Costello, Elvis (originally McManus, Declan)

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Costello, Elvis (originally McManus, Declan)

Costello, Elvis (originally McManus, Declan) , one of the most lyrically intelligent and musical ambitious singer-songwriters to emerge in the late 1970s; b. Liverpool, England, Aug. 25, 1954. Along with the Clash, Elvis Costello was the British punk or New Wave act that persevered long enough to achieve both acclaim and notoriety in the United States. Certainly a prolific songwriter of the New Wave movement, perhaps even the most productive songwriter of his generation regardless of genre. Costello’s biting, incisive, and literate songs and his basic, unadorned rock music served as a stark and refreshing contrast to both the overproduced, pretentious music of British compatriots such as Genesis and Pink Floyd, and the mindless, contrived dance music of disco.

Initially favoring vituperative, sarcastic, and angry songs (witness his stunning My Aim Is True), Costello developed into a profound and compassionate song-writer by the early 1980s without abandoning his fire and rage. His early caustic, aloof manner in performance evolved into a sincere, almost congenial style that ingratiated him to fans. Although criticized for his perceived lack of vocal range, he possessed one of the most emotionally evocative voices performing in rock.

Remarkably eclectic from the very beginning—utilizing the sound of reggae, soul, country, jazz, and even pop in his music—Costello produced the most diverse catalog of songs imaginable. He even recorded an album of country standards in the early 1980s, and in the early 1990s an album for voice and classical string quartet.

Elvis Costello grew up in a musical household. His father, Ross McManus, was a big-band singer. Playing guitar and writing songs as a youth, he took the name Elvis Costello to perform as a country act in pubs around London. He was the first artist to submit a demonstration tape to England’s Stiff Records, a small, independent label formed in 1976 to record punk music. His debut album, recorded with the northern Calif.-based country-rock group Clover under producer Nick Lowe, was released in Great Britain in the spring of 1977. That fall Costello completed his first British tour with the Attractions, comprised of keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation).

When the cofounders of Stiff Records split up in late 1977, Elvis Costello switched to Columbia Records. The company issued the brilliant album My Aim Is True on the verge of his American debut in San Francisco. The first New Wave album to sell well in the United States, it featured a number of compelling songs, such as “Watching the Detectives,” “Red Shoes,” “Mystery Dance,” “I’m Not Angry,” and “Waiting for the End of the World,” plus the uncharacteristic love ballad “Alison.” The latter song was recorded by Linda Ronstadt for her 1978 Living in the U.S.A. album, giving a further boost to Costello’s career.

Without a hit single, Elvis Costello quickly achieved an underground following with his early American tours. His enigmatic reputation was bolstered by This Year’s Model, recorded with the Attractions under producer Nick Lowe. The album included “No Action,” “Pump It Up,” “Lipstick Vogue,” and “Radio Radio.” Costello’s early 1979 American tour was equivocal at best, frequently alienating curious American rock artists, promoters, and audiences alike. A strange incident in Columbus, Ohio, when an apparently drunken Costello attacked singers Steve Stills and Bonnie Bramlett and reportedly made racist remarks about Ray Charles, was widely covered in the press, doing little to help his career. Nonetheless, Armed Forces became a best-seller, featuring “Accidents Will Happen,” “Party Girl,” and Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a minor hit.

Costello continued to pump out albums, with two releases in 1980. Get Happy!! included 20 songs, and was quickly followed by Taking Liberties, which contained B-sides to singles and previously unreleased recordings such as “Girls Talk” (a minor hit for Dave Edmunds in 1979), “Talking in the Dark” (recorded by Linda Ronstadt), and “Stranger in the House” (recorded by country star George Jones). Trust, released in 1981, included “Clubland,” “Pretty Words,” and “Different Finger.” It was followed by an entirely new style on Almost Blue, recorded in Nashville and produced by country veteran Owen Bradley, revealing Costello’s country music bent with performances of country standards by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones, and two Gram Parsons songs.

Costello returned to his own songwriting on 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, regarded by many as his masterpiece. Exploring the anguish of love in a variety of styles, the album featured “The Long Honeymoon,” “Human Hands,” “Pidgin English,” and the moving ballad “Almost Blue.” A U.S. tour followed, as did two more albums: Punch the Clock included the antiwar “Shipbuilding” and yielded Costello’s first (moderate) hit with “Everyday I Write the Book,” while Goodbye Cruel World produced a minor hit with “The Only Flame in Town.”

In spring 1984 Elvis Costello toured America again, this time as a solo artist performing primarily acoustic music. Without the din of the Attractions his lyrics were far easier to appreciate, and he revealed a warm and lighter side, unlike his tours of the 1970s. Dominated by country ballads, King of America was recorded without the Attractions (save one song), and Costello played acoustic guitar for producer T-Bone Burnett. The Attractions and producer Nick Lowe were back for Blood and Chocolate, which included “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” “Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?,” and the ballad “I Want You.”

In May 1986 Elvis Costello married Cait O’Riordan, bassist of the Pogues, which she left late in the year. In 1987 the Attractions split up, and for a time Costello was without a record label. Signed to Warner Bros., he reemerged in 1989 with Spike, his best-selling album in years. Recorded with Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn, coproducer T-Bone Burnett, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the album featured “Baby Plays Around,” “God’s Comic,” and Costello’s first major hit single, “Veronica,” cowritten with McCartney. At the same time, McCartney scored a major hit with “My Brave Face,” cowritten with Costello. Costello toured again in 1989, with the Rude 5, who included guitarist Marc Ribot (who worked with Tom Waits), ace session keyboardist Larry Knechtel, bassist Jerry Scheff (who worked with Elvis Presley), and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas. The Rude 5 helped Costello record Mighty Like a Rose in Los Angeles. It included “Broken” (written by O’Riordan), “So Like Candy,” and “Playboy to a Man” (cowritten with McCartney), plus “The Other Side of Summer” and “Hurry Down Doomsday.”

In 1992 Elvis Costello made perhaps the boldest move of his career, recording The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, a respected British classical string quartet. Sharing songwriting credit with the Quartet on more than half the songs, Costello bore sole responsibility for the vocals. The album, comprised largely of ballads, featured “Taking My Life in Your Hands” and “I Almost Had a Weakness.” In 1994 Costello reassembled the Attractions to make the album Brutal Youth and for their first tour in eight years. Taking another right turn, Costello then issued an album of cover songs, Kojak Variety, ranging from Mose Allison’s “Every-body’s Crying Mercy” to Randy Newman’s “I’ve Been Wrong Before” and Jesse Winchester’s “Payday.”


ELVIS COSTELL O (Beginning in 1990, Ryko-disc began reissuing Elvis Costello’s early albums with additional studio and live tracks, so the Rykodisc recordings do not correspond exactly to the original U.S. issues): My Aim Is True (1977); This Year’s Model (1978); Armed Forces (1979); Get Happy!! (1980); Taking Liberties (1980); Trust (1981); Almost Blue (1981); Imperial Bedroom (1982); Punch the Clock (1983); Goodbye Cruel World (1984); The Best of Elms Costello and the Attractions, 1977–1984 (1985); King of America (1986); Blood and Chocolate (1986); Girls, Girls, Girls (1990); Spike (1989); Mighty Like a Rose (1991); Brutal Youth (1994); Kojak Variety (1995); All This Useless Beauty (1996); 2 1/2 Years (1993); The Very Best of Elvis (1994). ELVI S COSTELLO AND THE BRODSK Y QUARTET: The Juliet Letters (1993).


Krista Reese, £. C. (N.Y., 1981); Mick St. Michael, E.C. (London, 1986); David Gouldstone, E. C.: A Man Out of Time (London, 1989); Bruce Thomas, The Big Wheel (N.Y., 1990).

—Brock Helander