We all know the song, but who was Alison?
Elvis Costello’s “Alison” is a prime example of a record that was evidently “New” without being very punk. At the time, the most punk thing about Costello was his subversion of the name Elvis coupled with his mod suits, Buddy Holly glasses and under-dog expression. For a generation of girls brought up on David Essex posters, Elvis might not have been classically attractive, but in the cold new light of New Wave, he was intriguing and intellectual, and both of these traits were suddenly more important.
Written while he was still Declan from the block, and during a time when he gave few interviews, the lyrics for “Alison” have often been interpreted as the thoughts of a murderous or spurned love interest looking for revenge. The refrain “my aim is true”, is seen by some, as a barely disguised threat concerning the singer’s ultimately murderous intentions, rather than an honest confessional to his true love. It’s also the line that he chose to title his first album.
“I’ve always told people that I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her”.
In his book Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink , Mr Costello also tells the tale of how he came to write the song in the first place. The explanation gets very “songwriter-y” as he cites both The Detroit Spinners “Ghetto Child” and Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” as inspiration, “I broke up the line “I know this world is killing you” in the same staccato fashion as the “Life ain’t so easy when you’re a …” that precedes that title refrain of the Spinners’ hit.”
We’re somewhat relieved that we didn’t know all this at the time. Punk and new wave were by definition supposed to be new and entirely unburdened by what had gone before, and certainly not just intellectual updates of previous hits. But then again, we didn’t know music like Elvis did.
He goes on, “I believed that “Alison” was a work of fiction, taking the sad face of a beautiful girl glimpsed by chance and imagining her life unravelling before her. It was a premonition, my fear that I would not be faithful or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to jilt the love that I had longed for. I have no explanation for why I was able to stand outside reality and imagine such a scene as described in the song and to look so far into the future, or what in the world would make me want this terrible prediction to come true or become untrue.”
“The name that I chose was almost incidental. I knew it couldn’t be a name of a glamorous, sophisticated woman, like Grace or Sophia, or a poetic heroine, like Eloise or Penelope. I needed a name that sounded like a girl anyone might know, and “Alison” fitted the tune. There was never any violence intended in the refrain, just culpability. “This world” that was “killing” the heroine embraced all the circumstances I’d imagined for that nameless girl, a deadening of dreams through betrayal into bitterness. That the singer was the one doing the damage was as much as I could admit”.
Really, ‘Alison” can be seen as a love song to under achievers everywhere. The “supermarket” might be “Alison’s” dead end, but the call is for all of us to never stop dreaming, having ideas or ultimately sell ourselves short. We all knew an Alison, but we didn’t want to be one. Written before Declan even had a recording deal, maybe somewhere it also served as a reminder to himself.
“Alison”, along with all the other tracks on “My Aim is True” were recorded in just 6, 4 hour sessions on 8-track, with producer Nick Lowe at Pathway Studios, London. “Alison” was released by Stiff Records, as the second single from the album on 21 May 1977.
“Alison” has also been covered by Linda Ronstadt, in 1978, and by Everything But The Girl on their album “Acoustic” in 1992.