When Elvis Castillo burst on the music scene in 1977, he came along at exactly the right time to remind people why they started listening to Rock and Roll music in the first place. People listened because it was honest and pure, and uncompromising and defiant and dangerous. At a time when the music industry was dominated by the mellow, California sound of Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and others, Costello threatened to make Rock and Roll exciting again. And now, three years and five albums later, Elvis Costello has established himself as the most prolific and provocative singer-songwriter to come along in quite awhile.
Born Declan Patrick McManus on August 25, 1955, he was the only child of a marriage that ended when his father, a jazz trumpeter and cabaret singer, hit the road for good. Costello grew up in a blue-collar section of London where he had no fantasies of being a rock star until his late teens, when he took up the guitar. At eighteen he became a computer programmer for an Elizabeth Arden factory in a nearby suburb and it was there that he composed his first songs to the whir of machines and the rumble of trains. On weekends he would scratch for bit jobs as a guitarist and was met with little interest until he dropped off a tape of his music at Stiff Records, a small independent label.
In 1976, Costello signed a contract with Stiff, accepting an amp and tape recorder as his only advance. For his stage name he borrowed from Rock and Roll's first king and picked Costello from his mother's side of the family. In that same year, when CBS Records executives were in London for a convention, he took his guitar and staged a street-corner audition in front of the London Hilton where they were staying. Although he was promptly arrested for disturbing the peace, the Columbia executives eventually offered him an American record contract.
In late 1977, Costello's first album, My Aim is True, was released and set the record for import sales in this country. It was a Rock and Roll attack of songs seething with anger and sexual frustration, incorporating the sounds of the '60s into something entirely new and very powerful. Costello's songs were a blending of starkly simple, hardedge arrangements and intensely clever, biting lyrics. Dealing with such subjects as the blue-collar drudgery ("Welcome to the Working Week"), the evils of television ("Watching the Detectives"), the album was recorded in less than a week and was named one of Roiling Stone's Albums of the Year.
Following the release of the album, Costello assembled three musicians, Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Steve Naive on keyboards to form the Attractions. With this three-piece powerhouse behind him, Costello embarked on a seven week U.S. tour and was greeted with sizzling receptions. After playing to fourteen cities, he quickly returned to England to begin work on a new album with Nick Lowe, again, producing.
The second, cleverly titled This Year's Model, was a better recorded album that sacrificed none of the driving urgency of the first. Released five months after My Aim Is True, the albun defied the standard record releasing procedure. Says Costello, "We wanted to get people with the second one before they had recovered from the first, rather than letting them forget all about us and then come back a year later and expect them to be excited about it, you know?" The songs were a series of cleverly constructed attacks on radio programming ("Radio, Radio"), fashion models ("This Year's Girl") and the fumbling frustrations of love ("No Action"). Costello succeeded and This Year's Model was named album of the year by Robert Christgau of the Village Voice and by the English music paper, Melody Maker.
The album was, once again, followed by a brisk, blitzkrieg tour of the States, this time with Nick Lowe serving as support act. Then came the third, and as far as Costello's manager Jake Riviera was concerned, make or break album. Armed Forces was released in January of 1979, the product of a full month in the studio. The songs were strong lyrically, and full of hook-filled settings that tend to stick in the mind. Originally entitled "Emotional Fascism," most of the songs deal with sexual politics ("Oliver's Army," "Green Shirt") while at the same time allowing for compassion ("What's So Funny 'bout Peace, Love and Understanding"). The arrangements were far more clever and complex than before and allowed for much greater accessibility. The album took off like a bullet, quickly climbed the Billboard charts and entered the top ten. Costello and the Attractions took off after it on a two and one half month tour of the U.S. Billed as The Armed Funk Tour '79, it was a disastrous series of events for Costello. Alter a number of death threats, food poisonings and the much publicized fight with Bonnie Bramlett, the album died a quick death and he was forced to give an unprecedented press conference in New York. All of this, however, didn't prevent the album from going platinum (more than one million copies sold).
After the tour, Costello immersed himself in various projects. He had a cameo appearance in the movie, Americathon, and tried his hand at producing with an album by the English SKA group, The Specials. At the beginning of 1980,