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Retrospective of Costello's career
Preview: Victorian Arts Cnetre News, 2002-07-01



Elvis is back

Don't be surprised if a run of Elvis' sightings around the Arts Centre gets reported in the media during July. Elvis is indeed making a comeback. Elvis Costello, a true survivor in the music industry is returning to Australia, appearing with The Imposters.

Decian McManus, as he was born on 25 August 1954 in London, is only child of trumpeter, vocalist and erstwhile bandleader Ronald ("Ross") MacManus and record store manager Lillian MacManus.

At the time of Declan's early childhood Ross was a featured vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra (Britain's premier big band) and he used to bring home acetate recordings to practice the latest pop tunes. Declan loved to listen to these and other records, his favourite (even as a toddler) being Frank Sinatra's version of Cole Porter's I've Got You Under My Skin. At the age of nine, Declan bought his first record, the Beatles' Please Please Me.

Coming from a musical family (aside from his parents' professional connections with the music world, MacManus' grandfather, Patrick, was also a musician, as are Declan's four half-brothers, Ronan, Liam, Kieran and Ruari who formed a band called "Manus", later renamed "Riverway", in the late 1990s) it was almost inevitable that Declan would have some interest in music.

He first came to prominence during the United Kingdom punk era of 1977.

The former computer programmer gave impromptu performances, appealing to the new wave market but also capturing the hearts and minds of a wider audience with the sensitive issues he wrote about.

After a brief gig in a country rock act he was signed as a solo act to Stiff Records.

Yet Costello failed to chart with his early releases, which included the anti-fascist Less Than Zero and the sublime ballad Alison. His debut, My Aim Is True introduced a new pinnacle in late 70s songwriting. Costello spat, shouted and crooned through a cornucopia of radical issues, producing a set that was instantly hailed by the critics.

His first hit single, Watching The Detectives, contained scathing verses about wife-beating over a beautifully simple reggae beat. At the same time, Costello's standing across the Atlantic was seriously dented by his regrettably flippant dismissal of Ray Charles as "an ignorant, blind nigger", an opinion he later recanted.

However by the end of the 1970s Costello was firmly established as both performer and songwriter, with Linda Ronstadt and Dave Edmunds having success with his compositions.

Through the years he has continued to impress with an output continually challenging the soundwaves, both in its content and in the music partners he has cultivated.

He demonstrated his right-on political and racial stance in 1983 by producing the Special AKA's hit single Nelson Mandela, the proceeds of which went to help free political prisoners (such as Nelson Mandela). In much the same vein Costello also commented archly that his video for Everyday I Write the Book featured 50 per cent of the black artists featured on MTV at that time (the Afrodiziak singers). Presumably the other two were Michael Jackson and Prince.

Towards the end of the 80s he collaborated with Paul McCartney, co-writing a number of songs for Flowers In The Dirt.

His collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet in 1993 was a brave partnership. The Brodskys were classically trained musicians accustomed to working from sheet music. Costello could neither read nor write musical notation, having always relied on his "musical ear", memory, tape recorders, and an idiosyncratic form of written "shorthand" that only he could understand.

Incredibly, in the space of a few months, Costello mastered musical notation to the point where he could write four-part arrangements. The result was The Juliet Letters - Costello had read a newspaper article about a Veronese professor who took it upon himself to answer letters written to Shakespeare's Juliet - a song-cycle about love, life, death and correspondence. Costello asked the members of the quartet to suggest different kinds of letters and lyrical ideas associated with the letters. The result was a mixture of original compositions by Costello and collaborations featuring different combinations of the Brodskys with Costello. Generally speaking, most of the rock critics (with the exception of Rolling Stone) thought that the album was nothing less than a tour de force. Classical critics were predictably less enthusiastic: some of them sneered at Costello's idiosyncratic vocals and obsessed over the obvious influences in the arrangements: Shostakovich, Bartok, Debussy, Gershwin et al, while they overlooked the inherent melodic invention and totally avoided the lyrical beauty of the songs. In spite of the initial disdain in some quarters, The Juliet Letters is now attaining the reputation as a "standard" work and has been performed by a number of other string quartets around the world.

Costello signed a worldwide deal with PolyGram Records in February 1998. Following their collaboration on the track God Give Me Strength, featured in the 1996 movie Grace Of My Heart, Costello and songwriting legend Burt Bacharach joined forces on 1998's Painted From Memory, a finely crafted collection of ballads. I Still Have That Other Girl won a 1999 Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. The two collaborated again on a cover version of Bacharach and David's I'll Never Fall In Love Again, for the soundtrack to Mike Myers' Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Costello's cover version of Charles Aznavour's She also figured prominently in the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts film, Notting Hill, and returned the singer to the UK Top 20. The following year he composed the orchestral score for Italian ballet troupe Aterballeto's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

A stirring collaboration with opera singer Anne Sofie Van Otter in 2001 preceded a new "pop" album, When I Was Cruel.

Although Costello no longer tops the charts, he remains a critics' favourite, and is without doubt one of the finest songwriter/lyricists England has ever produced.

His contribution was acknowledged in 1996 when he collected Q magazine's songwriter award. His left-of-centre political views have not clouded his horizon and he is now able to assimilate all his musical influences and to some degree, rightly indulge himself.

Elvis Costello and The Imposters
Concert Hall
16-17 July


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