It's three days since his second album, This Year's Model, reached the shops, and Elvis Costello and his new band The Attractions are following the well-worn promotional trail around the cinemas, bingo halls and seaside theatres of Britain. Tonight they're in Canterbury, the Odeon filled with student hippies and timid punks. The city has already played reluctant host to The Damned and Tom Robinson, but now it's March 1978, and Canterbury is ready for the New Wave.
After a set of earthy pub rock from Mickey Jupp, the lights dim and The Attractions arrive on stage. For the next 40 minutes the shell-shocked audience is subjected to a sonic and psychological barrage as Costello — bug-eyed, stick-like, his flesh dissolving into sweat before their eyes — unleashes his demons via a dozen vitriolic musical exercises in self-doubt and contempt. "Lipstick Vogue" is stretched into a Velvets-style attack on the senses, racked with tension and fire. The band segues sharply into "Watching The Detectives," Costello spitting out the lyrics like broken teeth. And then, without warning, he stomps off stage. The audience erupts into the ritual call for an encore. Five minutes later, they're still stamping and cheering, but growing increasingly uncertain. Is that it? Has Elvis left the building? Or is he sneering from behind the curtain, mocking his fans' dog-like obedience?
After a hiatus that seems longer than the gig they've just witnessed, the fans are rewarded. Costello marches back to the microphone and glares at the audience. "About fucking time," he snaps, acidly, and Pete Thomas's snare drum marshalls the band into a crushing rendition of "Pump It Up." The fans troop home, feeling as if they've been mugged.
"We used to love baiting the audience then," Costello told me two decades later. "We were on a crusade. It tended to make you more defensive. We had 35 minutes of material, and after our first couple of tours, and our first brush with amphetamines, we got that down to 25 minutes — and we didn't have any more songs. Then it became quite a knee-jerk thing, that we didn't play encores, particularly in the States. We liked the idea of leaving the radio simulcast still talking — 'Hey, I think they're coming back to the stage!' — and we'd be halfway back to the hotel. You can see how the mischief of that would appeal to a group on the road, who have this feeling of being in a lifeboat — or a trench — together."
The Canterbury audience wasn't alone in finding Costello an unsettling, if exhilarating, proposition in 1978. As Costello told Mojo in 2007, his father attended one of his shows that year: "When he came backstage afterwards, he was concerned about the audience. He said, 'This is not a nice relationship — there's spitefulness out there.' He saw straight through it."
Elvis's father knew what he was talking about. For years, Ross MacManus had been the featured vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra, Britain's premier dance band from the bobbysoxer years until the dawn of psychedelia. When he left Loss, MacManus forged a solo career, sometimes adopting the pseudonym of Day Costello. A regular guest on BBC pop programmes, Ross listened avidly to everything from Sinatra to Santana. His son, christened Declan MacManus, was around music from the moment he was born.
"I had very sophisticated taste until I was about 11, when I discovered The Beatles," Elvis told me. "They became everything, and beat music dominated my thinking until it was overtaken by Motown and soul and reggae and rocksteady. I was really into Marvin Gaye and those Return Of Django records — the stuff we listened to at teenage parties. Before I was 11, though, we listened constantly to Ella, Sinatra, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, so I knew all those songs. They were all stuck in my head."
As early as 1979 traces of these formative influences leaked out, in the guise of a tender cover of "My Funny Valentine," tucked away on the flip-side of his biggest hit single. But when Declan MacManus embarked on his own musical career, he adopted a more contemporary pose. "I had several false starts at getting bands together," he recalled. "Some of the tapes that have surfaced, I find them pretty embarrassing. I had to learn by trial and error.” That process led him through teenage folk duos, through the roots-rock of Rusty, and finally into Flip City, a mid-‘70s pub-rock combo whose attempts to ape The Band finally allowed MacManus to hone his writing skills. The skeletons of several early Costello classics, including Radio Radio and Pay It Back, were constructed during Flip City’s abortive attempts to rival their US heroes.
By late 1975, MacManus had sufficient faith in his own potential to abandon Flip City and strike out for his own territory. Six weeks after Christmas, D.P. Costello – Declan’s initials added to his dad’s alias – performed his first solo gig in the back room of the Half Moon, Putney. Now married and a father himself, he eked out a living as a computer operator in London and wrote songs, reams of them, which he committed to tape and sent to publishers and A&R men.
“I was sending out 20 songs at a time,” he told me. “I didn’t know enough to realise that no publisher has the patience to listen to 20 songs because the 18th one is the one that’s good. Eventually I realised that you have to make it a presentation, like a show. I’d been playing solo a lot, so I was much better at presenting my songs to hostile audiences, and winning them over.”
Setting aside such “slightly baroque” songs as Hoover Factory (inspired by what’s now the Tesco building on London’s Western Avenue) and Dr. Luther’s Assistant, Declan assembled “a little show-reel, as it were, of six songs on a friend’s Revox”. Still overtly inspired by The Band, the tape – broadcast by one of its recipients, journalist, DJ and Oval Records boss Charlie Gillett on Radio London – introduced the outside world to the keening voice and acerbic, sometimes self-lacerating vision of a man whose moment had almost come. But first, D.P Costello had to find an outlet. “Charlie had a rather halting plan to sign me to Oval,” Elvis recalled, “and Virgin offered me a really pitiful deal, which I knew enough to laugh at, even then. Stiff had the initiative to grab it and say, ‘Let’s do it now!’ It seemed almost magical after two or three years of getting indifferent, or bewildered, responses to all the tapes.”
Despite an erratic catalogue and haphazard commercial radar, Stiff Records has passed into history as the standard-bearer of punk’s indie authenticity. But, like Costello, it was firmly rooted in pub-rock. Stiff was the love child of pub-rock impresario Dave Robinson, and Andrew Jakeman – shortly to become notorious as Jake Riviera.
“Jake was one of the people you kept bumping into on the pub rock scene,” recalls Andrew Lauder, who had signed Dr. Feelgood to United Artists and later snapped up on the Buzzcocks and Stranglers. “He was Feelgood’s tour manager for a couple of years. When he and Dave announced that they were going to launch Stiff Records, we did a deal whereby we’d press up their first single for them, which was by Nick Lowe. They’d sell it by mail order, and then, as soon as they paid us for that, we’d press a second record. But The Damned single, New Rose, was so popular that the mail order system couldn’t cope.”
Almost overnight, Robinson and Riviera found themselves feted as scene-makers. When they heard D.P. Costello’s demo tape, and were treated to an impromptu solo performance in their office, they recognised a maverick spirit who would fit perfectly onto their roster.
“I was writing songs very fast,” Costello recalled, “and one day I went to Pathway Studios, where Nick Lowe was producing Wreckless Eric. Wreckless was very nervous, so Nick took him for a drink to loosen him up a bit, and I recorded eight songs while they were gone, just guitar and voice, which was the bulk of the demos for My Aim Is True. Up until that point, Stiff had actually considered launching Wreckless and myself on the same record, like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley on Chuck Meets Bo, with one side each, because they didn’t really think either of us could sustain a whole album in terms of the audience’s tolerance for two such unusual singers. But I had five times more songs than him, so it became obvious that they needed to do an album with me.”
As the chaotic progenitors of punk began to infiltrate the music press, it was apparent that Declan needed a band. Robinson and Riviera teamed him with American roots-rockers Clover, then resident in the UK as part of their own forlorn efforts to match the commercial and artistic impact of The Band. Instead, they found themselves in tiny Pathway Studios, translating Costello’s bitter commentaries on love and lust into crisp pub rock. Revelling in the chance to work with a band steeped in country and