ME’s list of Great Debut albums (Part 1 of an Occasional Series) – My Aim is True

The inspiration for this post came from my picking up a copy of Uncut magazine featuring Elvis Costello. Uncut’s Ultimate Music Guide does these great tributes to musical artists where they’ll intersperse magazine articles (NME in this case) from the artist’s early days with contemporary reviews of their albums. Always excellent.

As a result, I decided to listen to EC’s catalog all the way through. (I’m up to 1980’s Get Happy!!) While I know some of his catalog incredibly well, some of it is just unknown to me. I tend not to stay with any artist over the long haul – not even Springsteen – instead tending to dip in and out of their catalog periodically That said, I did review Elvis’s most recent album not too long ago and went to see him a few years back.

I then started thinking well, what are the greatest debut albums of all time? Or at least, what is my opinion of that since there is no objective answer. So I’m starting here but my full list is at the end of the post. Feel free to argue with me or add your own list. The casual observer will see that my list covers the years 1963 to 2001, leans heavily toward classic rock and punk, and has one female (Chrissie Hynde) and no Black performers. Mea culpa but it is what it is.

Anyway, I gave his debut album My Aim is True a spin in the way I prefer – driving around in the car. When I did it, I did not realize that July 22, 1977, was the day it was released. So, forty-five years ago. Wow! (I jumped the gun by a day but you know, fuck it).

And boy does this album ever hold up. Inspired as Costello once told British critic Nick Kent by “revenge and guilt,” it hits hard with “Welcome to the Working Week” (all 1:22 of it) and never lets up:

Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that you have ever desired,
all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why.
Welcome to the workin’ week.
Oh I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you.
Welcome to the workin’ week.

This album and the next four were produced by Nick Lowe who had himself only recently managed to stumble his way into a gig as a producer. The sound is great and raw as hell for the punk era.

But it was pretty obvious from the beginning that Elvis Costello (born Declan McManus) was smarter and more clever than the average punk. By his own admission, he was heavily influenced by The Beatles, still owning to this day acetates of early Beatles singles (he’s also a Liverpudlian) that his father Ross, a big band singer, brought home.

Costello kept his day job as a data entry clerk at Elizabeth Arden during the sessions. He recorded the album with Huey Lewis’ band Clover (Huey wasn’t there as he had taken some vacation) as they were in town and Elvis had no band. Most of the tracks were recorded live and in first takes with little overdubbing. (See, this is the beauty of it. Just plug in and go- ME).

Here’s “Blame It On Cain.” Again, gotta quote the lyrics:

Blame it on Cain
Don’t blame it on me
Oh, oh, oh it’s nobody’s fault
But we need somebody to burn

Allmusic said: “Still, there’s no mistaking this for anything other than a punk record, and it’s a terrific one at that since even if he buries his singer/songwriter inclinations, they shine through as brightly as his cheerfully mean humor and immense musical skill; he sounds as comfortable with a ’50s knockoff like “No Dancing” as he does on the reggae-inflected “Less than Zero.” (A song about fascism in Britain.)

I’ve always loved (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Of it, EC said, “I wrote it in 10 minutes on a train out of Liverpool — the whole song in one gulp. … And then there was the whole comedic thing of getting it down. Nowadays you can demo things on your phone. I had to block it out in my mind. Then I had to get off the train, get to my mother’s house, grab an old guitar I had there and play the song until I imprinted it in my memory. I had no tape recorder. I had no way other than repetition to drill it into my head so I wouldn’t lose it.”

This song contains perhaps the greatest couplet in the history of music telling the whole story in exactly two lines:

Oh, I said, “I’m so happy, I could die.”
She said “Drop dead,” then left with another guy.

This is, of course, the album that contained both “Alison” AND “Watching the Detectives.” The latter was a single in the UK but was added to the US album as the final track. A great, great, somewhat evil sound with, heavily percussive and nasty. “She looks so good that he gets down and begs.”

You think you’re alone until you realize you’re in it
Now fear is here to stay. Love is here for a visit
They call it instant justice when it’s past the legal limit
Someone’s scratching at the window. I wonder who is it?

The detectives come to check if you belong to the parents
Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter’s disappearance
Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay
It only took my little fingers to blow you away

A terrific album. Elvis would have more of them but never again would he sound so revenge-y, so guilty, so angry. Unfortunately, he’s gotten a bit twee in his later years, fancying himself a composer of oratorios, consorting with the likes of Burt Bacharach and string quartets. All well and good I suppose because an artist has gotta stretch. And it’s nice that he has a whole ‘I’m in love’ album about Diana Krall. But I’ll take the angry guy any day, thanks.

Here’s the rest of my list which I’ll visit periodically in future posts. In no particular order

  • Aerosmith
  • Big Star#1 Record
  • Ten – Pearl Jam
  • Black Sabbath
  • Rage Against the Machine
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield
  • Layla (well, it IS the debut of Derek and the Dominos)
  • Lynyrd Skynryd
  • The Doors
  • Marquee Moon – Television
  • The Cars
  • Boston
  • Pretenders
  • Please Please Me  – Fab Four
  • Music from Big Pink – The Band
  • The Clash
  • Appetite for Destruction – Guns ‘N Roses
  • Are You Experienced? – Jimi Hendrix
  • Van Halen
  • Outlandos d’Amour – The Police
  • Dire Straits
  • Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • Crosby, Stills & Nash
  • In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson
  • Can’t Buy a Thrill- Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan
  • Chicago Transit Authority
  • Fresh Cream
  • Truth – Jeff Beck Group
  • The Allman Brothers Band
  • Face Value – Phil Collins

52 thoughts on “ME’s list of Great Debut albums (Part 1 of an Occasional Series) – My Aim is True

  1. I’ll be looking forward to more of this series, as I share your affection for early releases. Some artists compelled me to go a bit deeper, but most of my collection costs of first and seconds. On another note I read your work years ago in some Boston publications and I worked with a friend of yours at WMEB-FM at the U of Maine in the early 80’s, Dale who’s last name I can’t remember. Enjoying ME.

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    1. Glad you’re enjoying it thus far and welcome to ME. However, I think you have me confused with someone else. I’ve never written for any Boston publications and while yes I live in New England, I don’t even know where U of Maine is.

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  2. Great album, Jim. And I’m afraid one of the few EC albums I’ve heard entirely. As you probably recall, I also thought his most recent full-length album “Hey Clockface” was pretty good!

    As to your list, I know most of the albums – great list! I haven’t really thought about which albums I would list. Skynyrd, The Doors, Dire Straits, Hendrix and Zep would definitely be on there. Also the Allmans!

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    1. His first three albums are all great and as mentioned, I’m listening to the rest.

      I had thought about the ABB but I didn’t think it was a great debut album. But on reflection, I realize that was more due to production than quality. I think I’ll go back and add that in.

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      1. In addition to “My Aim Is True” I’ve listened to some songs from EC’s second and third albums, but not the entire records.

        When it comes to the Allmans, I guess the one that comes to mind first is “At Fillmore East” – just an incredible album!

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        1. EC’s catalog is rich, doubtless – over 40+ years – with pockets of so-so stuff. But overall a lot of it still holds up and sounds fresh.

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  3. OK – I’ll play. We have a few in common. I’m very light on the 21st century for some reason.

    Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?
    Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
    John Prine – s/t
    Television – Marquee Moon
    Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
    The Clash – s/t (although maybe US version doesn’t count)
    Marshall Crenshaw – s/t
    R.E.M. – Murmur
    The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
    De La Soul – Three Feet High and Rising
    Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted
    Nas – Illmatic
    Portishead – Dummy
    Arcade Fire – Funeral

    I like My Aim is True, but like Zeppelin and a few others, I think Costello peaked a few albums in as he grew more ambitious. Imperial Bedroom and Trust (the latter with a bit of pruning in the back half) are my favourites,

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    1. Slanted and Enchanted came up on more than one list that I saw. I don’t know it at all but know its reputation. Murmur came up as well. Interestingly I consider REM one of my Top Ten bands but apart from a few songs, don’t know that album really well. Maybe they’ll be my next back-to-back album listen.

      As to EC, it may very well be that he peaked later. But recall the premise is that these are great debut albums, not necessarily that is the artist’s best album. That said, this album has lost zero impact for me. Still sounds fresh.

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        1. I know some people say that but I think that’s in hindsight. I thought Clover did a damn fine job. Had they not, there is no way it would have gotten the acclaim it did. The songs needed muscular support and got it. Even EC praised their musicianship.

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        1. Two. I’ve pretty much only listed bands I’ve covered on my site (with the exception of Prine). I’ve covered a lot more 1970s albums than I have for the entire 21st century so far, so I think it will probably even out. Also, I forgot Velvet Underground & Nico from my list.

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        2. That’s OK. I forgot the Allmans’ first album which, while it suffers from production issues, has a lot of great stuff.

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        3. Damn! BTW, ‘Watching the Detectives’ was shoved onto the album. Steve Nieve was on it but the great rhythm section were members of Graham Parker and the Rumour. They’d been playing together since school which is why they were so tight.

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    1. Beck is in there with ‘Truth.’ I love Carlos (the man and his music) and I like the debut album but I think it’s good, not great. That said, I probably should go back and give it a spin. I’m enjoying the hell out of listening to EC’s catalog. I’m four albums in and digging it. Why does gas have to be so expensive right now?

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      1. I hung with Elvis so you are are in for lots of great music. Even the later ones that all have gems. I remember when Chet Baker joined him on one of his records (Punch the Clock I think). What a great little unmistakable solo from Chet. Cool story on how Elvis got him to play the gig.
        That Santana album does it for me big time. Nothing like it at the time. Those first few albums were killers. That lineup was the one I liked best.
        Gas? Move north or get a siphoning hose. Or get a good pair of Buster Browns.

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        1. I tend to weave in and out of artists I like over time. So I probably know a cut or two from each of his albums up to a certain point. I think the Chet Baker tune is probably “Shipbuilding.” My wife loves that song especially.
          I liked that Santana lineup too. Neal Schon did himself no favors – from a quality perspective – with a step down to Journey. No comparison.
          Somehow I’ve managed to have excuses to drive enough lately to make it through 4 EC albums.

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        2. We’ve talked about your wife’s love for that cut. I Dont think Neil was on that one. Doesnt ring a bell. But I agree with your Journey comment.
          Im like you with the “weave” thing. The sound system is worth the gas.

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        3. Hmm, you are right about Schon. Shows up on the third album, makes it to the fourth, then splits. Carlos was getting all spiritual and jazzy by then anyway.

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        4. YUp.
          Back to EC. Out of the ones you’re coming to I listened to Blue, King Of America, Spike and Brutal Youth a lot. I found it hard to keep up but I know there is lots of good music waiting for CB to discover.

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        5. As C to the B may or may not know, ME is working his way through Elvis Costello’s albums which is not easy as he has 26 of them. Today while driving around I was listening to an album he released in 2004 called ‘The Delivery Man.’ I bring this to CB’s attention because not only is it a really good album but he also sings duets with both Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. Unfortunately, the Williams duet, “There’s a Story in Your Voice,” didn’t work for me too well as it sounds like she’s doing a parody of a country singer. But EC duets with Emmylou on “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” “The Scarlet Tide,” and “Heart Shaped Bruise.” (Great title.) It was the latter song that made me think, Hmm, CB might dig this album.

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        6. Man that EC is a big chunk of music. I find his output overwhelming in its volume and quality.
          Didnt know this album but yeah you’re band on with Williams on that cut. She has a distinctive voice that I like most the time. Again agreement on the Emmy Lou. I really like her on these kinds of duets and harmony. Goes back to when I first heard her with Parsons. I’ll give this whole record a spin. I plan to do what you are in the midst doing. Like I said I wore out his first foray into country with ‘Blue’
          Here’s a little something you might get a kick out of in the same vein. Elvis’s old buddy Dave Edmunds with at the time their other pal Nick Lowe’s then wife Carlene Carter. All those English guys have the country bone. Plus they rock hard when they are inclined. Thanks for the heads up.

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        7. How did I miss that Nick Lowe was married to her? Never heard him do a lick of country. Those Brits are pretty versatile.

          BTW, that Delivery Man album was supposed to be a concept album. Lucinda might have been doing some kind of playacting role but that’s lost to history.

          “The album had its genesis in a conceptual story apparently written for Johnny Cash. Costello himself states:

          “The Delivery Man started out as a story about the impact on three woman’s lives of a man with a hidden past. The story took the song “Hidden Shame” as its unsung prelude. Parts of the narrative ended up being displaced from the final album by more urgent songs taken from the news headlines.”

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        8. Yeah I heard of this one by Elvis. Lowe had a strong connection to Cash because of Carlene. So much of this creative shit gets buried under the mainstream juggernaut. Impossible to keep up on it unless by accident or word of mouth like you pointing me to these cuts. Music lovers like us get off on the cool music or even the musical ideas they try.
          Im guessing that Lowe and Costello would have had many conversations about this stuff. Pretty sure Nick produced his early recordings. I remember playing that Edmunds/Carter tune to somebody when I got the album and they absolutely hated it. Different strokes.
          I lost track of her but she resurfaced doing some really cool stuff with Mellencamp. Plant as we know dips his toe in this mix. That term ‘country’ sure brings out strong opinions. Such a big spectrum. Like lumping your buddy Dan Hill in with Chuck Berry as ‘rock’
          You have a guy on your side of the border who who creates so much great music and brings folks together to make it. T-Bone Burrnett. Always good taking tunes and other related topics with the Doctor.

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        9. Yeah, Lowe did the first five or so albums, a happy marriage. I think Nick had only recently become an in-house producer at Stiff.
          Yeah, country ain’t quite what she used to be. I only recently learned there is a genre called “bro country.” It’s all about hot girls and cars and stuff. If you listen to this cut, make sure you haven’t eaten first.

          As to Plant, I think he got it just right. He knows who blends with his voice. As to T-Bone, he knows how to produce the right people. I would not have been surprised if he had produced ‘Delivery Man’ but it wasn’t him.

          Dan Hill is such a gifted songwriter he makes Paul Simon sound like The Partridge Family.

          Any thoughts on the death of Godard?

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        10. Cant listen to that song Doc. I trust ya.
          Didnt hear about Godard. Just read a Malle on film book. Ive seen more of his films which I quite like. Not overly familiar with Luc’s work. Should revisit a couple

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        11. Godard died maybe yesterday. I may have seen ‘Breathless’ some years ago. Not sure how well his stuff holds up. The one I remember was One Plus One ‘coz in part it details (for some reason) the Stones working out ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ I think they may even have renamed the movie that. I’ll send you an interesting piece on Godard.

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        12. Send them my way. EC turns up everywhere. On this Wanda record, a Dan Hicks tribute … he’s everywhere. Check out this cut by Wanda and Dave Alvin it kinda reminds us of where it all come from. Brilliant in its simplicity with Dave laying down his great licks. All those folks you like Lennon, Richards etc were listening to this.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILZVDLtH4Pw

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        13. Oh sure. Wanda Jackson. One of the great (relatively) unsung heroines of rockabilly. Interesting to hear her on the tune with EC, a guy that most country people were probably revolted by when he came on the scene. I tell you the arc of his change as an artist is remarkable. If someone listened to some of his albums in the past 5 or 10 years only, then they’d have a completely different picture of him than those of us who were early listeners.

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        14. I think all good musicians that I admire speak their own language and recognize and respect talent anywhere. Look at Cash back when, exposing folks to people like Dylan, Derek and the Dominoes. Those early rockabilly people were rebels. To many to list, Cash being one. Oh yeah there would be a lot of people that couldn’t handle when Elvis (Original Elvis also) came out but their loss. Open the mind and ears folks.
          Absolutely right on on the “arc” of Costello’s music. I know he’s still a rocker at heart plus he does love his country.
          On this same vein, i was listening to the Stray Cats first record yesterday and forgot that Dave Edmunds was one of the producers. Probably why I bought the record in the first place. Our Costello, Lowe, Edmunds bunch got around. Keep listening bud.

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  4. Costello is the only Elvis I was aware of until my teenage years. I revisit my aim is true at least once a month. The extended version with acoustic versions of Blame it on Cain and Mystery Dance will forever bless me with the temporary flesh of a goose.

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