Under the covers... Elvis Costello Armed Forces

Johnny Sharp on the creation of the artwork for Elvis Costello's 1979 album Armed Forces

For a man not blessed with the kind of appearance naturally lending itself to the limelight, Elvis Costello always did a damn good job of promoting himself. It helped that those around him were past masters of pop marketing. After all, music lovers of a certain age will recall the infamous t-shirt of his first label Stiff, bearing the deathless slogan: 'If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a f**k'.


ostello pictured with The Attractions – (l-r) Steve Nieve (piano), Pete Thomas (drums), Elvis Costello and Bruce Thomas (bass)

Board Games
From the very start, they went the extra mile. For instance, in 1977, when label bosses (and Costello management) Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson wanted to garner attention for the hot new talent they'd signed and capitalise on A&R interest from the US, they sent the bold young blade to plug into a battery-powered amp outside the Hilton Hotel in London's Park Lane, and serenade senior international record industry figures attending a CBS/Columbia records conference. As the delegates broke for lunch, selections from Elvis's debut album My Aim Is True were lustily belted out, as a man with a sandwich board walked up and down next to him bearing the message 'Welcome to London, home of Stiff records'. Meanwhile, other Stiff records staff handed out flyers imploring passers-by to 'Come and see Elvis' at his Camden Dingwalls show that night.


Barney Bubbles' artwork for the sleeve of Elvis Costello's 1977 debut album My Aim Is True saw the phrase 'Elvis Is King' repeated in a checkerboard pattern, like a subliminal message

Eventually, the police were called (the hotel thought it was a political demo) and the 22-year-old was arrested (but released, thankfully, in time to play that night's gig at Dingwalls) and then fined £5 for 'obstruction'. However, he also made the front cover of Melody Maker, and CBS soon signed Elvis and put out My Aim Is True across the Pond. Job done.


Jake Riviera and Stiff also knew how to ensure their product stood out in the racks of the nation's record shops. With help from the acclaimed design genius and Stiff in-house art director Barney Bubbles (much more of whom later), they came up with a checkerboard pattern on Costello's debut LP My Aim Is True that featured inlaid lettering, like a subliminal message, reading, 'Elvis Is King' over and over, like a hypnotic mantra.

Model Behaviour
And if the mind games didn't work, maybe bribery would? Inside early copies of the record buyers found a leaflet imploring them to 'Help us hype Elvis', offering respondents a free copy of the album for a friend.

In an era long before such metrics were forensically and digitally tracked to analyse the return such an investment could bring, it's hard to tell how big an effect this had. But what we do know is that by the end of 1978, Elvis was one of the new wave's biggest acts, with four consecutive Top 30 hits to his name.



The two sides of the LP's inner sleeve, one showing Costello mid-air over a rubber ring, the other the band under a monkey puzzle tree

Even the pop press and teen magazines were embracing him, despite his slightly unconventional heartthrob credentials. The man himself appreciated the slightly surreal nature of the situation: 'For a brief, improbable moment the horrified children of Britain were offered magazines featuring pop pinups of myself and the most handsome band in the world', he wrote in the sleeve notes to the 2002 reissue of This Year's Model, 'alongside Debbie Harry and those other blonde beauties, The Police'.


Rear of the album's fold-out cover

Yet the push to turn Elvis into an international star was only just beginning. Jake Riviera had split from Dave Robinson to set up Radar records, and took Elvis with him. But the old attention-grabbing modus operandi remained in evidence ahead of the third Costello album, this time in 20-foot-high form, dominating the skyline of London's West End ahead of a string of Christmas shows taking place at the Dominion theatre.

'Lasers were the feature of the Christmas illuminations on Oxford Street that year', the singer recalled. 'At the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, the last of the beams would occasionally dance across the face of my monolithic cardboard likeness that loomed above the marquee of the Dominion Theatre… announcing the release of Armed Forces [which was due out on January the 5th 1979]'.


flyer included with early LPs

The Story Unfolds
'Jake had stolen the idea from an event in 1956, when another huckster had unveiled a giant Elvis cutout at the Paramount Theatre on Broadway... I wasn't so sure about being a pinup or a cutout or a blowup'. Jake Riviera was prepared to invest in his charge because he knew Armed Forces had the ammunition to fire Elvis into the upper reaches of the charts. And even before lead single 'Oliver's Army' proved him right with a No 2 hit, Radar records spent a fair old whack on its packaging.