Elvis Costello has been a lot of things in his astounding forty-years-and-counting musical career: post-punk prototype, new wave renegade, encyclopedic musical raconteur, image-bending iconoclast, standards revivalist, acerbic pop culture polemicist, hook-mastering marvel, and whip-smart wordsmith. What he has never been is sloppy. So whether it was a quirk of his songwriting style, or a subtle wink to his besotted listeners, what I seriously doubt is that the following was a coincidence: each of the opening songs on all of his first three albums start with him singing before any other music kicks in. And, as if to highlight it, for the third of those instances, 1979’s anti-romantic paean ‘Accidents Will Happen,’ the lyrical line on which he commences is “Oh I just don’t know where to begin.”
It started with his debut album in 1977 when the former Declan Patrick MacManus, having improbably dared to rename himself “Elvis,” stood pigeon-toed and peering out from behind his impossibly thick-rimmed glasses to boldly announce his arrival with the music-world-changing instant classic “My Aim Is True.” The opening track was ‘Welcome To The Working Week,’ where Elvis alone sang “Now that your…” before being joined by backing vocalists and instrumentation for “…picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired / You can have anyone that you have ever desired / All you gotta tell me now is why, why, WHY, WHY?” Less than a year later – and mere months following the death of the original Elvis – Costello returned, big glasses and matching attitude intact, for “This Year’s Model,” this time stretching out his introductory a cappella on the opening track, ‘No Action’: “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch” he declares savagely, with the drums and organ accompaniment spraying in to join him only for the final word, ‘touch.’ And then finally, in January of 1979, came the apocalyptic “Armed Forces” record, led off by the aforementioned ‘Accidents Will Happen’ and Elvis crying out “Oh I…” as the band then falls into an instant groove on “…just don’t know where to begin.”
Three releases, three occasions, from his anonymous introduction to anointed superstar in just 18 months, all with that same idiosyncratic record-launching characteristic (and all three, as well, produced by another wry pop genius, Nick Lowe). What did it mean, or did it, in fact, signify anything? The alternately curmudgeonly and cuddly Costello would likely be the last one to reveal his possible intent. I’m left to assume that Elvis, ever perspicacious, simply had so much to say he just couldn’t wait to get started.
“Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired” – Welcome To The Working Week (My Aim Is True, 1977)
“I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch” – No Action (This Year’s Model, 1978)
“Oh I just don’t know where to begin” – Accidents Will Happen (Armed Forces, 1979)