Before you cozy up to Elvis Costello, pop balladeer and Spice World: The Movie walk-on, remember the bilious brat who made such lasting celebrity possible.
London-born Costello, who performs on Sunday at Sunrise Musical Theatre accompanied by pianist Steve Nieve, crashed New York City in 1977 like Studio 54's most undesirable guest. It was counterprogramming as retaliatory strike: Costello and the Attractions, the band including Nieve, appeared that December on Saturday Night Live with America in full disco flower.
They were playing a single called "Less Than Zero" when this pinch-faced Buddy Holly puppet in dated eyeglasses and prom wear stops the band and says: "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song."
The foursome detoured into "Radio, Radio," a jilted innocent's rip at big media: "And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel."
He relived the moment, backed by the Beastie Boys, on SNL's 25th anniversary special in September. But is Costello, 45, still railing at anesthesia? Doubters cite a lackluster Attractions redux (1994's Brutal Youth) and work with feel-good songmeister Burt Bacharach (1998's Painted From Memory). Ardent fans, always there through decades of wheeling experimentation, say Costello remains an agitator; only the presentation is more refined.
Touring with Nieve, Costello on vocals and guitar plays the whole arc. The results may not please everyone; some of Costello's nervy classics lost their bite in recordings on the 1996 live set Costello & Nieve. But some, like 1977's "Watching the Detectives," were savagely pretty in their two-piece arrangements.
Beauty and bile remain Costello hallmarks well into middle age. The jealousy that drove "Alison" (1977) — a little ring of smoky r&b, perfectly exhaled — recurs in the Costello-Bacharach opus "God Give Me Strength." The latter is more feverish and grandiose, certainly, Costello waxing wounded over the stir of brass and strings. The performance, recorded for the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart, may be awe-inspiring or maudlin depending on one's taste for lavish pop.
Any tolerance for Bacharach's soft-shoe piano style is galling to partisans of Costello's older, pricklier fare. An appearance last year with the puff-pop damsels in Spice World: The Movie must have stopped their hearts.
Costello, meanwhile, defended his cameo and his co-stars. In an interview last year with the British magazine Q, he noted how shabbily the crowd treated the Spice Girls at Britain's Ivor Novello Awards: "When they went up for their awards there was this low, grumpy rumble like you get in the House of Commons. And I thought, you bastards! It's only a bit of fun, it's only pop music! So then I was all for them; I went from not giving a toss to, OK, I'm on their side now."
Taking up for the Spice Girls would be typical of Costello. Where popular music is concerned, any show of artistic conceit — looking down on the Spice Girls, for example — seems to rile him. Where the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll says Costello "reinvigorated the literate, lyrical traditions of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison," he rejects any effort to rate his music's intellectual appeal. Earlier this year he told Tentaciones, a Spanish magazine, "It's stupid to think that I'm an intellectual. In fact, I have a pretty average education. Further, my stories are nothing elegant. I tell my experiences: nothing to do with intellectual themes. They're personal things, not literary."
Costello was born Declan Patrick McManus in London. The son of a British big-band singer and trumpeter, he went to Catholic schools and took up guitar and songwriting in his teens. He signed to a British label in 1976. His manager suggested "Elvis Costello" as a stage name.
Costello assembled the Attractions in short order. Their first three albums, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces, helped set off the late-'70s punk and new-wave explosions. Costello straddled both, too melodic and craft-conscious to be pure punk, too raw and confrontational to be strictly new wave.
He was tough to categorize on any count. The man who mocked facism on his debut single, Less Than Zero, would, two years later, nearly destroy his own career with an insensitive racial remark. He never enjoyed raging commercial success but collaborated with mainstream stars: country singer George Jones on "Stranger in the House," Paul McCartney on My Brave Face. One of his earliest hits, "Alison," was covered by Linda Ronstadt.
The Bacharach pairing seems less surprising in light of Costello's full resume. That may not make not "God Give Me Strength" any more bearable to pop-phobes, but it makes the collaboration a little more defensible.