Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Elvis Costello - 40 Years Ago

One of the defining moments in Elvis Costello's storied career was December 17, 1977, when he appeared on Saturday Night Live. Costello was 23 years old. His debut album, My Aim Is True, was released in America in July. When the Sex Pistols were unable to appear on the show as planned, Elvis Costello and the Attractions got their big break.

They were supposed to play the single "Less Than Zero," a catchy tune about a loathsome British politician, but a few bars into the song, Costello put a stop to it. "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "but there's no reason to do this song here." At that point he and the band launched into "Radio Radio," a song that takes a jab at corporate-controlled broadcasting. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was furious. According to some reports, he raised his middle finger at Costello and kept it up until the unapproved song was over. Costello was banned from the show for the next 12 years.

This was a defining moment in my musical experience. In a year in which I was disappointed in Yes (omg, Tormato?) and ELP (Works, Vol. 1 was a pompous if excusable disaster; Works, Vol. 2, a mediocre travesty only exacerbated by the worst prog album of all, Love Beach), it was as if the 70s were all tumbling down; my favorite bands were leaving me wanting less.

And here was Elvis, a new Elvis, no similarity to the old one, except in the (r)evolution that followed. My Aim is True (AM10) remains a stellar moment in rock. It was young, brash and biting. It was a nerdy guy with a Fender Jazzmaster and a spastic playing stance who could write hooks within hooks and used wordplay that you didn't catch until the twentieth time you heard it. It was clever, catchy, crafted yet came off looking deceptively easy. The guitar playing alone is worth the price of admission. Nuance, tone and cool little parts everywhere. Lyrically its a 22 year old weary beyond his years, a new wave Dylan. Vocally its a standout. Later he would hone those talents into one of the most distinctive and musical voices in recent memory. One could argue that this record doesn't show the true depth of the artist's talent, that "Armed Forces" or "King of America" were greater works. But there's always something special about the first one.