about Elvis Costello in my collection. I am a very, very big fan of Elvis Costello. I have something in the vicinity of 27 different titles by Elvis Costello and his various band configurations on vinyl and CD, and maybe eight more on digital only. I have a lot of his early works on both vinyl and CD. I love his work to death and if you told me I could only listen to the work of one artist in my collection, it would have to be Elvis Costello. No one else approaches the breadth, the artistry, the biting wit, the musical ability. Sometimes, and I know we’re not supposed to say this, but sometimes I get tired of The Beatles. I have heard it all. I don’t get tired of Elvis.
However, and this is a big however — with one exception, I did not initially experience Elvis Costello on vinyl. For the first several years of his existence as an artist, I paid him shamefully little mind.
Now, this is partly because when he burst on the scene, I was going in a different direction. I don’t believe I had any awareness of his first two records, “My Aim is True” (1977) or “This Year’s Model” (1978), or even of his third, “Armed Forces,” until quite late in 1979.
In my defense, I was in high school when the first two came out, and the singles — “Less Than Zero,” “Alison,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” “Radio Radio” — got absolutely no chart attention. (Okay, “Watching the Detectives” got to 108 on the US Hot 100.) These songs were not getting play on Capital District radio. Apparently “Pump It Up” got some attention on the Adult Alternative charts — but if we had such a station, I wasn’t listening to it.
And moving into college — well, we’ve already documented that I was going off in a Beatles-esque, British Invasion direction. For the most part, the “new wave” bands, while I was aware of them when they got radio play or came blasting out of Cocaine Kurtz’s dorm room, did not catch much of my interest. Not then, anyway.
I was, however, working for a college newspaper, and one that tried to stay on top of musical trends, so knowledge of Elvis Costello started to seep in. When “Get Happy!!” came out in 1980, with its 20 (20!!) songs, awareness was hard to avoid.
Now, there was someone I knew at the time who gushed over this record. This someone was someone I considered more than a bit obnoxious (not that I wasn’t — let’s be clear), and whose musical taste I specifically did not share. So his proclamations about the genius of “Get Happy!!” kinda ruined Elvis Costello for me at the time, leaving me with zero interest in listening to it.
It’s okay. I wasn’t ready.
Elvis kept on putting out record after record, and I kept ignoring them. Then, in 1985, a couple of years out of college and living the life of an adult, my old roommate Danny sent me a number of CDs as a gift, and among them was “The Best of Elvis Costello & The Attractions.” Turns out, in 1985, I was ready. I was, in fact, floored. That collection, which leaned a bit more heavily on the “later” records, was revelatory. Yes, there is “Alison” and “Oliver’s Army” and “Pump It Up,” but there is also “Almost Blue,” “I Wanna Be Loved,” “Everyday I Write the Book,” and “The Only Flame in Town.” And there was Elvis Costello revealed as a fabulous tunesmith.
The spark was lit. “King of America” came out very shortly after I got the Best Of collection, and based on my new enthusiasm and glowing reviews, I bought it on CD and it became one of the signature CDs of that time of my life. If you wanted to know what my life sounded like in 1985, 1986 — put on “King of America.”
Then came “Blood and Chocolate” and then came “Spike,” and a whole lot more. I liked the early material that turned up in the “Best of” collection and “Girls Girls Girls.” I didn’t get the early albums on CD for quite a while, but as records were being phased out of record stores, and heavily discounted to make way for the next big thing, I picked up a number of the early Elvis Costello albums on LP. Picked them up, opened them, played them maybe twice, and put them away. So I have a whole bunch of pretty pristine early Elvis records.
I just listened to “My Aim is True,” his debut from 1977. I’m gonna tell you right now, there is no way my 17-year-old ears would have been ready for this. Lee remembers hearing “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” for the first time at a party several years later and being stunned even then. In 1977, I was listening to ELO, Elton John, John Denver, Billy Joel. I would not have known what to make of all this angry, fun energy. No way. So maybe it’s good that I came to it all a bit later.
“My Aim is True” is a great album, with songs that Costello performs to this day — and when you consider how many songs he’s written, that’s saying something. But it’s not an album I have much of a relationship with, despite having owned it for maybe 30 years.