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Alison by Elvis Costello

Album: My Aim Is TrueReleased: 1977
  • Costello has never revealed who this is about. In the liner notes to his Girls Girls Girls compilation album, he wrote, "Much could be undone by saying more."
  • As is usually the case in Elvis Costello lyrics, the protagonist is sexually frustrated (see "Watching the Detectives") and mad at the guy who always gets the girl. In this tale of unrequited love, "My aim is true" does not imply pure intentions; it means he wants to kill her.
  • The chorus is based on a song by The Detroit Spinners called "Ghetto Child."
  • The line in this song, "My Aim Is True," provided the title for the album.
  • My Aim Is True was Costello's first album. He did not have a backing band at the time, so Nick Lowe, who produced the album, brought in a group called Clover. Huey Lewis was in the band, but didn't participate in the sessions because they didn't need a harmonica player. Alex Call was the lead singer of Clover, and he wasn't needed on "Alison" either. Call told us, "Elvis Costello was at that time Dec McManus, he was using his real name. He was just this mild-mannered, meek little songwriter who would hang out around Stiff Records, which was our management office. Elvis once said, 'Man, I wish I could sing like you.' They went and cut at this little place called Pathways - a little 8-track studio so small that all you had just enough space to play your instrument. They went in that first session, and in one session they cut 'Alison' and 'Red Shoes' and 'Less Than Zero,' these classic songs. I remember hearing them at this Rock 'n' Roll house we lived in outside of Headley, South of London called the Headley Grange House. John McFee (Clover bass player) brought back a reel-to-reel tape on one of those old Wollensak tape recorders. He played this stuff, and I mean, I was ready to quit after hearing that - it was so astounding. They did like three 8-12 hour sessions, and that was My Aim Is True. That is a classic record, just unbelievable. We were managed by the same guys and we hung out a lot with Nick. Nick produced a lot of our early sessions there. We made 2 albums with Mutt Lange, and nothing happened with the band. We came close in England to breaking a single, but it didn't work and we ended up breaking up." (Check out our interview with Alex Call.)
  • Linda Ronstadt recorded this on her 1978 Living in the USA album and released the song as a single. The single didn't chart on the Hot 100 - a rare miss for Ronstadt, who was very popular at the time. The album, however, sold over two million copies, providing Costello with substantial royalties as the writer of one of its 10 tracks. He credits these earnings with keeping him afloat in the early years before he caught on.
  • There were two singles released in the US. The B-side of one has a mono version of "Alison," the other has a live version of "Miracle Man" that was recorded on August 7, 1977 at the Nashville Rooms in London.
  • Costello explained in Esquire: "We put these cheap synth strings on the track before there were really even synths. They said, 'The strings will make it a hit!' It was never a hit."
  • The B-side of the UK single is "Welcome to the Working Week." A few copies were released with the A-side pressed on white vinyl while the B-side is the usual black.
  • This song was used in an episode of That 70's Show when Hyde contemplates moving to New York to follow a girl who wants to start a Punk Rock band. (thanks, Jim - Melbourne, FL)
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Comments: 26

Elvis Costello doesn't hide murder... If it was about about killing someone, he would have made that very clear.Brenden - Waukesha, Wi
Peter Asher [He was Senior V.P. at Sony Music and co-president of Sanctuary Artist Management,work A & R for Apple, 1989 Grammy for Producer of the Year]: "In Rolling Stone he said he hated Linda Ronstadt's version. He cashed the check, but…(laughter). He came close to apologizing to me, years later. I love Elvis Costello. I know him well but he just kind went “well ya know – mumble mumble” – one of those things. He didn't actually go “you're right it was a stupid thing to say,” but he came damn close."Deethewriter - Saint Petersburg, Russia Federation
I think this song is about Heroin addition - "i heard that little friend of mine took off your party dress" - referring to heroin as his "little friend" - Elvis used to do heroin.
The rest is about her pathetic life since they were friends years back, her sad marriage, her addiction, her "silly things she says", and her destructive life resulted in her husband - "i bet it took all that he could take" before he left her. She is now so down and out and pathetic, he thinks she's better off dead, and "my aim is true" I believe like the others here, that he will help her "out" of this life.
Jo - Adelaide, Australia
To me this is a simple song about devotion to someone who isn't into you. Alison could be either a secret crush all the way to an ex-lover. It doesn't matter. When you feel this way about a person it doesn't go away with time. You can't talk yourself out of feeling this way, and the mere sight of Alison after all this time is still earth shattering. "My aim is true" simply means "my love for you is pure and honest." It almost seems like Alison is a trolphy bride who is simply another aquisition for her husband. And perhaps he's bored of her. From the perspective of the songwriter, she would have been his whole world.Steve - Chino Hills, Ca
leander, i think the line "...i only know it isn't mine" is another play on words. ie. another persons body has been having love, not his.Lenny - Bath, United Kingdom
This would be a cool song for the Fox medical drama "House". Doctor Cameron's first name on the show is "Allison". Back when Chase and Cameron were having trouble with their relationship (they later became a married couple). I admit it I watch way too much tv and have a lot of time on my hands (drinking and matching good songs with good tv programs is a hobby of mine). Cheers to all.Mickey Knox - El Rey, Nm
All consuming love, regret, loss, sentimentality, distance. The polite torture of seeing someone, think school reunion. Think mid 30's when your past seemed so perfect. There is no murder here, Elvis did not mean that all.

Has no-one experienced bumping into your old love and you are expected to be graceful when you have a public encounter? It is internal agony, sadness - all these feelings, that you thought you had gotten over. Love is love. Its always still there, and you tend to tear down the idea of their happiness because it makes you feel better.
Emily - Canberra, Australia
You can here it in his voice.You can hear what he means because of the sweetness in his voice.He's not mad just really sad because they could not work it out and shes committed to this other man that clearly does not love her.They are supposed to be together but they cannot be.Thats life.Allison - New Jersey, Nj
I was named after this song too AND today is my birthday. It was so cool, because we heard this song at the restaurant I went to for my Bday dinner. Naturally, my Mom got really excited and urged that we look-up and download this song as soon as we got home. I later found out, she didnt remember why she choose this song..... oh well. I love it anyway!!! They call me Ali ;)Alison - Bend , Or
In an interview video I watched once he said this song refered to a girl who worked in a grocery store that he never got the nerve up to talk to. I don't think she is pregnant. She is just loving somebody that is not his "body." His aim is true meaning his intentions and his honor. He said the girl had really low self esteem which are the "silly things" that she says that he wishes he could tell her how great she is without being wierd.Stacy - West Hartford, Ct
"I think somebody better put out the big light"...I don't think this is necessarily a violent comment...may mean to turn away the spotlight that reveals his beloved as 'silly'.Alan - Cookeville, Tn
I wonder if he meant it in a less literal sense, so instead of "my aim is true" meaning I can shoot you and you'll be dead, he means that he's the one who can end her pain because he's in love with her. Another thought; he mentions the word valentine, and one of the most common icons associated with love and valentines is Cupid who shoots an arrow from a bow, which would tie in with the theme of love, and it is certainly a love song(however masked it may be lyrically), as well as the shooting aspect.Jesse - Hamilton, On
Alsion, PLEASE, for your own good, get back together with this guy. If nothing else, he can write a song.Jessica - Dallas, Ga
I don't dig any deeper than the lyrics, because they speak for themselves. He still loves her, she moved on to someone else. He would like for her not to be happy with anyone but him, and he doesn't want to hear otherwise. His aim is true. Beautiful song.Jessica - Dallas, Ga
I think Evan from Aurora IL is ABSOLUTELY right--the lines about Alison "loving somebody" but the singer knowing "it isn't mine" are wordplay shuttling between "somebody" and "some body". That's what I myself concluded a few years ago after long puzzlement.

Since we all know that "little friend" can mean "penis", perhaps the phrase is introduced in the song to show affectionate, or not so affectionate*, contempt for an actual (or fictional) male human being: i.e. the meaning is "that friend of mine who's something of a prick".
_______________________________
*Actually, Elvis sings the phrase "little friend of mine" rather affectionately.

I think Costello is the king of wordplay: his most intricate wordplay is probably in 4 lines from "Big Sister's Clothes":

She's got eyes like saucers,
Oh, you think she's a dish;
She's the blue chip
That belongs to the big fish.

Dig it! Saucer & dish; chip & dish; blue chip; chip & fish (that is "fish & chips")! And whatever other meanings are in there.
Stephen - Sunnyside, Ny
He is not referring to the baby being not his, he says i dont know if you are loving somebody but i know it isnt mine as in he knows shes not loving his body,so i think the pregnancy idea is wrong. its a play on words like 'some-body but i know it isnt mine(body)' And you forget she has a husband now, and he took all he could take so i believe that my aim is true refers to that elvis loves her for the right reasons. like his cause is pure unlike her husband. as far as i wish i could stop you from talking i think thats like when women talk about how their abusive or bad husbands arent so bad and normally arent like this.Evan - Aurora, Il
I know Elvis Costello has a certain amount of depth in his lyrics, but I don't think there's anything particularly tricky about this one. He's singing about some girl he presumably used to date, sees her around and she gives him the brush off. You know how it can be with an ex. "My aim is true" is either talking about his feelings for her, or the accuracy with which he's dissected her situation. It has nothing to do with killing anybody. I'm sure this is a direct song he wrote about a real situation in his own life.John - Washington, Dc
Another personal favoutite. I enjotyed youding your comments. The very fact we don't really know what he means and have our own ideas and suggestions makes it an enduring classic.Andy - Halesowen, West Midlands, United Kingdom
There has been much discussion about the meaning of Elvis Costello's slow-tempo ballad, "Alison" - the lyrics of which the album "My Aim is True" takes its title. While EC himself purportedly mentioned in an interview that this song was about a woman he used to see in the grocery store, and that "my aim is true" meant that his focus on fame would result in bringing evil into the world, a careful analysis of the lyrics gives us a different meaning.

The first stanza:

"Oh it's so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl. And with the way you look I understand that you are not impressed."

What is the way she looks? Later on, we will learn that EC means that the way she looks is pregnant. Why is she not impressed?

"But I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress."

Here we have the first hint that the song has a sexual aspect to it - hinting at her pregnancy. Who is EC's "little friend"? Perhaps the little friend is EC's evil alter ego to which he refers, with the double entendre meaning, of course, is that his "little friend" is his penis.

"I'm not going to get too sentimental like those other sticky valentines, ?cause I don't know if you've been loving somebody. I only know it isn't mine."

The end of the first stanza confirms that she's pregnant: "I only know it isn't mine". Another hint above, too, is when he uses the adjective "sticky" we can guess that EC thinks that the child may in fact be his, but that he is in denial about it.

The lyrics continue:
"Alison, I know this world is killing you. Oh, Alison, my aim is true."
Here EC is perhaps trying to alleviate his guilt. The world is killing Alison, so EC will not really be at fault if she dies - for example, by murder. One can suspect murder at the end of the second stanza:

"Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say. I think somebody better put out the big light, cause I can't stand to see you this way."

Alison is perhaps telling EC he is the father, and he can't stand to hear it - so somebody better put out "the big light" of Alison's life, because EC can't stand to see her pregnant and accusatory.

Then the repeated lyric "my aim is true, my aim is true", which ends the song, hints that EC may be talking about killing her himself - as in aiming a gun. What a dark song! If one did not listen to the lyrics, "Alison" sounds like a love ballad in its tempo and crooning sound. The motif of dark and brooding lyrics focused on death, guilt, and the irony of presentation in a ballad or up tempo poppy tune is a hallmark of EC.
Leander - Bangkok, Thailand
This tune was also covered by Linda Ronstadt. Elvis described her versions as "torture" or something nasty like that.Don - Newmarket
I love the live version from the promo single 'Live at Hollywood High' that came with 'Armed Forces'.Ernie - Kranj
Once in an interview Costello echoed a sentiment by Bob Dylan about writing lyrics, which is that if you have the temerity to write a line attacking or criticising someone, you should also be able to have the same line applied to your own self. With that in mind, I believe the line "I think somebody better put out the big light" could apply as much to the singer as to the subject of the song. (After all, he sings "the" rather than "your"). Anyone agree?Jonathan - Port Of Spain, South America
Costello [King Elvis II] has denied that this song is about murder, and that "my aim is true" not in a weaponry way, but rather as proof of devotion.Craig - Madison, Wi
I thought the name of this song was "My Aim is True?" In any case, I love it and the band I was in during the late 70's played it at clubs often...it was a favorite crowd pleaser.Layla - Mission Viejo, Ca
I get the impression that it's about him wanting to kill her because she's destructing herself so much.Sari - Hanover, Pa
i'm named after this song:)Alison - Fairfield, Ct