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Elvis Costello: Many Happy Returns To 'My Aim Is True'

Monday, 24 July 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

Take a look at the songwriting credits on the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s seminal 1968 single Fire and, alongside those of the bandleader and his co-conspirator, Vincent Crane,  you’ll find the names Mike Finesilver and Peter Ker. Less than a decade later, with the royalties from the record tucked in their pockets, the duo would turn four walls in north London into a den of punk creativity.

The cosy Pathway Studios was quickly home to a couple of all-time classic debut albums: the Damned’s ‘Damned Damned Damned’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim is True’. Both were produced by Nick Lowe and put out on Stiff Records, with the latter, released this month in 1977, a whirlwind job that captured the first buds from one of the finest songwriters ever to do it.

"Elvis Costello, the Damned, Wreckless Eric and more – where were those records cut? In Pathway, a tiny studio in Stoke Newington,” Lowe told Uncut in 2014. “It had a great engineer, Barry Farmer, who had pretty much built the place. It was completely analogue, all glowing valves, and it was boiling hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, but it had a fantastic sound.”

In 2008, Farmer recalled the studio in fine detail (including the desk he built in the mid-’70s) when personally joining in a Gearslutz forum discussion. Specifically relating to his work with Costello, he said: “I did a lot of the engineering at Pathway and did almost all of the early Stiff repertoire, including ‘My Aim Is True’. Most of the distinctive sound on that album is achieved through the use of a single, fixed delay from the sync head of the multi-track, which I suggested to Nick Lowe as an option and which he subsequently stuck on just about everything! Great record, wonderful musicians.”

At that time, Costello had no backing group. The recruitment of his most celebrated cohorts, the Attractions, would not be completed for some time. Instead, ‘My Aim is True’ was tracked by Costello, Lowe and members of an American country rock band called Clover: John McFee (guitar and pedal steel), Sean Hopper (piano and organ), Johnny Ciambotti (bass) and Mickey Shine (drums). Clover’s vocalists weren’t along for this ride, but one of them, Huey Lewis, wouldn’t have to wait long for his turn in the spotlight.

The main battle for Costello, though, remained winning people over in order to perform his own songs. His early demos had been passed up by labels despite some radio play on BBC London, while his initial interactions with Stiff saw him regarded as a songwriter more than an artist. Mystery Dance, which would make the cut for ‘My Aim Is True’, was considered as a demo for Dave Edmunds, for example. Speaking to Record Collector in 1995, Costello recalled the period:

“I was writing songs very fast, and one day I went to Pathway Studios where Nick Lowe was producing a Wreckless Eric record. Wreckless was very nervous so Nick took him for a drink to loosen him up a little bit, and I recorded eight songs while they were gone, just guitar and voice. That was the bulk of the demos for ‘My Aim Is True’. Up until that point Stiff had actually considered launching Wreckless and myself on the same record, like ‘Chuck meets Bo’, with a side each. They didn’t really think either of us could sustain a whole album, in terms of the audience’s tolerance for two such unusual singers. Then it became apparent I had five times more songs than him, and that they needed to do a full album with me."

The recording contract Costello signed with Stiff was one of a number of offers received, including a “pitiful” prospective deal with Virgin. Eventually Stiff agreed to match Costello’s wages at his day job behind a computer at Elizabeth Arden, allowing him to look after his wife and child. Still, he would have to wait a short while to see the fruits of his labours.

“I was making ‘My Aim Is True’ in stages, using sick days and holidays off work,” he continued in the Record Collector interview. “It only took about 24 hours of studio time, but I had to keep working because I had a wife and child to support. Originally, I was the first artist signed to Stiff. Nick Lowe was the first artist on the label, but he wasn’t actually signed. Despite that, I ended up with the 11th release on the label. All these records came through from people like the Damned and Richard Hell, which were very much tied to the moment, so their timing was crucial. It was frustrating for me because I wanted to get on with it.

“Not that it changed my life when Less Than Zero came out. In fact, the first three singles did nothing. But I’d amassed enough material over those sessions to make up an album, which was when Stiff bosses Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson asked me to turn pro. I said, ‘only if I can earn as much money doing this as I do in my job, because I have my responsibilities’. If I’d been on my own, I’d have taken the risk, but I couldn’t for my family. So they promised they’d pay me the same as my job – which wasn’t a fortune so it wasn’t too difficult.”

Lifting his stage name from the King (who would die soon after the release of ‘My Aim is True’) at the suggestion of Riviera, Costello was off and running. Soon after the album’s completion he began assembling the Attractions and before 1977 was out had released a further classic single in Watching The Detectives, a song that featured the recording bow of long-time pianist Steve Nieve. Also recorded at Pathway, it became Costello’s first hit.

It’s true that tiny studios, including numerous bedrooms, have produced hundreds of records, but Pathway was unique. Like so many places, it was subsequently converted into a flat (and occupied by the Only Ones’ Peter Perrett) but the legacy it left behind is massive. ‘My Aim is True’ is at the top of the pile: many happy returns.

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