Listen Along: My Aim Is True By Elvis Costello

When I was working through my First Song First Side First Album: Who Did It Best? I remembered how much I love My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello. 30 some odd years since my original obsession with the album and I still know every lyric and every guitar lick by heart. So it seems like a natural choice for a Listen Along.

The apex of my Elvis period occurred during my freshmen year of college. That year I camped overnight outside the Orpheum in Boston to get tickets to a couple of his Blood and Chocolate shows.

The first night of the three I got called out of the audience and got to spin the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook.”

  • he asked me what my name was and made a quip about Eric Clapton;
  • he asked me what song I wanted to hear (I said “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” and received thunderous applause);
  • I spun the wheel and it came up “Lip Service”;
  • I danced in a go-go cage with Trixie LaFontaine on stage while Elvis Costello and The Attractions played the song;
  • All the way back to the T stop people were clapping me on the back and saying “Eric, you’re a wildman!” – it was my first taste of stardom

I saw him again a few nights later, and then in the spring my friend Lisa and I went to visit my friend Robert at Brown where Elvis was playing a solo acoustic show in their hockey rink with Nick Lowe. I remember Elvis segueing from “Pump It Up” to “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and then to Prince’s “Sign O the Times.” I also realized that great songs are great whether you have a full band or not.

Anyway, I love Elvis, and I love this album. Let’s listen, shall we?

Listen Along: My Aim Is True By Elvis Costello

“Welcome to the Working Week” – 1:22
I love the faux ballad intro with the dirty imagery, and then the kick like it had always been that way. For punk rock, this sure does have a lot of chords. And a bridge. And then it’s over. On this listen I’m noticing how much work there was on the backing vocals. Nice work, Clover!
“Miracle Man” – 3:31
What? Clover? Oh, Clover was the name of the bay area band that Nick Lowe arranged to back up Elvis on these tracks. (Although they were in London so I’m still very confused). Later, some members of Clover went on to be Huey Lewis and the News. I love all of the guitar licks in this song (and on the record, really). John McFee played the guitar, and it sounds like he just had a blast. More about him later. “You never asked me what I wanted/You only asked me why” puts Elvis at two for two in perfect openers.
“No Dancing” – 2:39
On this listening, I remember how retro all of this sounded – Phil Spector, maybe? Even at the time it seemed like something from long ago that I could somehow relate to. Getting some more tasty playing from John McFee. And great background vocals. He really got his thousand pounds worth out of this band.
“Blame It on Cain” – 2:49
John McFee’s guitar playing breaks out on this one. He also plays Pedal Steel and has played on records for the Grateful Dead and Emmylou Harris, and I think that pedal sensitivity is what gives his playing so much life. The drums and bass playing are great here, also. The band is just obviously having a blast. The bass player, John Ciambotti, went on to play on Lucinda’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and some other great records.
“Alison” – 2:54
In the swirl of all the aggressive music that was surrounding us in high school, this may have been the only ballad that we were exposed to. A lovely, weird, tale about how a young lady’s life might turn out. Beautiful guitar from McFee throughout. “Stop you from talking” is a great moment – I didn’t know you could do that – color your words with actions – until I heard this. I like that the album title is in a song, but not the name of a song.
“Sneaky Feelings” – 2:09
“Why don’t we call it a day, and we can both confess
You can’t force me to use a little tenderness
White lies, alibis, anything but say that it’s true
Now we could sit like lovers, staring in each other’s eyes
But the magic of the moment might become too much for you”
“Watching The Detectives” – 3:45
I guess this was a different band entirely, but Steve Nieve who later was one of the attractions plays on this cut – his keyboard moves really shine – that high organ note that drops, the little piano arpeggios – all so good. I don’t think this was on the original album, but it was on the first copy I had. I can’t even conceive of the world where this wasn’t on the record. This song and Waiting for the end of the world are my paradigm for how side a and side b of an album should close. That bass line is the whole world, that guitar riff is perfect spy material, and some weird lady is filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake. A++++
“(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” – 2:47
I’m just catching on to something – these drums sound nice and live – the Hugh Padgham gating hadn’t happened yet. Don’t get me wrong – I loved that Peter Gabriel stuff, but these drums are refreshingly real. This drummer’s name is Mickey Shine and he later played in Tommy Tutone. ‘Oh, I said, “I’m so happy I could die”/She said, “Drop dead,” then left with another guy.’ A story of my life.
“Less Than Zero” – 3:15
Great drums again, tasty guitar licks (I really like the distorted hits on the chorus), and the keyboard by future News member Sean Hopper is super fun.
“Mystery Dance” – 1:38
My band in high school, The Larrys, played this song. It’s so great. “Both of us were willing, but we didn’t know how to do it.” And that guitar solo is perfect.
“Pay It Back” – 2:33
Great piano from Sean Hopper. Apparently, in 2007 McFee, Hopper and Ciambotti backed up Elvis at a benefit in San Francisco – the only time this combo played live.
“I’m Not Angry” – 2:57
There’s a theory about relationships that suggests the things you find most attractive right at first are the things that will most annoy you later. The whispered “Angry” used to delight me; now it kind of bothers me. Blazing leads, though!
“Waiting for the End of the World” – 3:22
I played bass in high school, and this was one of the easiest to pick up and most satisfying to play bass lines I can recall. Oh hey, there’s that pedal steel! Waiting for the end of the world – that’s what we were all doing!

If you like My Aim is True, maybe give Songs About Russia a listen.

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