1. Less Than Zero
That Declan MacManus had been renamed Elvis Costello in the year that Elvis Presley died was merely a stroke of luck. When news filtered through that the King had died, a period of anxiety gripped the offices of the normally publicity savvy Stiff Records, though they needn’t have worried; the seemingly disrespectful timing only added to the withering persona of the new upstart and agitator they were looking to promote. Whether apocryphal or not, the tale that NME were planning on running an Elvis vs Elvis: which one is a Stiff artist? editorial before good taste prevailed makes a good story. MacManus had spent considerable time honing his act with weekly shows at the Half Moon pub in Putney for 50p and a plate of sandwiches in the mid-70s, so by the time Stiff picked him up, he was able to emerge more or less fully formed into the public’s consciousness, a man as erudite as he was angry. His first single, Less Than Zero, was fittingly vituperative, spitting venom at the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, accusing him of engaging in incest to boot (“the song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument,” said the author). Mosley had apparently been the subject of a then recent TV documentary in which he reminisced misty-eyed about the Blackshirts. Whether American novelist Bret Easton Ellis had a grip on 1930s British politics or not, he named his first book after the song, and also his last novel to date – the sequel – pluralising Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. Less Than Zero the single is madly catchy and slightly unhinged, and simplistic enough that it fitted in with the burgeoning DIY punk movement; more musically accomplished offerings, like the 1940s-inspired Wave a White Flag, were quietly forgotten about.
2. Radio Radio
Perhaps owing more to luck than judgment, Costello assembled one of the finest bands of the late 70s and early 80s in the Attractions, who appeared for the first time on his magnificent, Clash-mimicking first hit single, Watching the Detectives. By the time recording for the album This Year’s Model came around, they were knocking off mod-stomping classics like Pump it Up and (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea in one afternoon with Nick Lowe in the control booth. Another muscular anthem rescued from Elvis’s days in the virtually unheard of pre-punk band Flip City, Radio Radio, was updated in order to bite the hand that fed him. “And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools,” he spat, “tryin’ to anaesthetise the way you feel.” With a sharp hook, a thumping rhythm and Steve Nieve’s trademark swirly organ, the band were able to perform the song on Top of the Pops and sing the words right at presenter Tony Blackburn. The song caused further controversy in the US, when Elvis and the Attractions appeared on Saturday Night Live. Halfway through Less Than Zero the band suddenly stopped and played the prohibited Radio Radio instead. Elvis was banned for life from the show, a banishment that lasted all of 12 years.
3. Oliver’s Army
Having grown up a Beatles fanatic, Costello would have been honoured and presumably ecstatic when in 1987 the call came from Paul McCartney to write with him. Perhaps Costello could have imparted some tricks to McCartney, like how to write a protest song, especially regarding British colonialism and the Irish question. Musical genius he might be, but McCartney’s Give Ireland Back to the Irish was one of the limpest musical protests in the history of song, whereas Oliver’s Army was so smart and subversive that many were unaware it was a protest song at all. They just heard the earworm on the radio, joined in with the singalong chorus and lapped up Steve Nieve’s sparkling piano part, which owes a huge debt to Abba’s Dancing Queen, and then they went out and bought it in large numbers. According to Graeme Thomson’s Costello biography, Complicated Shadows, the band had no greater expectation for the song than for it to appear as a B-side when they premiered it at the Roskilde festival in Denmark in 1978. The following year, though, it reached No 2 in the charts, only kept off the top by the Bee Gees and then by Gloria Gaynor. The line “one more widow, one less white nigger” caused little controversy at the time, though when Costello dropped the N-bomb into an argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett at a Holiday Inn in Ohio in March 1979 – he provoked the row, and described Ray Charles as “a blind, ignorant nigger” – it had a disastrous effect on his US popularity. Allegedly high on amphetamines and booze and out to shock, Costello refused to apologise in a press conference for his remarks (his defence at the time was a curt “I’m not a racist”, and he had indeed played Rock Against Racism gigs), but he has been contrite on plenty of occasions since, a transgression presumably high up in his list of regrets.
4. Man Out of Time
Whether it was the Holiday Inn incident or just the natural process of growing up, Costello slowly unwound as the 80s gathered pace. He still unleashed unbridled scorn now and again – on Margaret Thatcher on 1989’s Tramp the Dirt Down and on Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas on 1991’s How to Be Dumb – but he also appeared to become more reflective and less confrontational. The phrase “angry young man” uses all three components for good reason, and by the time Costello came to record Imperial Bedroom with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick in London in 1982, he was approaching 28 years old. “At the time of Imperial Bedroom, I came to terms with the fact that I was sacrificing the power of certain songs to this mad pursuit of tempo,” he later reflected. “Everything had to be delivered forcefully. I don’t know whether it was just a natural process or, literally, cumulative exhaustion of what were very intense years. Man Out of Time is the one time I said, ‘No, stop. Let’s play this at the right tempo.’” Bookended by an earlier noisier version, the song in between seemingly floats on some Dylanesque Highway 61-era Wurlitzer organ, carried along by a noirish narrative about a cabinet minister hiding out from a sex scandal. It also features the amusing rhyming couplet: “H’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge / He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege.” Imperial Bedroom is for good or bad a record of maturity, with Man Out of Time the centrepiece around which everything falls. Costello sometimes overreaches, trying to accommodate too much in a song, but not here, somehow. (And when he does, well you can’t fault him for his ambition.)
Another protest song, this time about the Falklands war, Shipbuilding made the connection between a thriving shipyard – a source of working-class pride – and the fact fathers were sending their sons to war and to their deaths. Gritty, humane and deeply moving, Shipbuilding rates as one of Costello’s best lyrics, a fact not lost on the singer himself, who declared it so on several occasions. The music was written by Clive Langer with Robert Wyatt in mind, with the latter recording released on Rough Trade in 1982. Langer also produced Costello’s version when they worked together on the patchy Punch the Clock album in 1983, the song proving to be the highlight. Costello’s version gets the nod over the Wyatt version thanks to the stunning, mournful Chet Baker trumpet solo. “Chet Baker, this wizened corpse on death’s door, strung out, just played,” said Bruce Thomas later. “He followed this bass line and played his solo, so simple, with so much soul in it. It really touched me.”
6. I Want You
Artists with a certain desperation are often the ones that impress Costello the most, from Springsteen and Van Morrison to Jeff Buckley, whom he picked to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when curator of Meltdown in 1995 (it was to be Buckley’s last UK performance). Perhaps Costello’s most risque and desperate (on many levels) song is I Want You, a creeping first-person narrative that takes us through a fetid, all-consuming obsession. Sung to the object of the piece, it begins with what sounds like a lullaby, before quickly turning nasty, with the verses scratched out over some dampened chords while the voice barely conceals the anger of belonging to an unwelcome suitor. Each verse becomes a little more desperate, a little more deranged, while each line begins with the words “I want you”, an emphatic refrain that becomes more and more awkward each time he utters it. “It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing,” he sings, horrifying and horrified. “It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.” The lyrics and music together are intimately intense, like someone breathing down your own neck, making you shudder, but the melody is irresistible too.
If Costello was the master of smuggling dark subject matter into the charts without most people knowing what he was actually singing about (which actually annoyed him immensely), then 1989’s Veronica might well be the first top 40 hit that broached the difficult subject matter of Alzheimer’s. “She’d talk about who knows what and the next minute it’d be 40 years later,” says Costello, singing on a chair in a now vacant bedroom at the beginning of the video, “so you’d just sit there and bounce around the years with her.” The Veronica in question was his own grandmother Mabel (Veronica was her middle name), and one of his finest, most immediate choruses, becomes a heartbreaker when you scratch a little deeper. Paul McCartney has a songwriting credit on the song, and also contributed Hofner bass (the Attractions had been jettisoned for a revolving door of musicians, as well as frequent contributors such as T-Bone Burnett). The working relationship between McCartney and Costello proved fruitful, and included one album, Flowers in the Dirt, though owing to creative differences related to production, Costello was apparently unhappy with the finished product, and his contribution was eventually somewhat diminished when the record finally surfaced.
8. The Other Side of Summer
In 1991 Costello recorded Mighty Like a Rose – which became known as the “beard album”, on account of the fact he grew a beard, which would have been unthinkable in the clean-shaven punk years. Costello, a former computer operator (for Elizabeth Arden in Acton, before he hit the big time), discovered the practical merits of working with computer software whilst writing Mighty Like a Rose, which may explain why so much of the album is cluttered with melodies and yet more countermelodies. On the opening track, The Other Side of Summer, it works though; the song is a sarcastic Brian Wilson pastiche, a spectacular takedown of all things LA, with Costello in biting mood. “From the foaming breakers of the poisonous surf,” he sings cheerfully, “to the burning forests in the hills of Astroturf.” There’s an environmental undercurrent too, and at the conclusion he warns: “Goodnight, God bless, and kiss goodbye to the earth.” Many of the lyrics on Mighty Like a Rose reflect apocalyptic concerns, with Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over) coming across as just plain paranoid. Because of the clutter, the double tracking and maybe the beard, the words aren’t always the easiest to decipher, though whether meanings were conveyed or not, The Other Side of Summer is a nailed-down fantastic tune that belongs in the canon.
9. London’s Brilliant Parade
Stick around for long enough in rock’n’roll and proclamations of comebacks are all but inevitable. Costello’s supposed dalliances with classical music with the Brodsky Quartet, and the album Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears penned for Wendy James over a weekend with then partner Cait O’Riordan, had for many detracted from his main body of work. So when he was heard to be back in the studio with Nick Lowe and members of the erstwhile Attractions it was all too much for some. The reviews for Brutal Youth were positive, the “reunion” somewhat overegged, overshadowing what might be Costello’s finest work. Still Too Soon to Know, 13 Steps Lead Down, Kinder Murder, This is Hell, Sulky Girl, You Tripped at Every Step … every one is a classic. London’s Brilliant Parade gets the nod because it’s a beautifully nostalgic love letter to a city that once was, with little trace of Costello’s normally world-wearing irony or malice. The lyrics evoke the plot of a beloved old movie too: “She’s one of those girls that you just can’t place / You feel guilty desiring such an innocent face,” sings Costello, “but of course they knew that when they cast her / Along with the red Routemaster.” Glorious.
10. When I Was Cruel No 2
2002’s When I Was Cruel was supposedly another return to form, or if that wasn’t quite true, it at least resembled the Costello brand. Featuring new band the Imposters, the album also marked a new fascination with looping drumbeats, best exemplified on the epic When I Was Cruel No 2. It is an ambient seven-minute exploration that’s more trip-hop than anything else; looping ad infinitum with a ghostly woman’s voice at the end of each bar that also recalls Gainsbourg and Bardot’s Bonnie & Clyde. When I Was Cruel was released on Def Jam, and his curiosity about hip-hop culminated in a collaboration with the Roots in 2013, with mixed results. Most of the choices in this 10 of the best were selected from within the realms of rock, often at its most straightforward, because despite his obvious abilities, acerbic rock’n’roll is what Elvis Costello does best (whether he likes it or not).