PARIS — After Declan McManus recorded his first album, My Aim Is True, for Stiff Records in 1977, his manager decided to call him Elvis. Elvis Costello wore horn-rimmed glasses and his mild-mannered Buddy Holly image was the antithesis of the aggressive untuned beats and clashes of the Punk then in fashion in his native London.
My Aim Is True was a hit. He was compared to Randy Newman (a big influence on his vocal style), John Lennon and Ray Davies of The Kinks. He wrote prolifically; emotional, lucid often quietly bitter songs on a variety of subjects including the BBC, the war between the sexes, and Sir Oswald Mosley. His third album, Armed Forces, sold half a million copies.
He went into a slump at the end of the decade, followed by what be called "an extreme, hysterical period of drinking and taking drugs." His depression was widely discussed in the rock press. Imperial Bedroom sold only around 200,000 copies. His gambles stopped paying off, he worried that he had lost his touch. This year with Punch the Clock, he has come back stronger than ever and the skinny kid who was paranoid about his audience and shied away from the press has matured into an available, verbose explainer at the age of 28, with the air of an elder statesman.
Isn't it kind of greedy for a sensitive musician who can discuss Bertolt Brecht, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams and Isabelle Adjani to get depressed because his product sells "only" 200,000 copies? He smiled, leaned back on the sofa and stared into space. He was wearing the same black suit, black shirt and blue loafers he wears on-stage: "Maybe it was because I bled that one the most up until that time, and it was the least successful.
"Imperial Bedroom was a complicated record with a lot of musical options on it, a lot of my interests. I didn't want to be limited to just a disco or rock beat. I knew I was being ambitious, ignoring all the current trends. I mean it was arrogant to say 'the hell with the human league, I'm going to do this anyway.' I put a lot of myself into that album and my audience went down by more than half. You know the audience is there but you didn't get them. I'm not interested in being a martyr, a cult artist, that's not what I set out to be."
His father, Ross McManus, was a trumpeter and singer who worked cabarets and was a sideman with the Joe Loss big band, an English Glenn Miller clone. His father kept up with the hits of the day and there were Beatles and Who records around the house as he grew up. Costello told Rolling Stone magazine: "My father went a bit psychedelic about the edges in 1968. He grew his hair quite long; he used to give me Grateful Dead records, and Surrealistic Pillow. Costello exchanged them for Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding albums, which he would hide when friends came to visit: "I didn't want to be out of step."
Overcompensating, he went even further out of step — out of line, a lot of people thought — after Imperial Bedroom, cutting a country music record in Nashville "It was in some way blasphemous. Obviously it was not authentic but I still maintain it's more sincere emotionally than the sentimental pap that most country seems to have fallen to. I',m not an American country artist. I never pretended to be. I'm an English person with an unnatural love of Hank Williams who projected a certain depressed element of my personality on simple lyrics which I welcomed as a release from the precious confusions of some of my own songs."
Punch the Clock is selling "better than my last four albums put together." It includes the ballad "Shipbuilding," inspired by the Falkland Islands war, about "the irony that the men end up getting their jobs back in shipyards to build ships to send their sons off to get killed." He wanted an instrumental solo that would agree with the sentiment. He decided on a trumpet, preferably by somebody with a distinct personal sound. Miles Davis was obviously an impractical idea. He called Wynton Marsalis, who was interested, but they could not match schedules. Then Chet Baker played The Canteen, a London club.
Some years before, Costello had found a Baker recording of "The Thrill Is Gone." He was fascinated by the risks he heard him take, and by his trumpet sound. "It was like a voice. I was making up words to that song before I knew there was a vocal to it. I brought it along to a BBC radio show where you play your favorite records, and the host went to the library and brought back Chet's vocal version of the same song. He sings like he plays, he has one of the best voices I ever heard. I became a real fan, started hunting down everything I could find. So when Chet came to town I approached him and he came to the studio at one o'clock in the afternoon, early for him, and did it wonderfully. His playing was perfect for the song, somehow frail and strong at the same time."
Costello identifies with Baker, he is like him in his own way; feeling the need to take risks, though vulnerable when they fail: "But you have to do that from time to time, otherwise you end up chasing somebody else's bandwagon. I'd get bored fast."
On a winning roll now, he continues to believe that "something real can also be successful." Thinking back, he evaluates his first quick success: "I had something that resembled something original. It wasn't original but it was close enough to fool enough people long enough for me to get a head start before anyone could pin me down. And I've managed to keep ahead ever since."