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 the touring band employed by Stephen Stills. 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, 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” (though another account has it that Brown is described as a “jive-*ss nigger”). So Bonnie (who is white) 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.
Contrary to Elvis Costello’s expectation, Bonnie Bramlett reports the incident to the press. A few days later, Costello apologises at a U.S. press conference in New York City and claims he was drunk. He says, “It became necessary for me to outrage these people with about the most obnoxious and offensive remarks that I could muster.” The visiting British singer adds, it was “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 either 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 MacManus on 25 August 1954 in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London, England. He is the son of Ross MacManus (1927-2011) and Lillian MacManus (nee Ablett, born in 1927 in Liverpool). The child is born into a family of Irish descent. “My father, Ross MacManus, was a dance-band singer and sang on the radio,” Elvis recalls. Ross MacManus was a trumpet-player and singer for a jazz group called The Joe Loss Band. His wife, Lillian, was a record store manager.
At first, the family lives in Olympia in Kensington – the inner west of London. The family moves to Twickenham when Declan MacManus (the future Elvis Costello) is 7 years old. Declan attends a Catholic school, Archbishop Myers R.C. School. As could be predicted from the occupations of his parents, Elvis Costello grows up in a house filled with music. Ross MacManus often receives popular records of the day and passes them along to his son, encouraging the boy’s interest in music. “There was a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in the house,” Elvis acknowledges, but points out that his “parents didn’t think it was very groovy, and I tend to agree with them.” Costello says, “We didn’t hear a lot of American roots music. Skiffle was a very big thing in England with Lonnie Donegan in the early 1960s.” [Skiffle is a kind of home-made folk music. Lonnie Donegan’s U.K. hits include 1956’s ‘Rock Island Line’ and 1957’s ‘Cumberland Gap’, but by 1960 Donegan had moved towards novelty tunes like ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’.]
Elvis Costello’s father, Ross MacManus, leaves home when his son is 7. Ross remarries later. His second wife is named Sarah. Ross and Sarah have four sons. Elvis Costello’s half-brothers are: Ronan, Liam, Kieran and Ruari MacManus. Ross MacManus also continues to sing professionally. In 1964, he records a ‘ska-styled song’ called ‘Patsy Girl’ but it ‘flops’. [Ska is a faster-paced ancestor of reggae, the Jamaican music where the emphasis is on the off-beat.] “He also made money on the side doing cover records that were sold in the supermarket and at the petrol station,” Elvis Costello says of his father’s activities. Some of these records were made under different aliases. Live, Ross MacManus sometimes performs under the stagename of Day Costello. The maiden name of Ross MacManus’ paternal grandmother was Elizabeth Costello, so that’s where he gets the latter half of his pseudonym.
Meanwhile, Declan MacManus (later Elvis Costello) moves on to high school at Hounslow Secondary Modern. The Beatles is perhaps the most popular rock band of the 1960s, but young Declan’s attitude towards them is a bit ambivalent. “Obviously the people that I admired, like The Beatles, were really into rock ‘n’ roll. But I was already a little past rock ‘n’ roll when I started listening and making my own choices about music,” he says. In 1971, when Declan is 16, he and his mother move to Birkenhead, Cheshire – which is in the Liverpool area from which The Beatles originated. Declan finishes secondary school at St Francis Xavier’s College.
Declan MacManus (Elvis Costello) first performs music in public at a folk club in London in 1970. He learns to play guitar, harmonica and piano. In January 1972, Declan MacManus and Allan Mayes form a folk music duo called Rusty. Declan first enters the recording studio ‘a few months later’ to help his father who is making a television commercial for R. White’s Lemonade. Father and son make another commercial for the same product in 1973. Ross MacManus writes and sings the jingle; his son provides backing vocals.
Declan MacManus (Elvis Costello) moves out of his mother’s home in 1974 and moves back to London. His new life is divided between music, other employment and his new domestic arrangements. Although often resistant to the charms of contemporary pop and rock music, one act that impresses Declan MacManus is Brinsley Schwarz (1969-1975). Although named after their guitarist, Brinsley Schwarz’s creative guiding light is vocalist, bassist and songwriter Nick Lowe. At first the band plays country rock, but gradually stumbles towards a new genre that will come to be called pub rock – because ale houses, rather than concert halls, tend to be the venue for their humble, rootsy, rhythm and blues-influenced dance tunes. In imitation of Brinsley Schwarz, Declan MacManus forms Flip City (1974-1976), a ‘pub/country rock band.’ With Flip City, Declan Patrick MacManus performs under the name of D.P. Costello, using the initials of his own given names and the surname of his father’s alter ego, Day Costello. Other members of Flip City include Steve Hazelhurst (guitar), Mich Kent (bass) and Dickie Faulkner (percussion). Flip City is only a struggling band and the earnings from that enterprise are small. Accordingly, Declan MacManus also works at ‘a number of office jobs.’ He is employed as a data-entry clerk for Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics company. The eyestrain involved in this occupation results in the spectacles that become Elvis Costello’s trademark look. On the more positive side, the Elizabeth Arden facility at Wales Farm Road, Acton, is a place where Mr MacManus is the ‘only operator on shift and he works in a back room.’ This allows him plenty of time to practice his songwriting. The other notable (conventional) form of employment for Declan MacManus is working as a computer operator for the Midland Bank computer centre in Bootle. Adding to his need for a stable income is his home situation. In November 1974 Declan MacManus marries Mary Burgoyne. They soon have a son, Matthew (born early 1975). So, by 1976, Declan MacManus is an out-of-work musician – due to Flip City folding – doing computer work in office jobs to support his wife and son.
During his time with Flip City, Declan MacManus – or D.P. Costello – began to make demo tapes and send them out to record companies in the hope of securing a recording contract. One of these tapes lands on the desk of Jake Riviera, ‘one of the heads of the fledgling independent record label, Stiff.’ Jake Riviera (born Andrew Jakeman) founds Stiff Records in partnership with Dave Robinson in 1976. Dave Robinson is the manager of Graham Parker And The Rumour. Stiff, ‘the world’s most flexible record label,’ navigates the waters in which the dying pub rock boom gives birth to the more aggressive and political punk rock which, in turn, spawns the quirkier and more colourful new wave. What each of these genres – pub rock (circa 1974-1975), punk rock (1976-1977) and new wave (1978-1979) – have in common is a back-to-basics ethos. It is a rejection of the pretensions associated with art rock in the early 1970s. While Dave Robinson guides Graham Parker And The Rumour, Jake Riviera – an ‘aggressive, wily lout’ – decides to manage Declan MacManus. It is Riviera who decides to give his new client the name of Elvis Costello. ‘Elvis’ is, of course, taken from Elvis Presley, the 1950s King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Declan MacManus had already been using the name D.P. Costello (borrowing the surname of his paternal great-grandmother via his father’s stagename of Day Costello). Punk rock, the new style of the time in England, is fond of patently false names like Johnny Rotten (from The Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer (from The Clash). Even the name of Costello’s manager, Jake Riviera (Andrew Jakeman’s new title), fits this pattern. In 1977 Declan MacManus legally changes his name to Elvis Costello. By 1977 Stiff Records roster includes Nick Lowe (the former Brinsley Schwarz member who helped inspire Elvis Costello), Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury And The Blockheads and Elvis Costello. (Note: Although Dave Robinson, Stiff’s co-founder, managers Graham Parker And The Rumour, that act was signed to Vertigo before Stiff was founded. After Parker’s contract with Vertigo expires, he will migrate to Stiff – briefly.)
The music recorded by Elvis Costello is most commonly described as new wave or punk rock. Costello’s first recordings probably fall into the punk rock timeline, but his more famous ones sit in the new wave era. If the major rock music acts of the 1960s can be compared to the 1970s punk/new wave acts, then The Sex Pistols would be The Beatles, The Clash would be The Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello would be Bob Dylan. Costello is the poet laureate, the voice of his generation. The point that has to be acknowledged though is that Elvis Costello’s music is not simply punk or new wave. It expands to encompass other styles. In truth, he is never that easily fitted under any label. Costello ‘borrows from country, Tin Pan Alley pop, reggae and many other musical genres’ for a ‘richly diverse music.’
“When I started out, what I did was write a lot of songs – a very intimate style of writing,” says Elvis Costello. It is his songwriting that is Elvis Costello’s defining characteristic. He is ‘one of the most influential and popular singer-songwriters in modern music.’ Although he is quite capable of penning both pleasant melodies and powerful rockers, it is the lyrics of Elvis Costello that are most remarkable. His songs are usually quite brief (under three minutes), but he quickly and efficiently dissects his subjects. Costello is fond of puns and unexpected turns, but his work is also notable for its emotional intensity. “My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant,” he says in relation to his penchant for stirring things up. Costello also offers a surprising justification for his fury: “It’s because I have a gap in my teeth…It just makes me sound aggressive.” Most of his punk contemporaries vent their venom on social or political issues. While Elvis Costello purveys some works of a similar nature, he also takes on matters closer to home and closer to the heart. People can say and do awful things to one another in pursuit of love. “It was my job to write the songs about weakness and failure in love,” he says.
Although Elvis Costello is justly celebrated as a songwriter, he records a number of cover versions too during his career. There are also a handful of songs on which he is a co-writer, rather than a full author.
Usually Elvis Costello plays electric guitar on his own recordings. He is not a virtuoso, but his sinewy chords are quite effective in their own way. Elvis Costello also acts as co-producer on many of his later albums and produces some notable works by other artists.
Elvis Costello’s first single, ‘Less Than Zero’, is released by Stiff Records on 25 March 1977. Costello says this “was a song I had written after seeing the despicable Oswald Mosley interviewed on BBC television. The former leader of the British Union of Fascists seemed unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930s.” Thus the song’s lyrics say, “Calling Mr Oswald with the swastika tattoo.” ‘Less Than Zero’ is not as angry as may be expected. It is punctuated by exclamation of “Hey!” and sports some warm organ backing on its nicely slinky tune. ‘Less Than Zero’ does not make a mark on the singles charts. None of the first three Elvis Costello singles are commercially successful.
The compilation album ‘A Bunch Of Stiffs Records’ (1977), released on 1 April, includes Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’. The rest of the disc is filled out with songs from other Stiff Records artists.
Elvis Costello’s second single is a ballad titled ‘Alison’, issued on 21 May 1977. It 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.” Naturally, there is curiosity about whether ‘Alison’ is about a real person. Elvis Costello says, “I’ve always told people that I wrote the song ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket.” On another occasion, he says ‘Alison’ is a song about ‘disappointing somebody.’ Costello also states that ‘Alison’ “was a premonition, my fear that I would not be faithful or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to kill the love that I had longed for.”
The first live gig the former Declan MacManus plays under the name of Elvis Costello is at London’s Nashville on 27 May 1977. He is the supporting act for a show by The Rumour (who are performing in their own right on this occasion, minus their customary frontman, Graham Parker).
Elvis Costello’s third single for 1977 is ‘(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes’. Elvis bargains with the divine as this ditty bops along nicely. However, the defining lines may be, “Oh, I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused.”
On 3 June 1977 Stiff Records places an advertisement in ‘Melody Maker’, a British rock newspaper, for musicians to form a ‘rocking combo’ to back Elvis Costello. His first album is already recorded, but the need for an ongoing backing group remains.
‘My Aim Is True’ (1977) (UK no. 14, US no. 32, AUS no. 25) is the debut album by Elvis Costello. It is released by Stiff Records on 22 July. In the United States, Costello’s recordings are issued by Columbia. ‘My Aim Is True’ is produced by Nick Lowe, the one-time creative spark behind Brinsley Schwarz who is now recording as a solo artist for Stiff Records. Nick Lowe produces the first five Elvis Costello albums. The album cover is designed by Barney Bubbles (born Colin Fulcher), Stiff’s art director. He is involved in the design of the first seven Elvis Costello albums. While his recording career was in its infancy, Elvis Costello continued to work at his day job as a data-entry clerk. Accordingly, most of the songs on this album were written at his home late at night or on the London Underground while commuting to work. Costello doesn’t have a backing band of his own at this point, so Stiff arranges for him to use a U.S. band called Clover – though they go uncredited due to contractual difficulties. The musicians are: John McFee (guitar), Sean Hopper (keyboards), Johnny Ciambotti (bass) and Mickey Shine (drums). Clover’s regular vocalist, Huey Lewis, does not sing on this album. In 1979 these musicians become the more mainstream pop and rock act Huey Lewis And The News. Elvis Costello calls in sick to his day job in order to rehearse with Clover and record this album in six sessions lasting four hours apiece. It is not until the summer of 1977 that Stiff Records persuades Costello to devote himself full-time to his music career. In order to obtain his cooperation, they have to match his office wages, give him an amplifier, a tape recorder and one hundred and fifty pounds (British currency). Elvis Costello describes his first album as a bunch of songs about “guilt and revenge.” The bespectacled author explains, “I spent a lot of time with just a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album, listening to it over and over.” (The Clash is one of the first punk rock bands.) ‘My Aim Is True’ takes its title from a line in the song ‘Alison’. Elvis Costello’s first three singles – ‘Less Than Zero’, ‘Alison’ and ‘(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes’ – are all on this album. Together with tracks like ‘Mystery Dance’ and ‘Miracle Man’, it all adds up to ‘My Aim Is True’ being Costello’s best album – though, to be fair, there is not much separating the levels of quality on his first five albums. ‘My Aim Is True’ has an edge because it introduces Elvis Costello, his intriguing melodies and searing lyrics. The other albums expand and deepen his worldview, but none of them can again provide the shock of discovery belonging to this disc. Elvis Costello wryly comments that he was “an overnight success after seven years.”
In the wake of Elvis Costello’s first album, the ‘Melody Maker’ advertisement brings together a backing band. Elvis Costello And The Attractions is formed in July 1977. The line-up is: Elvis Costello (vocals, guitar), Steve Nieve (born Steve Nason) (keyboards), Bruce Thomas (bass) and Pete Thomas (drums). Although they share a surname, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas are unrelated. Steve Nieve is classically trained and fresh from the Royal Academy of Music; Bruce Thomas played with folk rock band Quiver; and Pete Thomas comes from pub rock act Chilli Willi. The Attractions are Elvis Costello’s best known musical colleagues and the band with which he does most of his best work.
Elvis Costello’s semi-namesake Elvis Presley dies on 16 August 1977. It was a bit of a giggle to pinch the forename of the 1950s King of Rock ‘n’ Roll but, in light of his unexpected passing, the gag seems a bit more ghoulish. “And then Elvis died six weeks into my professional career,” recalls the former Declan MacManus. It seems he considers his ‘professional career’ to have started in summer 1977 when he gave up his day job to concentrate on his music. Faced with the possibility of being accused of bad taste, the first instinct of Elvis Costello, manager Jake Riviera and Stiff Records is to brazen out the crisis. “Then there was a moment of panic,” Costello confesses. But they stick to their guns and the more time passes, the less the issue troubles them.
From 3 October 1977 to 5 November 1977 Elvis Costello goes on a low-budget package tour of the British Isles with most of the Stiff Records stable of acts: Nick Lowe, Ian Dury And The Blockheads and Wreckless Eric. The Live Stiffs tour kicks off with a show in London. The tour is memorialised by the multi-artist disc ‘Live Stiffs Live’ (1978) issued on 17 February. It contains only one Elvis Costello track, ‘Miracle Man’.
Elvis Costello’s next single is issued on 14 October 1977 while he is on the road with the Live Stiffs tour. ‘Watching The Detectives’ (UK no. 15, US no. 108, AUS no. 35) is his first hit single. It is also the first recording credited to Elvis Costello And The Attractions. Ironically, The Attractions don’t play on it. Steve Nieve contributes some keyboard overdubs, but the other musicians backing Costello are Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Steve Goulding (drums). Bodnar and Goulding are both members of Graham Parker And The Rumour. Musically, ‘Watching The Detectives’ is reggae, the sound of black Jamaica. Costello’s take on this genre – which he never really revisits – is as robust and healthy as other English acts like The Clash, The Police and The Pretenders who will all toy with this musical form. Lyrically, the song matches an 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. ‘Watching The Detectives’ is included on most latter day editions of ‘My Aim Is True’, but it wasn’t included on the original version of the album. Elvis Costello considers ‘Watching The Detectives’ his favourite song from the first five years of his career.
On 15 November 1977 Elvis Costello plays his first show in the U.S.A. The gig takes place at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco, California. “We stayed out of Memphis [where Elvis Presley grew up] early on in the late 1970s,” Elvis Costello later says. “People were very sensitive about Elvis Presley, and my stage name obviously would be provocative to some people in that area at that time.” When The Sex Pistols cancel out of playing on the U.S. television program ‘Saturday Night Live’, the spot is offered to Elvis Costello instead. He appears on the program aired on 17 December 1977. Before Costello performs, the producers vet his songs and agree to him playing ‘Less Than Zero’. However, after commencing that tune, Costello stops and switches to ‘Radio Radio’ instead. This song ‘criticises the commercialisation of the airwaves’ and so it had been specifically ruled out. As a consequence of his disobedience, Costello is banned from ‘Saturday Night Live’, a prohibition that remains in place until 1989. The incident reinforces Elvis Costello’s reputation as an ‘angry young man.’
At the end of 1977, there is a schism at Stiff Records. Jake Riviera takes Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe – and art director Barney Bubbles – and creates a new label, Radar Records. They are joined by Andrew Lauder, Martin Davis and Tim Read. Andrew Lauder is bankrolling the new operation and Radar is distributed by WEA. Stiff Records carries on, adding the likes of Madness and Lene Lovich to their roster. Aside from Costello and Lowe, Radar takes on Bram Tchaikovsky (a new wave band, not to be confused with the classical composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky).
Elvis Costello’s second album – and his first for Radar Records – is ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978) (UK no. 4, US no. 30, AUS no. 26). It is released on 17 March. The cover is designed by Barney Bubbles but the cover photo of Elvis Costello behind an old-fashioned camera is taken by Chris Gabrin. During the photo session, Gabrin was a bit perplexed when Costello asked him to put on a copy of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ (1976). The laid back Los Angeles country rock seemed an unlikely choice for Costello – until he explained to Gabrin that he wanted to look angry in the photo so he needed something that was going to irritate him. ‘This Year’s Model’ is the first Elvis Costello album recorded with his regular backing band, The Attractions. This disc is described as ‘rawer and harder-rocking’ than its predecessor. ‘This Year’s Model’ is ‘the most “punk” of Costello’s records.’ The twitchy, febrile ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ (UK no. 16, AUS no. 93) (sort of) provides the album with its title: “She gave 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 single finest song, the romping ‘Pump It Up’ (UK no. 24, AUS no. 55) is also present. Full of riffing guitar, chattering drums and Steve Nieve’s ‘psycho-circus 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? Hmm. Elvis Costello claims ‘Pump It Up’ was written in reaction to the excesses of the Live Stiffs tour (3 October 1977-5 November 1977). He also admits that its tumbling, declamatory vocal takes more than a little inspiration from Bob Dylan’s 1965 song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.
‘Live At The El Mocambo’ (1978) is perhaps the most famous live recording by Elvis Costello, but it has a complicated history. It is recorded in March 1978 at a rock club in Toronto, Canada. The performance is broadcast live on radio station CHUM-FM. ‘Live At The El Mocambo’ is, at first, only issued as a promotional item; it is not commercially available. The first time it can be purchased is when ‘Live At The El Mocambo’ is included in the Rykodisc box set ‘2 ½ Years’ (1993). Hip-O then reissues this concert recording in 2009.
Elvis Costello releases the single ‘Radio Radio’ (UK no. 29, AUS no. 93) in October 1978. This is the same song that got Costello banned from ‘Saturday Night Live’ in December 1977. “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me,” Elvis Costello snarls over rampaging organ and punchy drums, as he rails against commercial radio playlists. ‘Radio Radio’ is included on the U.S. version of ‘This Year’s Model’ issued by Columbia, but it is not on the original U.K. version of the album.
Around this time, Elvis Costello becomes romantically entangled with Bebe Buell (born Beverle Lorence Buell). A fashion model, she is the girlfriend of U.S. rock star Todd Rundgren from 1972 to 1979. Bebe Buell gains a certain notoriety when she is the November 1974 ‘Playmate of the Month’ for ‘Playboy’ magazine. In 1976 she has a daughter as the result of a tryst with Aerosmith’s lead singer, Steven Tyler. Their child later becomes the actress Liv Tyler. Along the way, Bebe Buell also dates Mick Jagger (of The Rolling Stones), Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), but denies that she is ‘a groupie.’ Elvis Costello splits up with his wife, Mary Burgoyne, late in 1978, but they remain married. Similarly, Bebe Buell is technically still Todd Rundgren’s partner until 1979. Elvis Costello and Bebe Buell have an off-and-on relationship over the next few years.
In December 1978 Elvis Costello undertakes a concert tour of Australia. The most memorable moment is a riot at Sydney’s Regent Theatre when certain patrons wreck some seating in protest at the duration of the brief thirty-five minute set performed by Costello.
Elvis Costello’s next album is ‘Armed Forces’ (1979) (UK no. 2, US no. 10, AUS no. 9), released on 5 January. This is a ‘more ambitious and musically diverse’ disc. The original plan was to title the album ‘Emotional Fascism’, which gives some idea of the general theme of the project. It’s an album ‘wound tight, full of paranoia and anger.’ ‘Oliver’s Army’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 24) may be a reference to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the U.K. military and political leader who created the new model army. His ghost seems to hover 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. Elvis Costello’s inspiration for ‘Oliver’s Army’ came from his first visit to Belfast in Ireland in 1978. At that time, Ireland was enmeshed in ‘the troubles’ as the British Army tried to keep the Irish Republican Army in check. Costello says, “The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing.’” This would be the “white nigger” referenced in the lyrics. The words also sneak in mentions of then-current global hotspots like Johannesburg (South Africa) and Palestine. The glossy and glassy ‘Accidents Will Happen’ (UK no. 28, US no. 101) helps set the template for new wave and is another highlight. Elvis Costello wrote the song in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1978 while on tour in the U.S.A. He says it is “about a straying lover struggling to tell the truth and face the consequences.” ‘Green Shirt’ lurks about suspiciously only to be punctuated by a ‘ratta-tat-tat’ burst from Pete Thomas’ drums. “Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?” Costello asks in ‘Green Shirt’. The bruised glory of ‘Party Girl’ is also on this album. Early pressings of ‘Armed Forces’ include ‘Live At Hollywood High’, a three-song single (‘Accidents Will Happen’, ‘Alison’, ‘Watching The Detectives’).
On 16 February 1979 Elvis Costello plays a gig at the Palomino, a country music club in Hollywood. Costello, ‘one of the most arrogant of punkish performers’, surprises the crowd by playing country music songs in this unannounced solo performance. It is a sign of things to come…but not for a while yet.
On 9 March 1979 Elvis Costello gets into a stoush with Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills’ backing band at a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio. The fracas is sparked by Costello’s drunken and offensive comments about America and ‘niggers’ Ray Charles and James Brown. Costello apologises at a press conference a few days later. The incident remains an ugly and regrettable episode.
When ‘Accidents Will Happen’ – a track from Elvis Costello’s most recent album ‘Armed Forces’ – is issued as a single on 4 May 1979, it has two new songs on the flipside. These tunes are ‘Talking In The Dark’, a portrait of itchy confusion, and ‘Wednesday Week’.
The movie ‘Americathon’ (1979), a film premiering on 15 August, has two Elvis Costello songs on the soundtrack. ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ and ‘Crawling To America’ are both lifted from ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978).
‘The Specials’ (1979), the debut album by the band of the same name, is co-produced by The Specials and Elvis Costello. It is released on 19 October. The Specials is a British band, with both black and white musicians, that plays ska. After the distasteful remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown, Costello’s participation here helps prove he is not a bigot. Additionally, both before and after that incident, he plays gigs under the Rock Against Racism banner. Besides that, ‘The Specials’ shows that Costello also has a genuine aptitude for record production. More production credits will follow for him.
Elvis Costello appears on the album ‘My Very Special Guests’ (1979) by country music recording artist George Jones.
Elvis Costello reunites with his estranged wife Mary Burgoyne in 1979. His ‘on-and-off’ relationship with Bebe Buell reverts to ‘off’ status…for now.
The Concerts for the People of Kampuchea are four charity shows at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. They take place from 26 December 1979 to 29 December 1979. Elvis Costello And The Attractions play on the final night, 29 December 1979. Other acts participating include Paul McCartney And Wings, The Who, Queen, The Clash, The Pretenders and The Specials.
Radar Records proves to be a short-lived enterprise. Jake Riviera exits Radar in 1979 taking Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe (as well as art director Barney Bubbles) with him. Radar goes on to have some success with new romantic act Visage (late 1978 to January 1982) before shutting down at the end of 1981.
Jake Riviera founds F-Beat in 1979. In addition to recordings by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, F-Beat issues albums by such artists as Carlene Carter, Rockpile and The Blasters.
Elvis Costello’s first album for F-Beat is ‘Get Happy!!’ (1980) (UK no. 2, US no. 11, AUS no. 25), released on 15 February. This album is influenced by soul music from the 1960s and Barney Bubbles’ cover design is purposefully retro. It shows simulated ‘ring wear’, as though it was an old disc that has been pulled out of its sleeve countless times. Keith Morris’ photo of Elvis Costello reclining in a hammock is flipped upright so he appears to be standing and the image is triplicated across large, gaudy interwoven rectangles. ‘Get Happy!!’ holds twenty tracks. Although Elvis Costello’s songs tend to be concise, this disc still has to be carefully cut and pressed on vinyl due to the danger of ‘groove cramming’ leading to reduced sound quality. There are two cover versions on ‘Get Happy!!’ and one of these becomes the first single from this disc. ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ (UK no. 4) was originally recorded in 1967 by soul music duo Sam And Dave, though Costello’s interpretation is more upbeat than the original. ‘Hi Fidelity’ (UK no. 30) is a term often used on old album sleeves to indicate the record faithfully reproduces the sound of the artist. Since this is Elvis Costello, he also grasps the words’ other meaning: being true to the one you love. The almost prissy ‘New Amsterdam’ (UK no. 36) is recorded without The Attractions but boasts some witty lyrics: “New Amsterdam / It’s become much too much / Till I step on the brake / To get out of her clutches / And speak double-dutch / With a real double duchess [or maybe ‘dutch-ess’?].” “I am rock ‘n’ roll’s scrabble champion,” Elvis Costello tells an interviewer when questioned about his signature word play. ‘Motel Matches’ is another notable track from ‘Get Happy!!’ ‘The Imposter’ takes on greater significance later. “And he is only the imposter,” sings Costello in this pacey tune, as Steve Nieve’s keyboards threaten to go out of control. “Was I purposefully f***ing up my life to give myself something to write about?” ponders Elvis Costello. “I think I did that for about a year…Like, there’s a couple of songs on ‘Get Happy!!’ that, when I read them back, I just scared the hell out of myself.”
When ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ is released as a single, the flipside is an Elvis Costello original called ‘Girls Talk’. It had been give away to Dave Edmunds who had a hit with it in 1979, the previous year.
Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Mad Love’ (1980), released in February, contains cover versions of three Elvis Costello songs: ‘Party Girl’, ‘Girls Talk’ and ‘Talking In The Dark’. Ronstadt previously covered ‘Alison’ on ‘Living In The U.S.A.’ (1978). ‘Mad Love’ raises some eyebrows because the singer, long part of the same laid back Los Angeles country rock scene as The Eagles, ‘goes punk’ on this disc. ‘Costello is less than happy about Ronstadt’s interpretations of his material.’ “Sheer torture. Dreadful…It’s a waste of vinyl,” he says. However, as Ronstadt points out, ‘he doesn’t not like them enough to refuse the royalties…’
On 12 July 1980 Elvis Costello performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The festival has a reputation for variety so it’s not that strange that a performer associated with new wave rock plays at a jazz festival, but it also indicates that Costello himself is growing increasingly restless at any artificial limitations being imposed on what kind of music he can play.
The Attractions release their one-and-only album as a band in their own right without Elvis Costello: ‘Mad About The Wrong Boy’ (1980).
‘Taking Liberties’ (1980) (US no. 28), released in November, is an Elvis Costello compilation album put out by Columbia for the U.S. and Canadian markets. It is similar to ‘Ten Bloody Marys And Ten How’s Your Fathers’ (1980) issued on 7 November by F-Beat. This is a collection of singles, B sides and stuff not otherwise available on album (e.g. ‘Watching The Detectives’, ‘Talking In The Dark’, ‘Girls Talk’).
On 30 November 1980 a benefit show is put on at the Top Rank club in Swansea, Wales, for the family of the late Welsh boxer Johnny Owen. He died of head injuries sustained in a boxing match in the U.S. Elvis Costello preforms at this benefit shows as does Squeeze, a U.K. new wave band for whom Costello will shortly produce an album.
‘Trust’ (1981) (UK no. 9, US no. 28, AUS no. 71), released on 23 January, marks the end of Elvis Costello’s first – and greatest – era. The album is co-produced by Nick Lowe and Roger Bechirian. Working titles for this album were ‘Cats And Dogs’ and ‘More Songs About F***ing And Fighting’. ‘Trust’ ‘combines the melody of “Armed Forces” with the rhythm of “Get Happy!!’’’ The dark ‘Clubland’ (UK no. 60) looks at night spots like some neon-lit underworld. ‘New Lace Sleeves’ is one of Costello’s potent anti-romantic love songs where loathing is as likely as longing to be responsible for his trembling lip. ‘Trust’ is the first Elvis Costello album since his debut, ‘My Aim Is True’, to fail to generate a British top forty hit. Adding to the woes, there is tension amongst Costello’s backing band, The Attractions, particularly between bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas. Elvis Costello says of ‘Trust’, “This was easily the most drug-influenced record of my career.” He is drinking a lot of booze as well as using Seconal (a capsule used to combat insomnia but often misused for recreational purposes) and ‘various powders.’
Elvis Costello acts as producer for the recording sessions for ‘East Side Story’ (1981), an album by new wave band Squeeze. The disc is released on 15 May.
‘Almost Blue’ (1981) (UK no. 7, US no. 50, AUS no. 50) is the title of the Elvis Costello album released on 23 October. This disc baffles fans and critics alike because it is an album of cover versions of country music songs. ‘Almost Blue’ is recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, in the U.S.A. and produced by Billy Sherrill. Barney Bubbles’ cover for this album is said to be a homage to ‘Midnight Blue’ (1963) by Kenny Burrell – but really it only borrows the idea of using oversize letters for the album title. The most successful single from ‘Almost Blue’ is Elvis Costello’s version of ‘Good Year For The Roses’ (UK no. 6, AUS no. 34), a 1970 George Jones song in which the narrator prepares for his wife to leave him. ‘Sweet Dreams’ (UK no. 42) was first recorded by Don Gibson in 1955. ‘I’m Your Toy’ (UK no. 51) is co-written by Gram Parsons and Chris Ethridge – though when it originally appeared on the album ‘The Gilded Palace Of Sin’ (1969) by their band The Flying Burrito Brothers, it was under the name of ‘Hot Burrito No. 1 (I’m Your Toy)’. Elvis Costello takes the view that the hurt and sorrow of country music is close to the pained vein of punk/new wave he has been mining. However, these arrangements, replete with weeping pedal steel guitar and sighing female backing vocalists, test the patience and devotion of Costello’s audience. “People become so deeply attached to the sound of one period that they blow a fuse when you move on,” Costello observes. Touring in support of ‘Almost Blue’, it is noted that Costello’s demeanour has changed. His ‘pleasant manner’ and ‘outgoing stage delivery’ lead to the conclusion that ‘Britain’s angriest young man is not angry anymore.’
‘Imperial Bedroom’ (1982) (UK no. 6, US no. 30, AUS no. 49) is released on 2 July. The rather bizarre cover painting is ‘Snakecharmer & Reclining Octopus’ by Sal Forenza. However, ‘Sal Forenza’ is just an alias for Barney Bubbles, Elvis Costello’s usual art director. The cover is said to be a pastiche of ‘Three Musicians’ (1921) by Pablo Picasso. This appears to be Barney Bubbles’ last work for Elvis Costello. (Bubbles commits suicide in 1983.) Working titles for ‘Imperial Bedroom’ are ‘Revolution Of The Mind’, ‘Music To Stop Clocks’ and ‘PS I Love You’. The album is produced by Geoff Emerick. When explaining why he did not work with Nick Lowe on this album, Elvis Costello says, “I wanted to try a few things in the studio that I suspected would quickly exhaust Nick’s patience.” Consequently, ‘Imperial Bedroom’ is ‘an ambitious set of lushly arranged pop.’ ‘You Little Fool’ (UK no. 52) is an unsentimental song about young love that castigates a naïve girl. In the ornate sound of the song, Steve Nieve’s keyboards sound like a harpsichord. ‘Beyond Belief’ is almost cavernous in its hollowed out presentation. ‘Man Out Of Time’ (UK no. 58) ‘is immediately soaring and sorrowful.’ In putting together ‘Imperial Bedroom’, Elvis Costello says, “I was trying to think or feel my way out of a defeated and exhausted frame of mind into something more glorious.” That would explain the ‘darker sound’ of this album, but it makes it puzzling that Costello regards this as ‘his most optimistic album to date.’ Surprisingly, for an artist famed for his lyrics, this is the first Elvis Costello album to include a lyric sheet.
Elvis Costello produces the single ‘I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean’ by Australian band Mental As Anything. This single is released in August 1982.
In 1982 Elvis Costello releases a single of his own called ‘From Head To Toe’ (UK no. 45). It is a cover version of a song from the album ‘Going To A Go-Go’ (1965) by The Miracles (the Motown Records act featuring Smokey Robinson).
The 1982 Elvis Costello single ‘Party Party’ (UK no. 48) comes from the soundtrack to the movie ‘Party Party’ (1983).
‘Punch The Clock’ (1983) (UK no. 3, US no. 24, AUS no. 22) is the title of the Elvis Costello album released on 5 August. Rather than his familiar spectacles with the thick black frames, Costello wears lighter wire-frame glasses on the cover of this album. He sports this look for the next few years before reverting to his more familiar specs. ‘Punch The Clock’ is co-produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. When the album’s first single, ‘Pills And Soap’ (UK no. 16), is issued, it is credited to The Imposter rather than Elvis Costello. ‘The Imposter’ was a track on ‘Get Happy!!’ and its use here as a pseudonym for Elvis Costello is the first sign of a trend that grows over the next few years, indicating perhaps some uneasiness on Costello’s part with his long-term stagename. As for the song, some interpret ‘Pills And Soap’ as ‘an attack on the changes in British society brought on by Thatcherism.’ Whether that is correct is questionable since the lyrics do not specifically mention Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but they certainly drip acid and venom as they tear apart the media and the upper class over a sinister piano attack. ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ (UK no. 28, US no. 36, AUS no. 40) is Elvis Costello’s first top forty hit in the U.S.A. It compares the course of a romance to the act of writing a novel. The song finds Elvis Costello at his most user-friendly. Costello says it is, “a song I wrote in ten minutes almost as a challenge to myself. I invested less emotionally in it…yet it’s the one everyone warmed to.” Also present on this album of ‘pure pop’ is ‘Let Them All Talk’ (UK no. 59). Robert Wyatt, the paraplegic ex-vocalist for Soft Machine, recorded a version of the mournful social critique ‘Shipbuilding’ (co-written by Costello and co-producer Clive Langer) earlier in 1983 before it appears on this disc.
Elvis Costello gets back together with Bebe Buell in 1983, but the relationship between the couple does not appear to go on much beyond year’s end. Costello’s wife, Mary Burgoyne, files for divorce in 1984.
In 1984, shortly before the next Elvis Costello album, the break-up of his backing band The Attractions is announced. The group plays on the album that follows, but it is more like a short break that follows than a final dissolution.
‘Goodbye Cruel World’ (1984) (UK no. 10, US no. 35, AUS no. 53), released on 18 June, is again produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. Elvis Costello describes this disc as “our worst album” and says he and The Attractions and their producers “got it as wrong as you can in terms of execution.” As happened with ‘Punch The Clock’, this album’s first single – ‘Peace In Our Time’ (UK no. 48) – is released under the name of The Imposter. Costello’s performance on ‘I Wanna Be Loved’ (UK no. 25) (written by Farnell Jenkins) is positively cuddly. The other single from this album is ‘The Only Flame In Town’ (UK no. 71, US no. 56). Also of interest here is the deadpan march of ‘The Comedians’, an Elvis Costello song that will be covered by Roy Orbison in 1987.
In 1985 Elvis Costello moves from F-Beat to Demon Records. Demon was set up by Jake Riviera (Costello’s manager) and Andrew Lauder back in 1980, the year after the pair founded F-Beat. The best known act (other than Elvis Costello) to record for Demon is Bananarama; the female trio issued their first single – 1981’s ‘Aie A Mwana’- on Demon, though they became more successful elsewhere. F-Beat shuts down completely in 1986.
Elvis Costello’s first release for the Demon label is the compilation album ‘The Man – The Best Of Elvis Costello’ (1985) (UK no. 8), issued in April. ‘Green Shirt’ (UK no. 68) (which first appeared on ‘Armed Forces’ (1979)) is pulled as a single from ‘The Man – The Best Of Elvis Costello’. Columbia Records in the U.S. issues a similar compilation album, ‘The Best Of Elvis Costello And The Attractions’ (1985) (US no. 116).
Elvis Costello performs as a solo act (minus The Attractions) at the all-star charity benefit concert Live Aid on 13 July 1985. He only does one song, an acoustic version of The Beatles’ 1967 hit ‘All You Need Is Love’.
The (non-charting) 1985 single ‘The People’s Limousine’ is credited to The Coward Brothers. This is an alias for the duo of Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett. Born Joseph Henry Burnett III, T-Bone Burnett is an American singer, musician, songwriter and producer known for his work in the musical genres of Americana, roots rock, rock ‘n’ roll and country.
Elvis Costello acts as producer on the recording sessions for ‘Rum, Sodomy & The Lash’ (1985) by The Pogues, an Irish folk/punk act. The album is released on 5 August. During the recording, Costello falls in love with the only female member of The Pogues, bassist Cait O’Riordan. They become a couple.
The album ‘King Of America’ (1986) (UK no. 11, US no. 39, AUS no. 67) is released on 21 February. In the U.K., this disc is credited to The Costello Show featuring The Attractions and The Confederates. In the U.S., the same album is attributed to The Costello Show featuring Elvis Costello. Whichever way you look at it, it seems that Declan MacManus may be tiring of his nom de plume (nom de guerre?). ‘King Of America’ is co-produced by Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett. The Confederates, the backing band used on some tracks here, includes T-Bone Burnett and some former Elvis Presley sidemen such as James Burton (guitar) and Jerry Scheff (bass). On the album cover, a bearded Elvis Costello glowers forth. Although the beard reappears a few times over subsequent years, Costello remains usually clean shaven. Musically, ‘King Of America’ offers ‘a stripped down folky approach’ and is ‘essentially a country-folk album.’ The single from the album is a cover version of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ (UK no. 33, AUS no. 81), the 1964 song by blues-jazz vocalist Nina Simone. The best known of this album’s originals is probably ‘Lovable’.
Elvis Costello legally changes his name in 1986 to Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus – adding an extra middle name (Aloysius) to the name with which he was born. After 1986, he uses a few professional stagenames but, most often, continues to perform and record as Elvis Costello. He prefers to be called by his birth name by his family when he is not performing.
On 17 May 1986 Elvis Costello marries Cait O’Riordan in an informal ceremony.
The 1986 single ‘Seven Day Weekend’ is co-credited to Jimmy Cliff, Elvis Costello And The Attractions. This non-charting single comes from the film ‘Club Paradise’ (1986). Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff is one of the stars of the film (released on 11 July) and does most of the movie’s soundtrack, co-writing ‘Seven Day Weekend’ with Costello.
‘Blood And Chocolate’ (1986) (UK no. 16, US no. 84), released on 15 September, reunites Elvis Costello with both his backing band The Attractions and producer Nick Lowe. Rather than being a return to the old era, this is more like its last gasp. After the album, The Attractions disband – though drummer Pete Thomas continues to work with Elvis Costello as a session musician. (The Attractions will reunite, but not until 1994.) On this album, Elvis Costello is credited as Napoleon Dynamite – though that alias may date back as far as the B side of a single from ‘Imperial Bedroom’ (1982). On tour to support ‘Blood And Chocolate’, Elvis Costello assumes the guise of Napoleon Dynamite to act as Master of Ceremonies in a vaudeville style. (Note: The film ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (2004) starring comedy actor John Heder post-dates Elvis Costello’s use of the name. The producers of the film claim to have been unaware that Costello had employed the alias of Napoleon Dynamite.) The bizarre abstract-surreal album cover painting for ‘Blood And Chocolate’ is painted by Elvis Costello himself. The single from this ‘edgy’ album is ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’ (UK no. 73). ‘Blue Chair’ is another notable track.
Elvis Costello’s identity games continue with the non-charting 1987 single ‘A Town Called Big Nothing’ which is credited to The MacManus Gang.
On 30 September 1987 Elvis Costello is one of a number of famous recording artists who join with Roy Orbison for ‘A Black and White Night’, a celebration of Orbison’s music. Others present include Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Jackson Browne. ‘A Black And White Night Live’ (1989) captures the occasion on disc.
In 1987 Elvis Costello gets a new worldwide recording contract with Warner Bros. He leaves behind Demon Records. Demon is acquired by Crimson Productions in 1998 and subsequently releases mainly compilation albums. Demon issues the Elvis Costello album ‘Out Of Our Idiot’ (1987) on 4 December. This is a U.K. only release, a grab-bag of rare items and previously unreleased recordings. It includes such odd singles as ‘The People’s Limousine’ from 1985, ‘Seven Day Weekend’ from 1986 and ‘A Town Called Big Nothing’ from 1987. Also present are cover versions such as Costello’s interpretation of Smokey Robinson’s 1965 song ‘From Head To Toe’ (that Costello released as a single in 1982) and Australian band Jo Jo Zep And The Falcons 1978 song ‘So Young’.
Elvis Costello’s first album for Warner Bros. is ‘Spike’ (1989) (UK no. 5, US no. 32, AUS no. 26), released on 6 February. The album is co-produced by Elvis Costello, Kevin Killen and T-Bone Burnett. Interest in ‘Spike’ is buoyed by the news that it contains some songs Costello has co-written with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. It is a move that is hoped 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 first fruit of their partnership is the spritely ‘Veronica’ (UK no. 31, US no. 19, AUS no. 27), which become Elvis Costello’s all-time highest charting single in the U.S. The only other song co-written by Costello and McCartney on this album is ‘Pads, Paws And Claws’. Costello co-writes ‘Baby Plays Around’ (UK no. 65) with his wife, Cait O’Riordan. The only other single from this set is ‘…This Town…’ (a Costello solo composition) which fails to chart. ‘Spike’ is described as Elvis Costello’s ‘most musically diverse collection.’
Elvis Costello’s former label, Demon, issues the two disc compilation set ‘Girls Girls Girls’ (1989) (UK no. 67) in October.
The ‘erratically paced solo career’ of Elvis Costello grows increasingly difficult to follow or comprehend.
‘Mighty Like A Rose’ (1991) (UK no. 5, US no. 55, AUS no. 37) is released on 14 May. It is co-produced by Elvis Costello, Mitchell Froom and Kevin Killen. It is said to ‘echo “Spike” in its diversity, yet is a darker, more challenging record.’ The single from this album is ‘The Other Side Of Summer’ (UK no. 43, AUS no. 96), described as a ‘Beach Boys pastiche.’ ‘Mighty Like A Rose’ has two songs co-written by Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney: ‘So Like Candy’ and ‘Playboy To A Man’.
Elvis Costello experiments with writing music for movies on ‘G.B.H. (Soundtrack)’ (1991), released in July. The album is actually co-credited to Elvis Costello and Richard Harvey. The latter had played in the prog rock band Gryphon (early 1970s-1977) before moving into the field of soundtracks.
‘The Juliet Letters’ (1993) (UK no. 18, US no. 125), issued on 19 January, is credited to Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet. Those two acts co-produce the disc with Kevin Killen. ‘The Juliet Letters’ is a bold attempt at classical music. ‘Jacksons, Monk And Rowe’ (co-written by Declan MacManus, J. Thomas & M. Thomas) is an unlikely single which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t leave a mark on the commercial charts.
In 1993 Elvis Costello parts ways with his manager Jake Riviera, ending their association of close to twenty years.
The box set ‘2 ½ Years’ (1993) is put out on 12 October by Demon (in the U.K.) and Rykodisc (in the U.S.). It contains Elvis Costello’s first three albums – ‘My Aim Is True’, ‘This Year’s Model’ and ‘Armed Forces’ – as well as making the live album ‘Live At The El Mocambo’ commercially available for the first time.
‘Brutal Youth’ (1994) (UK no. 2, US no. 34), released on 8 March, is produced by Mitchell Froom. This is Elvis Costello’s ‘most straightforward and pop-oriented album’ since ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ (1984). Costello’s backing group, The Attractions, reconvene for this set. It is their first work with Costello since ‘Blood And Chocolate’ (1986). The single ‘Sulky Girl’ (UK no. 22) is quietly ominous. “Suddenly you’re talking like a duchess / But you’re still a waitress,” Costello intones in this song’s lyrics. This album also includes ’13 Steps Lead Down’ (UK no. 59, US no. 115) and ‘London’s Brilliant Parade’ (UK no. 48).
‘The Very Best Of Elvis Costello And The Attractions 1977-1986’ (1994) (UK no. 57), released on 25 October, is issued by Demon (in the U.K.) and Rykodisc (in the U.S.).
‘Kojak Variety’ (1995) (UK no. 21, US no. 102), released on 9 May, is co-produced by Elvis Costello and Kevin Killen. This disc consists entirely of Elvis Costello performing cover versions of songs first recorded by other artists. For instance, he offers an interpretation of The Kinks’ 1968 song ‘Days’.
‘Deep Dead Blue’ (1995), released on Nonesuch on 14 August, is a live album. It was recorded on 23 June 1995 at the Meltdown Festival in London.
‘Jake’s Progress (Soundtrack)’ (1995), released on 6 November, is co-credited to Elvis Costello and Richard Harvey. Like the earlier ‘G.B.H. (Soundtrack)’ (1991) by the same duo, this is a venture into creating music for a movie.
‘All This Useless Beauty’ (1996) (UK no. 28, US no. 53), released on 14 May, is co-produced by Geoff Emerick and Elvis Costello. ‘All This Useless Beauty’ is almost the inverse of ‘Kojak Variety’. Rather than being an album of cover versions of other people’s songs, this album ‘features a number of original songs Costello had given away to other artists, but never recorded himself.’ ‘It’s Time’ (UK no. 58) is chosen to be a single. Also on this disc is ‘Shallow Grave’, a song co-written by Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney.
‘All This Useless Beauty’ is the last album on which Elvis Costello works with The Attractions. His long-time backing band shuts down for the final time in 1996.
‘Costello & Nieve’ (1996) is a five disc live album issued only in the U.S.A. Released on 3 December, it documents concerts given by Elvis Costello and keyboardist Steve Nieve (formerly of The Attractions) in such U.S. cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York City.
‘Costello & Nieve’ is Elvis Costello’s last album for Warner Bros. Subsequently, his albums come out on a variety of different labels – which may be appropriate given the increasingly eclectic nature of his output.
Warner Bros. sums up its years with Elvis Costello via the compilation album ‘Extreme Honey’ (1997), released on 21 October. This collects the best of Elvis Costello’s work in the period 1989 to 1997.
‘Painted From Memory’ (1998) (UK no. 32, US no. 78, AUS no. 26) is released by Mercury Records on 29 September. This disc is co-credited to Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach and the pair also act as co-producers of the disc. Burt Bacharach is best known as the 1960s co-author of middle-of-the-road, easy listening pop songs. ‘Toledo’ (UK no. 72) is the single from this album.
Elvis Costello’s 1999 single ‘She’ (UK no. 19) is a cover version of the French signer Charles Aznavour’s 1974 pop song. Costello’s version comes from the soundtrack for the movie ‘Notting Hill’ (1999). The film is released on 21 May.
Polygram issues the two disc compilation ‘The Very Best Of Elvis Costello’ (1999) (UK no. 4) on 21 September.
‘For The Stars’ (2001), released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in March, is credited to Anne Sofie Van Otter meets Elvis Costello. On this disc, the pair work their way through a set of pop standards.
‘When I Was Cruel’ (2002) (UK no. 17, US no. 20, AUS no. 34), released on 23 April, is an album title that almost makes Elvis Costello sound nostalgic about the early years of his career. This disc is released by Island (in the U.K.) and Mercury (in the U.S.). ‘When I Was Cruel’ is co-produced by Elvis Costello, Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson and Kieran Lynch. ‘Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)’ (UK no. 58) is an ode to female empowerment. It is covered in 2003 by U.S. pop group The Bangles. ‘45’ (UK no. 92) is the last Elvis Costello single to reach the charts. ‘Cruel Smile’ (2002) (US no. 180), issued by Universal Music Group on 1 October, is made up of B sides and leftovers from the ‘When I Was Cruel’ recording sessions plus some live recordings.
Elvis Costello’s marriage to his second wife, Cait O’Riordan, comes to an end late in 2002.
Elvis Costello is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 10 March 2003. The acknowledgement actually goes to Elvis Costello And The Attractions, extending the honour to his long-serving backing band as well.
In May 2003 Elvis Costello becomes engaged to Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall.
‘North’ (2003) (UK no. 44, US no. 57) is an Elvis Costello album issued on 22 September by Deutsche Grammophon. The album is co-produced by Elvis Costello and Kevin Killen. Since this is an album of pop jazz music, it is ‘reportedly inspired by Costello’s relationship with Diana Krall.’
Edsel Records issues three Elvis Costello compilation album box sets on the same date, 27 October. They are ‘Singles, Volume 1 (U.K. Only)’ (2003), ‘Singles, Volume 2 (U.K. Only)’ (2003) and ‘Singles, Volume 3 (U.K. Only)’ (2003).
Elvis Costello marries his third wife, Diana Krall, on 6 December 2003. The ceremony takes place at the home of pop star Elton John. Elvis and Diana go on to have twin sons, Dexter and Frank (born on 6 December 2006).
‘The Delivery Man’ (2004) (UK no. 73, US no. 40) is released on Lost Highway Records on 21 September. This album is co-produced by Elvis Costello and Dennis Herring. ‘The Delivery Man’ is credited to Elvis Costello And The Imposters. Costello had used The Imposter alias himself in the past (e.g. the 1983 single ‘Pills And Soap’), but in this case The Imposters is a three-piece band consisting of Steve Nieve (keyboards), Davey Faragher (bass, backing vocals) and Pete Thomas (drums). In other words, it is The Attractions with a different bassist.
‘Il Sogno’ (2004) is released on exactly the same day as ‘The Delivery Man’. By contrast, this is an album of classical music issued on the Deutsche Grammophon label.
‘Piano Jazz’ (2005) is credited to Elvis Costello with Marion McPartland. This album is issued on the Jazz Alliance label.
‘My Flame Burns Blue’ (2006) (US no. 188) is a live album released on 28 February. It captures Elvis Costello’s performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in July 2004 and is, naturally, jazz music. It comes out via the Deutsche Grammophon label.
‘The River In Reverse’ (2006) (UK no. 97, US no. 103), issued on 6 June, is credited to Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, a legendary figure in the New Orleans music scene. Accordingly, this album mixes New Orleans specialities such as rhythm and blues, jazz and soul. The disc is issued by Verve Forecast and produced by Joe Henry.
Hip-O issues two Elvis Costello compilation albums on the same day, 1 May, ‘The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First Ten Years’ (2007) (US no. 110) and ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (2007).
‘Momofuku’ (2008) (UK no. 112, US no. 59) by Elvis Costello And The Imposters is released on Lost Highway Records on 6 May. The odd title is a nod to Momofuku Ando, the creator of instant Ramen noodles. This comes about because the album is quickly conceived and recorded – like instant noodles. ‘Momofuku’ is the last album to feature The Imposters as the group disbands in 2008.
‘Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…’ is a television show created for Channel 4 (U.K.) / CTV (Canada). In the twenty episodes that make up the two series of this program, Elvis Costello talks and performs with guests including Elton John, Lou Reed, The Police, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Bono and The Edge (two members of U2) and Bruce Springsteen. The first episode airs on 3 December 2008 and the last on 6 January 2010. (Note: These are the U.S. air-dates which are earlier than other countries.)
‘Secret, Profane & Sugarcane’ (2009) (UK no. 71, US no. 13) is an Elvis Costello album released by Hear Music on 9 June. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, this set sees Costello tackling Americana, country folk and country rock music.
‘Live At Hollywood High’ (2010) is released by Hip-O on 12 January. This is an expansion of the three song bonus single released with early pressings of ‘Armed Forces’ (1979). This full album provides a better account of the Elvis Costello And The Attractions gig at Hollywood High in Los Angeles, California, on 4 June 1978.
Hip-O also issues the compilation album ‘Pump & Pout: The Universal Years’ (2010) on 24 August.
Back in the present, ‘National Ransom’ (2010) (UK no. 71, US no. 39) continues Elvis Costello’s work with Americana. Like its predecessor, ‘Secret, Profane & Sugarcane’ (2009), this disc is produced by T-Bone Burnett and released by Hear Music. ‘National Ransom’ comes out on 25 October.
‘The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook’ (2012) is a live album culled from Elvis Costello’s two day stint at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, California. It is released by Universal Music Enterprises on 2 April.
Universal Music Group puts together the Elvis Costello compilation album ‘In Motion Pictures’ (2012), released on 19 November. As the title suggests, this collects Elvis Costello songs from various movies.
‘Wise Up Ghost’ (2013) (UK no. 28, US no. 16, AUS no. 40), released on 17 September, is an album by Elvis Costello and The Roots, a black American group. The disc is released by Blue Note and co-produced by Elvis Costello, Questlove (The Roots’ drummer) and Steven Mandel. With The Roots on hand, it follows that this is an album of funk and rhythm and blues music.
On 23 October 2015 Blue Rider Press publishes Elvis Costello’s autobiographical memoir ‘Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink’ (2015). Costello says, “The book is partly a compendium of family remembrances and true tales of the road and the studio and partly an encyclopaedia of musical influences and associations.” The book is accompanied by a spoken word recording also titled ‘Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink’ (2015) which is issued by Universal Music Group.
Elvis Costello’s drunken and ill-considered comments about American music in general – and Ray Charles and James Brown in particular – brought him into conflict with Bonnie Bramlett. He was an angry young man who provoked angry reactions. Yet Costello’s best music was made in his ‘angry’ years (1977 to 1981), his punk / new wave phase. Perhaps it was not possible to maintain that rage over a whole lifetime; perhaps it was not desirable to be limited to that persona. ‘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. 9, 50, 59, 64, 65, 134, 160
- ‘The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 272, 275, 295, 296, 301, 305, 312, 314, 318, 333
- wikipedia.org as at 28 January 2017
- ‘The New York Times’ (New York, U.S.A., newspaper) – ‘Elvis Costello Looks Back’ by A.O. Scott (9 October 2015) (reproduced on nytimes.com)
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 114
- elviscostello.info – ‘The Rise and Rise of Elvis Costello’ by Paul Inglis as at 29 January 2017
- brainyquote.com as at 29 January 2017
- npr.org – ‘Elvis Costello: There is no Absolute Right and Wrong about Music’ by NPR staff and Kelly McEvers (13 October 2015)
- Internet Movie Database – imdb.com – as at 31 January 2017
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: Britain’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p. 579, 580, 582
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 42, 55, 227
- allmusic.com, ‘Elvis Costello’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 30 January 2017
- metrolyrics.com as at 31 January 2017
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48, 55
- ‘Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink’ by Elvis Costello (Blue Rider Press, 2015) via 3 (above), 8 (above)
- elviscostello.info – ‘Gigography’ as at 29 January 2017
- lyricsfreak.com as at 14 December 2012
- elviscostello.info – The Elvis Costello Home Page as at 29 January 2017
- ‘Round Table’ (U.K. radio program, Radio 1) – Hosted by Kid Jensen – via the article in ‘RAM’ magazine – ‘Everyone Loves The Police, ‘Cept Elvis’ by Ian Birch (4 April 1980) – reproduced in ‘The Police Book’ – Edited by Anthony O’Grady (Soundtracts Publishing Pty. Ltd., 1980) p. 39
- ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 192
- diffuser.fm – ’30 Years Ago – Elvis Costello And The Attractions Devour “Blood & Chocolate”’ by Bryan Wawzenek (15 September 2016)
Song lyrics copyright Plangent Visions Music Ltd with the exceptions of ‘Less Than Zero’, ‘(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes’, ‘Radio Radio’ and ‘Green Shirt’ (all Universal Music Publishing Group); ‘The Imposter’ (Universal Music Publ. MGB Ltd.); and ‘Sulky Girl’ (Sony/ATV Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group)
Last revised 14 February 2017