1977 was the year that we said goodbye to one Elvis and hello to another. As we mourned the passing of the King, a punk pretender to the throne was suddenly in our faces. Following months of publicity in the music press and three singles that won friends but missed the charts, it was that November that the name of Elvis Costello appeared on the singles bestsellers for the first time with “Watching The Detectives.”
This acerbic figurehead of the new wave was the pride of Stiff Records, who had tried “Less Than Zero,” “Alison” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” as singles, and unleashed Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True in July. While the singles missed out, the LP did respectably well, spending five weeks in the UK Top 20 in August and September.
Breaking into the system
But what Elvis was still missing was a single to get him into the living rooms of a nation that was flirting with the new wave, but still married to the dependable pop of Hot Chocolate and Smokie — and, indeed, to a huge, posthumous No.1 by the other Elvis, the Presley hit “Way Down.”
Then came “Watching The Detectives,” the 45 that would take Costello’s profile up several notches. These are the eye-witness memories of Paul Conroy, the music executive who played a key role in that adventure. “I was the general manager at Stiff when ‘Detectives’ came out,” he remembers. “Elvis had been launched shortly after the other Elvis passed away. I was about to flypost London, but thought it was better to hold back for a time.
“We were hugely excited to get the single on the radio, and also we’d learned to get our releases to be stocked by all retailers [and not just] the indie shops, or should I say I had. Running the day-to-day of a label was a steep learning curve, and was made more difficult by the occasional visits from the Captain [Sensible, of The Damned] spilling beer over my desk, or the frequent calls to the glaziers to repair the front window of 32 Alexander Street when Jake [Riviera, Stiff co-founder] got excited with a cider bottle.”
An eventual Top 20 success
“Detectives” entered the chart on November 5, 1977 at No.33 and, after a week of uncertainty when it didn’t move, the single climbed to an eventual peak of two weeks at No.15 at the end of the year.
“All of a sudden,” recalls Conroy, “the label started to grow up and Top Of The Pops appearances beckoned. We’d been press favourites but it was that record that led to a string of hits which followed — sadly not from Elvis, but many other turns. Jake and [fellow co-founder] Dave Robinson agreed to disagree and our star hit artist moved with Jake and Nick Lowe to Radar. Was it all over for Stiff?! No, it was the end of the beginning. Phew.”
“Watching The Detectives” is on the deluxe edition of My Aim Is True, which can be bought here.
Follow the Official Elvis Costello playlist.