August, 1977. One Elvis dies, another Elvis is born. Twenty years on, both have an anniversary for their respective fans to ponder over. While Presley aficionados will mourn the loss of The King, Costello fans will heap praise on the man born Declan Patrick McManus. The reason? My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello's debut album, was released in the last week of July, 1977. It charted on August 6th, 10 days before the other Elvis died.
Born on August 25th, 1955, the only child of an Ulster Catholic, Ross McManus (then a Big Band leader and solo performer), Elvis Costello has gone from punk rock ingénue to chronicler of the complete emotional spectrum. He spent the best part of his childhood in London, where he attended Catholic schools. After his parents split up, Costello moved with his mother to her native Liverpool for the last two years of secondary school. He left school in 1973 with no ambitions to further his education, but rather hoping to get a job.
Working by day and singing by night in local folk clubs, in 1974 Costello met a well-known musician, Nick Lowe. On Lowe's advice he left Liverpool for London, primarily to be closer to the hub of the recording and music industry. Married by this time, with a child on the way, he was taken on as a computer operator in the Elizabeth Arden perfume factory near London, again singing by night in tiny pub rock venues with a band called Flip City.
This period coincided with the emergence of punk rock, but Costello had little opportunity to observe the movement up close. Living in suburbia with a job, a wife, Mary (from whom he separated in the mid-1980s) and a son, Mathew, meant that both money and time were tight. For most of 1975, Flip City no longer in tow, he began to hawk demo tapes of his songs around to record companies — all of which were turned down.
He also toured A&R offices giving impromptu performances, most of which received nothing in return except a bemused look — although in one off-the-cuff performance outside a CBS record convention in London, Costello was actually arrested for disturbing the peace.
In 1976, he finally tried a newly-founded independent record company called Stiff Records. They were looking for new talent that had little truck with overt commercialism. He was looking for a record company that would allow him to record his songs without undue concern for a hit single. Costello was signed up immediately: a business and creative marriage made in career heaven.
With his debut album recorded in part on days that Costello took off "sick" from work, My Aim Is True introduced him to the public and the rock media as a cold, calculating cuckold with one leg in the bedroom and the other in the kitchen, a man seemingly content to connect the dirty dramatics of the former with the soap-opera antics of the latter. The results were little short of breathtaking. Musically, My Aim Is True had some of the trappings of punk rock — the scratchy guitars and the sneering attitude — but lyrically the album easily transcended the nihilistic rantings of the best of his contemporaries. Elvis Costello had arrived with a bang.
Costello has been described in many ways throughout his 20-year career. Facetious cliches that attempt to define the man and his nature, his world view and his soul-searching, have tripped from many tongues, typewriters, and think-pads. Costello himself has used one catch-all description during the latter part of his career to illustrate the absurdity of anyone trying to pin down his raison d'etre with a glib phrase.
This pithy expression — "The Bug Eyed Monster From Planet Guilt And Revenge" — sounds perfect when you consider his many songs about interpersonal relationships. In reality, all it does is to place Elvis Costello in a cultural pigeon-hole — a disservice to the man whose contribution to rock music is far more than just songs about girls, girls, and even more girls.
The people who tend to look at Costello in this way are mostly journalists, a breed the man appears to suffer
politely but warily. The good things that have been written about him obviously help, but there seems to be an awareness within him that there is always someone about to knock him back. He really doesn't appear to consider media hyperbole as important. "I'm not unaware of it," he told this writer in an interview several years ago, "but it doesn't have any bearing on what I do."
From My Aim Is True to his most recent album, 1996's All This Useless Beauty, Costello has documented real and imaginary romantic resentment and repression. From then till now he has utilised and combined the emotions of love and hate in a manner that has been interpreted as misogynistic by some and mirthless by others.
Throughout his career, Costello hasn't been one for ploughing the same musical furrow. If his first three albums (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces) flirted with various aspects of pop music, it was with his fourth, 1980's Get Happy! and his sixth, 1981's Almost Blue, that he truly began to diversify.
Get Happy! was Costello in Motown/Stax mode, a splendid collection of soul-searchings. In Nashville, Almost Blue saw him recording an album of country songs — not so much an academic tribute as an assured foray into the C & W heart of darkness. From then on, Costello has with each subsequent album utilised different music genres and rhythms — a touch of afro-beat on 1983's Punch The Clock, Americana-folk on 1986's King Of America, Irish traditional music on 1989's Spike, television soundtrack music for Alan Bleasdale's GBH, baroque pop on 1993's The Juliet Letters, and more recently, his first musical composition for children, Tom Thumb, which was premiered by London's Academy of St Martin in the Fields on July 3rd last.
It doesn't end there, though. Costello doesn't see all this as being any more a muscular musical stretch for him to work with Irish musicians, Donal Lunny and Davy Spillane, than it is to collaborate with the likes of Yoko Ono, Allen Toussaint, George Jones, Bill Frisell, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, and Tricky.
And let us not forget his experiment in writing an album's worth of songs over a weekend for Wendy James. Or his production credits with Squeeze, The Bluebells, The Specials and The Pogues (during which he met his present wife, Cait O'Riordan). All this, he says, is "just music".
Costello bores will tell you at length and in great detail what the man has contributed to rock music — and popular music in general — throughout his career: a musical style that runs the gamut from A to Z, a lyrical deftness and depth that regularly begs quotation marks, and an unerring ability to fashion melodies that bring either a tear to the eye or set the foot tapping. Elvis Costello will tell you something altogether different and modest: "If nothing else, I've contributed a lot of headlines to journalism over the years".
Undoubtedly one of the finest songwriters and lyricists Britain has ever produced, he is also, perhaps, the only rock star of the past 20 years who has managed, in the eyes and ears of his fans and the music media, to have continuously maintained his credibility. Mr Costello, sir — you are the bee's knees, and you spoil us something rotten. Here's to the next 20 years eh?