Elvis Costello – circa 1980
“And you smile / And you flirt / And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt” – ‘Green Shirt’ (Elvis Costello)
Bonnie Bramlett is best known as half of the duo Delaney and Bonnie. She and her husband, Delaney Bramlett, divorce in 1972. By 1979, she is singing back-up vocals in Stephen Stills’ touring band. Renowned as a ‘blue-eyed soul’ singer, she also throws a mean punch. Just ask the guy on the receiving end of her blow on 16 March 1979. After playing a gig in Columbus, Ohio, that night, members of Stills’ entourage retire to the local Holiday Inn. However, they get into a fight at that establishment. Some fellow from another band makes ‘nasty and disparaging remarks about America’. When Bonnie Bramlett points out the links between the other party’s own music and American rhythm and blues, her new acquaintance describes Ray Charles as “a blind, ignorant nigger” and James Brown as “another dumb nigger.” So Bonnie punches this guy and a full-scale brawl nearly erupts. And what does this have to do with Elvis Costello? Well, he is the one getting up close and personal with Bonnie Bramlett’s fist.
When Bramlett reports the incident to the press, Elvis Costello holds a press conference in New York City. He explains his remarks as “just a way to bring a silly argument to a quick end by saying the most outrageous thing possible. And it worked too.” That’s not exactly a portrait of remorse and contrition. Of course, a cursory examination of Elvis Costello’s music reveals his debt to American music, including rhythm and blues, and there is nothing else to indicate racism or any grudge against Ray Charles or James Brown. But, in his heyday, Elvis Costello has a gift for getting under people’s skin. And a lot of anger to get out of his system. That too is reflected in his music.
The artist who comes to be known as Elvis Costello is born Declan Patrick McManus on 25 August 1954 in London, England. His father, Ross McManus, is a vocalist for a jazz group called The Joe Loss Band. The senior McManus then goes on to perform as a solo cabaret act. He often receives popular records of the day and passes them along to his son, encouraging the boy’s interest in music.
After completing high school, Declan finds work as a computer programmer for cosmetics manufacturer Elizabeth Arden. The eyestrain involved in this occupation results in the spectacles that become Elvis Costello’s trademark look.
In 1974 Declan McManus marries Mary Burgoyne. A son, Matthew, is born to them in 1975.
Despite work and family, Declan maintains an interest in music and, in the early 1970s, begins gigging in folk clubs. In 1976 he forms a pub rock / country rock band called Flip City. A number of demo tapes are recorded in the hopes of securing a recording contract. When things don’t work out so well with Flip City, he goes solo under the name of D. P. Costello, borrowing his mother’s maiden name (or, by another account, his paternal great grandmother’s maiden name).
One of the struggling musician’s demo tapes lands on the desk of Jake Riviera, ‘one of the heads of the fledgling independent record label, Stiff’. Riviera likes what he hears and signs D. P. Costello, stipulating he change his first name to Elvis. This is, of course, after one of rock music’s founding fathers, Elvis Presley. Punk rock, the new style of the time in England, is fond of patently false names like Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer. It is a bit of a giggle to dub the newcomer Elvis, the more so since he is already using the surname Costello, evoking thoughts of the comedian Lou Costello of the famed Abbott And Costello team. So a name like Elvis Costello reads as something akin to ‘fake, joke rock star’. The gag seems a bit more ghoulish when Elvis Presley dies on 16 August 1977, but by then it is too late to change. Elvis Costello’s career is already underway.
Jake Riviera puts Elvis Costello in a recording studio with Nick Lowe as producer. Also signed to Stiff Records as a solo act, singer / songwriter / bassist Nick Lowe is, at the time, best known for his stint with the British rock band Brinsley Schwarz in the early to mid ‘70s. Nick Lowe produces the first five albums recorded by Elvis Costello. Since Costello doesn’t have a band, an American group called Clover are deputised to provide backing. They give their lead singer the day off and work as The Shamrocks. Years later, with their vocalist back aboard, they become famous in their own right as Huey Lewis And The News.
On 26 March 1977, Elvis Costello releases his first single ‘Less Than Zero’ backed with ‘Radio Sweetheart’.
So Elvis Costello can have a regular backing band, Stiff Records puts an ad in Melody Maker, a U.K. rock music paper, on 3 June for musicians to form a ‘rocking combo’. In the meantime, the sessions with Clover are used for his first full length album.
On 22 July comes ‘My Aim Is True’ (1977) (UK no. 14, US no. 32, AUS no. 25). Elvis Costello describes the debut album as a bunch of songs about “guilt and revenge.” The bespectacled author explains, “I spent a lot of time just with a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album [The Clash is Joe Strummer’s punk rock band], listening to it over and over.” In broad terms, Elvis Costello is a punk rock artist, or new wave anyway, the more mild-mannered variant into which punk is already mutating. Not that ‘mild-mannered’ describes Costello. He boils with anger and resentment. But, as becomes progressively clearer as his career continues, his musical influences and resources do not fit easily under a purist ‘punk’ or ‘new wave’ banner. They are the nearest applicable categories, but there is more to Elvis Costello than such tags indicate.
Consider the single from ‘My Aim Is True’, a song called ‘Watching The Detectives’ (UK no. 15). Musically, it’s reggae, the sound of black Jamaica. Costello’s take on the genre, which he never really revisits, is as robust and healthy as other English acts like The Clash, The Police and The Pretenders who all come to toy with the form. Lyrically, the song matches the infatuation with a woman against a television (or movie?) police story. “She’s filing her nails as they’re dragging the lake / I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Costello sings through gritted teeth. The album’s title is taken from a line in the song ‘Alison’ where he reassures the woman that “Alison / I know this world is killing you / Alison / My aim is true.” This song is described as ‘a poisoned valentine’. Ostensibly a show of sympathy for an abandoned damsel, the narrator’s own wounded heart keeps forcing resentment from his lips: “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking / When I hear the silly things that you say.” This flows over a kind of wrong-footed country twang. The pilot single, ‘Less Than Zero’, is also included here. Together with tracks like ‘Mystery Dance’, ‘(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes’ and ‘Miracle Man’, it adds up to ‘My Aim Is True’ being Elvis Costello’s best album – though, to be fair, there is not much separating the levels of quality between his first five efforts.
In the wake of Elvis Costello’s first album, the ‘Melody Maker’ advertisement brings together a backing band. Elvis Costello And The Attractions are formed in 1977. The line-up is Elvis Costello (vocals, guitar), Steve Nieve (born Steve Mason) (keyboards), Bruce Thomas (bass) and (the unrelated) Pete Thomas (drums). These are Costello’s best known musical colleagues and the ones with whom he does most of his best work.
On 3 October 1977 Elvis Costello goes on a package tour of the British Isles with the rest of the Stiff Records stable of acts: Nick Lowe, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, and Wreckless Eric.
Costello’s second album, ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978) (UK no. 4, US no. 30, AUS no. 26), is released on 17 March. His first disc with The Attractions is characterised as ‘the most “punk” of Costello’s records’. It is also released on a different label, Radar Records, the new concern formed by Costello’s manager, Jake Riviera, as he splits from Stiff taking Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe with him. The twitchy, febrile ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ (UK no. 16) (sort of) provides the album with its title: “She give a little flirt, give herself a little cuddle / But there’s no place here for the mini-skirt waddle / Capital punishment, she is last year’s model / They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie / I don’t want to go to Chelsea.” The album bristles with other songs of ‘sexual paranoia’ such as ‘No Action’ and ‘Lipstick Vogue’. Costello’s finest song, the romping ‘Pump It Up’, is also present. Full of riffing guitar, clattering drums and Steve Nieve’s ‘psychocircus organ’, it instructs listeners to “Pump it up / Until you can feel it / Pump it up / When you don’t really need it.” Is it referring to the volume…or something else? Hmmm.
‘Armed Forces’ (1979) (UK no. 2, US no. 10, AUS no. 9) was originally going to be titled ‘Emotional Fascism’, which gives some idea of the general theme. It’s an album ‘wound tight, full of paranoia and anger’. ‘Oliver’s Army’ (UK no. 2) suggests the ghost of Oliver Cromwell hovering over a U.K. government that is trying to solve rising unemployment with increased military service. “But I would rather be anywhere else / But here today,” concludes Costello, over a deceptively bright, tinkling keyboard. The glossy and glassy ‘Accidents Will Happen’ helps set the template for new wave and is another highlight. ‘Green Shirt’ also calls his album home. This is considered ‘a more ambitious and musically diverse album’.
Elvis Costello’s marriage survives his dalliance with Bebe Buell, the self-styled ‘girlfriend to the stars’, in 1979. Costello also finds time this year to produce the first album by The Specials, a multi-racial band from Coventry, who specialise in ska music (the faster-paced ancestor of reggae).
The new year brings a new record and a new label. Having folded Radar Records, Jake Riviera now launches the F-Beat label. Elvis Costello’s first offering under that logo is ‘Get Happy!!’ (1980) (UK no. 2, US no. 11, AUS no. 25). This ‘soul-influenced’ album offers eighteen original songs and two cover versions, one of which, a track originally recorded by Sam And Dave, is the single ‘I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)’ (UK no. 4). Elvis Costello’s songs always tend to be concise; none of these songs exceed four minutes. The almost prissy ‘New Amsterdam’ boasts the wittiest lyrics: “New Amsterdam / It’s become much too much / Til I step on the brakes to get out of her clutches / And speak double-dutch with a real double duchess (or maybe ‘Dutchess’?)”. ‘High Fidelity’, another of this album’s gems, is a phrase associated with the reproduction of recorded sound, but Costello also finds its other meaning of romantic faithfulness.
‘Trust’ (1981) (UK no. 9, US no. 28, AUS no. 71) marks the end of Costello’s first – and greatest – era. On offer here is the dark ‘Clubland’ and shivering ‘New Lace Sleeves’, worthy additions to the songbook.
Elvis Costello baffles both critics and fans with his next move: a country music album called ‘Almost Blue’ (1981) (UK no. 7, US no. 50, AUS no. 50). Costello maintains that the hurt and sorrow of country is close to the pained vein of punk / new wave he has been mining. However, this set of cover versions, produced by Nashville, Tennessee legend Billy Sherrill, comes complete with weeping pedal steel guitar and sighing female backing vocalists, testing the patience and devotion of Costello’s audience. ‘Good Year For The Roses’ (UK no. 6) captures some hearts.
Touring in support of the album, it is noted that Costello’s demeanour is different. His ‘pleasant manner’ and ‘outgoing stage delivery’ lead to the observation that ‘Britain’s angriest young man is not angry anymore’.
‘Imperial Bedroom’ (1982) (UK no. 6, US no. 30, AUS no. 49) is also challenging, but in a different way. “I was trying to think or feel my way out of a defeated and exhausted frame of mind to something more glorious,” explains Costello. To achieve this, he hires Geoff Emerick, former assistant to The Beatles’ long-time producer, George Martin, to produce this ‘set of lushly arranged pop’. ‘Beyond Belief’ is the album’s best-known offspring.
Elvis Costello acts as producer for a 1982 single, ‘I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean’, for the Australian band, Mental As Anything.
Perhaps seeking more commercial pastures, Elvis Costello brings in Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to produce his next outing, ‘Punch The Clock’ (1983) (UK no. 3, US no. 24, AUS no. 22). Even the cover shows Costello modelling wire-frame spectacles rather than the more familiar horn-rimmed glasses. ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ serves up a new, more user-friendly artist. ‘Pills And Soap’ shows he still contains plenty of vinegar and ‘Shipbuilding’ is dourly moving.
Trying to repeat the trick with ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ (1984) (UK no. 10, US no. 35, AUS no. 53) is less successful, but ‘I Wanna Be Loved’ is positively cuddly.
Elvis Costello records a duet with American T-Bone Burnett under the name The Coward Brothers, the 1985 single ‘The People’s Limousine’.
Costello’s marriage to Mary Burgoyne ends in 1985 and he takes up with Cait O’Riordan. She plays bass in Irish punk / folk band, The Pogues, and Elvis Costello produces that outfit’s album ‘Rum, Sodomy And The Lash’ (1985). In 1986, Cait O’Riordan becomes Elvis Costello’s second wife.
The services of The Attractions are dispensed with before ‘King Of America’ (1986) (UK no. 11, US no. 39, AUS no. 67). On this album alone, a bearded Elvis Costello glowers forth from the cover. The album is credited to The Costello Show, indicating that Declan McManus may be tiring of his nom de plume (or nom de guerre?), but this proves to be a one-off deal. The album offers ‘a stripped-down, folky approach’.
Both Nick Lowe and The Attractions are recalled for ‘Blood And Chocolate’ (1986) (UK no. 16, US no. 84). This ‘edgy’ album is not a lasting reunion though as Costello’s attention soon turns elsewhere.
A watershed occurs in 1987 as Elvis Costello changes to Warner Brothers Records. From this point his ‘erratically paced solo career’ becomes more difficult to follow or comprehend.
Things begin on a positive note with news that Costello is collaborating on songs with ex-Beatle, Paul McCartney. It is hoped that this move will be beneficial to both artists. Costello’s sour lyricism is expected to take some of the cloying sweetness away from McCartney, in the same manner as did McCartney’s co-songwriter in The Beatles, John Lennon. Equally, McCartney should steer Costello towards more accessible fare. The result is the album, ‘Spike’ (1989) (UK no. 5, US no. 32, AUS no. 26). The singles, ‘Veronica’ (US no. 19) and ‘This Town’, auger well, but both men walk away from further collaborations.
‘Mighty Like A Rose’ (1991) (UK no. 5, US no. 55, AUS no. 26) is ‘a darker, more challenging record’. It spawns the single ‘The Other Side Of Summer’.
Elvis Costello then tries his hand at classical music in a joint effort with The Brodsky Quartet on ‘The Juliet Letters’ (1993) (UK no. 18, US no. 125).
The Attractions return briefly to appear on most of the tracks for ‘Brutal Youth’ (1994) (UK no. 2, US no. 34), Costello’s ‘most straightforward and pop-oriented’ album for some time.
‘Kojak Variety’ (1995) (UK no. 21, US no. 102) is a collection of cover versions.
‘All This Useless Beauty’ (1996) (UK no. 28, US no. 53) reverses the formula. It is an album of Elvis Costello originals, but songs he previously gave away to other recording artists. Here, the author renders them in his own style.
‘Painted From Memory’ (1998) (UK no. 32, US no. 78, AUS no. 26) is a collaboration with Burt Bacharach, the 1960s co-author of middle-of-the-road, easy listening pop songs.
‘When I Was Cruel’ (2002) (UK no. 17, US no. 20, AUS no. 34) precedes news at the end of the year that Elvis Costello’s marriage to Cait O’Riordan is over.
Following ‘North’ (2003) (UK no. 17, US no. 57), Costello marries his third wife, jazz / pop singer / pianist Diana Krall on 5 December 2003. ‘The Delivery Man’ (2004) (UK no. 73, US no. 40) may be the title of Costello’s next release, but it is his wife who delivers twin sons, Dexter and Frank, on 6 December 2006.
Elvis Costello continues his recording career with ‘Momofuku’ (2008) (UK no. 112, US no. 59), ‘Secret, Profane & Sugarcane’ (2009) (UK no. 71, US no. 13) and ‘National Ransom’ (2010) (UK no. 71, US no. 39).
The best days of Elvis Costello’s career are in the period 1977 to 1981, the ‘angry’ years, the punk / new wave phase. Perhaps it is not possible to maintain that rage over a lifetime, perhaps it is not desirable. In any case, at least for some time, Elvis Costello was to the new wave equivalent to Bob Dylan, the unofficial poet laureate of a generation. ‘Nerdy in appearance, imperiously rude in manner, Costello came on like The Avenging Dork, turning out one brilliant song, one staggering album after another’. His ‘general, righteous indignation’ allowed him to play a game of ‘Costello vs. The World. And Costello won.’
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 50, 59
- ‘The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 272, 275, 282, 296, 333
- allmusic.com, ‘Elvis Costello’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 29 September 2001
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 114
- wikipedia.org as at 3 December 2012
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48, 54, 55, 73
- lyricsfreak.com as at 14 December 2012
- ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 192
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: Britain’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p. 582
Song lyrics copyright Plangent Visions Music Ltd
Last revised 5 August 2014