Back in the mid-seventies, singer-songwriters were a gentle, kindly but increasingly tedious breed. Comforting intimates of the bed-sit, they dissolved their listeners' heartbreaks with increasingly sentimental nostrums and played their publicity games by the unalarming rules the media preferred, settling for idle, soporific chats on The Old Grey Whistle Test with Bob Harris. Then along came Costello. Elvis Costello didn't spring fully-formed from the effervescent Stiff publicity machine. Christened Declan McManus, he had a walk-on part in the pub-rock scene, that spirited source of live music which was the finishing school for many of the British acts such as Graham Parker and the Rumour, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe and Rockpile and Ian Dury whom American critics later congregated under the catch-all term, 'New Wave!.
Brinsley Schwarz were the band the young Declan Costello admired. Managed by Dubliner Dave Robinson, with Nick Lowe their chief songsmith, Brinsley Schwarz rejected all image-building brouhaha like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust hype and so, despite an ardent following, became a penurious cult. Brinsley Schwarz broke up on St Patrick's Day 1975. After their dissolution, the pub-rock set resolved never to be out-gunned.
With a cheque from the then-ascending Dr Feelgood and the assistance of Andrew Jakeman, a former roadie with those Canvey Island rhythin 'n' beatsters, Robinson set up Stiff records as the pair's revenge on the deaf A&R departments who wouldn't recognise the talent flourishing in London at the time. Then in walked Declan McManus to prove their point. Jakeman, already re-incarnated as Jake Riviera, became his manager. Declan McManus became Elvis Costello. Just like Robert Zimmerman, David Jones, and Mark Feld, they were following one of the oldest tricks in the rock 'n' roll book: re-invention as the road to fame.
The image was inspired. Buddy Holly's petulant Liverpool cousin, lost — and screaming — in a world he never made, Elvis Costello united the dowdy Everyman, tarnished by the spite and disillusion of unfulfilled dreams, with over-reaching ambitions of stardom that both Costello and Riviera intended to play to the hilt.
An audacious stroke, it was fitting in those punk days, and protected Elvis Costello from the deserved discredit that had befallen singer-songwriters infatuated and duetting with their reflections. A black jest at the star-making machine, it removed Costello from orthodox publicity procedures and began the process where journalists, like one Record Mirror staffer, would even resort to bugging in their hunger for a Costello interview.
But the scam also had the incidental effect, often forgotten, of concentrating Costello's energies on his music. If Costello had bowed to the publicity chores of endless interviews, it's doubtful if he could have sustained the phenomenal productivity that has distinguished him from his contemporaries.
Flashing across the London scene, Costello lived up to his image as the singer for those embattled times. With the release of his first album, My Aim Is True, critics and public raved at his rejection of sentimentality and the emotional surgery of his curt one-liners.
What they missed was his compassion. In the album's finest song, "Alison," when Costello sang 'my aim is true', he was a man genuinely saddened by the revenge he might wreak, someone who sincerely meant 'this hurts me more than it hurts you'.
Only latterly has he begun to escape that early image, the role of the caustic avenger, the Angry Young Man.
Since then, his career hasn't quite met commercial expectations. Along with his producer Nick Lowe, Costello and Riviera quit Stiff to form Radar under the aegis of WEA. Gearing themselves up for the conquest of America, his long-standing band the Attractions came together with keyboardist Steve Naive, freshly recruited from a music college, playing an increasing role in the texturing of his next two albums, This Year's Model and Armed Forces.
My Aim Is True had been an unadorned album recorded with musicians from Clover, an American band then domiciled in London whose steel guitarist, John McFee later appeared on the Nashville sessions for Almost Blue. But the next two, particularly Armed Forces, recorded under the influence of the Abba vogue, were lusher affairs designed to tempt a wider audience.
Costello toured the US at the height of British punk antipathy for America's backwardness in accepting the new music. The Stranglers were accusing the natives of having 'small brains' and, unawares, Costello backed into one of the most ludicrous controversies of recent rock times.
Throughout that 1979 tour, Costello and his entourage were pressured, playing fair but very, very hard against the hangers-on that infest every American tour. In Columbus, Ohio, Costello (apparently slightly jarred) pitilessly needled — with some Randy Newman reverse-racism tactics — old-stagers Steven Stills and Bonnie Bramlett. for their reliance on black music: he is alleged to have said Ray Charles was 'nothing but a blind ignorant nigger'.
He should have said something relatively uncontroversial like 'John Lennon was God'. Bramlett and Stills blabbed to their publicists and the American media, itching to punish Costello for his arrogance in pretending to Presley's throne and his refusal of interviews, took him apart. That his lyrics were consistently anti-racist and that he regularly supported British Rock Against Racism benefits was forgotten in the witch-hunt.
In a fit of liberal panic, CBS, his American record company, called a press conference where Costello excused himself by saying that only 'the most offensive and obnoxious remarks' could 'rid myself of their presence'.
Neither Bramlett nor Stills have been heard of since but the incident effectively barred Costello from mass American favour. Even three years after this risible event, he had to devote a long section of a Rolling Stone interview to defending himself.
Certainly the tour and the simultaneous dissolution of Radar, to be followed by F-Beat, his present label, marked a watershed. Costello returned to London and reverted to his grittier early style in hammering out the twenty soul-influenced tracks of Get Happy. He also had to deal with. the new synth onslaught.
Despite the superb Trust, his country dissertation Almost Blue. and the latest Imperial Bedroom, Costello's qualities haven't appealed to the new teen market who prefer glamour to his sanded-down styles. Costello's musical roots in sixties British pop and R&B and country music haven't been fashionable values and the new pop hasn't fastened on singers of his choking kind.
That said, he's too formidable and productive an artist to dismiss in the past tense. No lyricist has better expressed the complications and guilty commerce of relationships, few have been as prolific in their images of love and lust. He may need to further regroove his sound, something tacitly admitted by the choice of Geoff Emerick, a producer outside the F-Beat camp, for his last album. Perhaps, too, there's the danger of repeating himself. As the bed-sit of his creations becomes too claustrophobic he may need to change the scenery not just the furniture.