Arguably the new wave's most potent songwriter and easily the movement's most mysterious figure Elvis Costello rose from complete anonymity in 1977. As Stiff's first outside inking coupled with management courtesy of the volatile Jake Riviera, Costello exploded upon the late '70s scene with a force equalled only by the sheer incongruity of his ungainly Buddy Holly cloned-physical demeanour.
Costello himself proved to be intensely stubborn in regard to providing info on his past exploits, although it was quickly discovered that his real name was Declan MacManus, that he was the son of Ross MacManus, a professional singer for many years with the Joe Loss Orchestra. Declan, born and raised in Liverpool, had graduated to performing with pub-rockers Flip City while he supported his wile and child by working in a computer factory run by beauty expert Elizabeth Arden.
During and immediately after his sojourn with Flip City, Costello/MacManus set hawked demo tapes of his songs around the record companies to no avail. Finally, as the first applicant to a talent ad placed by the barely-christened Stiff Records, Costello — horn rims, three button mohair and insect paranoia visage replete with bulging eye-balls — found his niche and was put in the studios under the production aegis of Stiff acolyte and artistic mainstay Nick Lowe.
"Less Than Zero," his first single was a damning indictment on England's canonization of '30s fascist Sir Oswald Mosley.
All manner of comparisons followed fleet-foot — Van Morrison, Dylan, even Graham Parker, who'd actually been recording his first demos at the same time as Costello had been working on his -- but those were promptly shelved when My Aim Is True was released in the late summer of '77, proving conclusively that Costello was no mere sum of his influences but an incendiary talent set on seizing his time in no uncertain terms. The sentiments of this first startling installment produced again by Lowe spotlit a tormented soul, obsessed with vengeance and guilt, an underdog who was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it anymore — a cuckold who matched his downtrodden hapless lack of feminine appeal by pinpointing all the perversities inherent in his role as all-purpose loser.
"Love... I don't even know what the word means... Revenge and guilt are the only emotions I can understand," he claimed to NME and the quote became an instant lynchpin for his leering foreboding persona.
Backing up the venom were the hallmarks of a startlingly powerful songwriter capable of matching a ferocious perspective with music that borrowed fearlessly from the best hook-line shots from '60s rock, with all manner of irrepressible modern sleights of hand.
By the time Aim was released, Costello brusquely assembled a band, The Attractions, with ex-Chilli Willi drummer Pete Thomas. ex-Sutherland Bros. bassist Bruce Thomas and a callow youth fresh from the Royal College of Music named Steve Naive. With this riveting rhythm section and Costello's staccato rhythm guitar as the basis, Native's eerie organ playing provided the songs with their perfect foil and this alliance was given a startling vinyl baptism with "Watching the Detectives," a sinister reggae sneer that was Costello's first single hit.
The second album This Year's Model, released in early '78 on Radar Records after manager Riviera, Costello and Nick Lowe had split from Stiff, utilized The Attractions totally (the Aim sessions had mated El with West Coast session band Clover) and again spotlit a marriage made in heaven. The band matched Costello shot for shot on Model while the Costello's perceptions were even sharper.
He's always been as merciless to himself as to the objects of his prey, be they the dictates of fashion, or The National Front. Also, he moves at a startling pace, refusing to be bagged. Most important perhaps has been the measure of his success. His albums have sold in chart-blazing quantities in the UK whilst he can claim to be the only New Wave artist to crack the US top 30. Truly his tenacity and intensity are contagious.