Born Declan McManus in Paddington in 1954, his family moved to Liverpool when he was 13 where he began writing songs. His father, Ross McManus, was a singer with the Joe Loss big band.
Leaving school at 16 he became a computer operator at Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. Moving to London, he also formed a band called Flip City and began sending out demos. One of these was heard by Stiff Records pioneer Jake Riviera.
The label signed McManus to a solo deal as ‘Elvis Costello’ (Costello was his grandmother’s maiden name, and Elvis was a suggestion from Riviera) and Flip City quickly disbanded.
He recorded his first album, My Aim Is True, with the aid of a West Coast American country-rock outfit called Clover – who would go on to become Huey Lewis and The News.
Elvis Costello burst onto the Summer of Hate (1977) like a sneering Buddy Holly, unloading a razor-sharp set of blazingly intelligent songs that veered between bitter disappointment and disgust, revenge and guilt.
His début single, Less Than Zero, was a track about fascist leader Oswald Mosley. The beautiful ballad, Alison (later to be butchered by Linda Ronstadt) was the follow-up single, but it also failed to chart.
By July, Elvis had quit his day job with Arden, assembled The Attractions – Steve Nieve (keyboards), Pete Thomas (drums) and Bruce Thomas (bass) – as his backing band, and been arrested for busking outside the Hilton Hotel in London where a CBS sales conference was in progress.
This Year’s Model (1978) was the angriest, cleverest, most overwrought album to emerge from the late 70s New Wave scene.
The single Radio Radio was a scathing attack on the very people who controlled whether Costello’s songs received any airplay. When Tony Blackburn first played the single on Radio 1 he felt compelled to comment on the lyrics.
He called Costello “a silly little man” and commented, “I wonder what radio would be like in the hands of Elvis Costello”. In fairness to Blackburn, he did go on to say that he liked the single – and at least one of his Radio 1 colleagues (Paul Gambaccini) named it his Record Of The Week.
The Attractions added a new power to Costello’s songs, now all bristling with reedy Farfisa’s, clipped guitars and finger-snapping amphetamine beats in a peppy, knowing homage to 60s garage pop.
While touring the US in March 1979 with his Armed Forces (1979) album – which contained the hit single, Oliver’s Army – a very drunk Costello ended up in a heated argument in a Holiday Inn hotel bar in Columbus, Ohio, with Bonnie Bramlett (from Delaney and Bonnie) and members of Steven Stills‘ entourage.
The dispute was reportedly about the relationship between race and music, and it came to an end when Bramlett punched Costello in the face for denouncing Ray Charles as “a blind, ignorant nigger”.
The ensuing press coverage damaged Costello’s career for some time in the US. His records were taken off playlists and he finished the 1979 tour escorted by armed bodyguards as a result of the sheer number of threats made against him.
Get Happy! (1980) introduced Elvis the Soul Man. And the Merseybeat Man. And the Brill Building Man. And the Ska Man. The album was a kaleidoscopic homage to pop’s golden age from a man who didn’t have to worry about his punk cred anymore.
The long joyous song sequence starting with King Horse and ending with New Amsterdam evokes side two of Abbey Road – and Nick Lowe and Roger Bechirian’s production was as authentically ‘period’ as that coffee cup ring on the front cover.
In 1981, in the era of eyeliner and Korg keyboards, prejudices against country music were so entrenched that Costello (or more likely the record company) actually whacked a sticker on the cover of Almost Blue warning “this album contains country and western music and may cause extreme reactions in narrow-minded people”. They needn’t have worried. Costello’s take on the genre was delightful.
With Imperial Bedroom (1982) Costello delivered a corker. These were the best songs of his career – Man Out Of Time, Beyond Belief, The Loved Ones to name but three. The combination of scintillating lyrics and imaginative orchestrations were delivered with the spontaneity of a man baring his inner turmoil as never before.
In Pidgin English he even dared to be tender, offering the eternally good advice, “if you’re so wise, use your lips and your eyes, take her to the Bridge of Sighs.” It drew comparisons with Lennon and McCartney as well as Gershwin and Porter, although Chet Baker’s sublime version of Imperial Bedroom‘s Almost Blue probably chuffed Costello more.
Praised to the hilt on its release in 1983, Punch The Clock has never been as good an album as some critics like to think, and the grafting on of the horn section and Muscle Shoals swagger were no more convincing than Spandau Ballet‘s contemporaneous attempts at the same thing. The album did produce two superb songs though, in Every Day I Write The Book and Shipbuilding.
King Of America (1986) was a sober, adult collection laden with regret. The album went some way towards repairing the damage done by the awful Goodbye Cruel World, and T-Bone Burnett’s production added authentic gloss to a record that was the clearest indication thus far that Costello saw himself in the venerable traditions of American song rather than as a punk survivor.
And yet within the year, Elvis reunited with The Attractions and Nick Lowe for Blood & Chocolate (1986) – something of a return to the acidic vigour of his punk laureate phase.
Commercial suicide has never sounded so sweet as on The Juliet Letters (1993), Costello’s collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet – a classical British string quartet. The concept of the album revolved around imaginary letters sent to an imaginary recipient, Juliet Capulet. Stand-out tracks included I Almost Had A Weakness and the single, Jacksons, Monk and Rowe.
Costello decided in 1994 to patch things up with The Attractions and record a power pop album produced by Mitchell Froom. Brutal Youth felt like a bracing swig of fizzy pop after the posh plonk that had become Costello’s vintage.
Painted From Memory (1999) found Costello collaborating with Burt Bacharach on the best of his many collaborative ventures. The album is built around the glorious torch song God Give Me Strength that the pair wrote for the Alison Anders’ movie Grace Of My Heart. Like the film, the album drips with nostalgia and reverence for the Brill Building era.