Few of the artists who shot to prominence in 1977 have survived the turbulent years since with their reputations not only intact but enhanced. Amongst the small number who have is Elvis Costello, who has proved he has the talent to go beyond the limitations that he seemed to have set himself with his first few records, and is now acknowledged as one of Britain's foremost rock performers, with a string of successful records. He has also become one of the few New Wave artists who have gone on to make an impact in the USA, and now seems set for a long career at the top.
His short recording career has already produced a surprising number of rarities, and although at first he was collected mainly because of his association with the Stiff label, interest in Elvis has now lasted even though some of the other artists on that label have faded into oblivion. The advantage which Elvis has for collectors is that almost all of his rarities contain new and interesting material, so that you don't end up with endless duplications of the same tracks. His releases always give value for money, and as almost every stage of his career has produced free and bonus records, there is no reason why in the future more and more collectors' items won't become available, and people who are interested in the late 70s period will continue to look on Costello as one of Britain's most collectable artists.
Elvis has never been keen to give details of his earlier history to the music press, and so a number of conflicting stories have grown up around his musical past. All that is known for sure is that he was born in London, but brought up in Liverpool, which he still regards as his home town. At one time, as D.P. Costello, he was the lead singer in a bluegrass band called Flip City, which had a residency at the Marquee in London, whilst by day he was a computer operator. During 1976, Costello made a demo tape of fifteen songs, with just guitar and vocals, including early versions of songs that appeared on his first two albums. He sent the tape to almost every record company in Britain, but with no success. Then he saw a small advert in the music press asking for demos to be sent to a new label, Stiff Records. Elvis delivered the tape personally that afternoon — the first person to reply to the ad — and within a week Jake Riviera of Stiff had signed him up.
Nick Lowe, who had already met Costello at the Marquee, offered to produce the sessions, for which Elvis was backed by American band Clover. The first result was a single, "Less Than Zero"/"Radio Sweetheart." The A-side showed off Elvis's talent for biting, incisive lyrics; musically he was compared to Graham Parker and Van Morrison, but he very quickly evolved a unique personal style, which itself has been imitated many times by groups anxious for a quick hit single. The strength of Costello's original formula is shown by the fact that most of those who have imitated him have been successful themselves.
The B-side, which was not included on Elvis's first LP, bore the obvious influences of two of his musical heroes, country singer George Jones and the late Gram Parsons. The single wasn't a hit, and didn't get much airplay, but it did get a collection of good reviews, and Elvis's name alone was enough to make the press interested in him.
A second single followed in May: "Alison" was a bittersweet ballad which has since been covered by many other singers, although again the lyrics were rather different than the melody might have led one to expect — it was a love-song about inadequacy rather than hope or pleasure. Again the reviewers were ecstatic, and his debut album became one of the most awaited events of the year. My Aim Is True was released in July, and although it was short on playing time (12 tracks adding up to about 30 minutes music) it received even better reviews than the singles — although critics pointed out that Elvis's songs seemed to be fuelled by guilt and revenge, rather than by love for himself, or anybody else for that matter. Initially the album was sold with a leaflet which invited the buyer to have a copy sent free to a friend, but as the album took off, the offer was discontinued. The black and white cover picture was later printed in colour, but nether issue of the album is particularly rare.
At about this time, Elvis tracks appeared on two Stiff compilation LPs, Bunch of Stiffs and Hits Greatest Stiffs, both of which have been deleted, like all Elvis's single on Stiff. At the start of this year Elvis's early singles were selling for about £10 each, as the Stiff label itself was very collectable. Since then, interest in Stiff seems to have dropped, so that Costello's singles are now selling for about £5, with the picture sleeve versions selling for around £6.
One more single was pulled from My Aim Is True, "Red Shoes," which moved Elvis nearer to chart success. It was "Watching the Detectives" that gave him his first hit, however, in November 1977. For this track, Elvis was backed by Graham Parker's band, The Rumour. On the B-side were two live tracks, both taken from My Aim Is True and featuring for the first time on record Elvis's new band, the Attractions, who are Bruce Thomas (formerly with the Sutherland Bros.) on bass, Steve Naive on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums. These two live songs have never been released elsewhere, and the picture sleeve version of this single is one of Costello's most collectable discs.
Before Elvis, Nick Lowe and Jake Riviera left Stiff to join a new company, Radar Records, in early 1978, two more Stiff releases featured Elvis material. Live Stiffs Live was a record of the famous Stiff tour which showcased the combined talents of Elvis, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis. Elvis appears on three tracks on the live album: singing Bacharach and David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" and his own "Miracle Man," and joining in the massed chorus on Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll." The LP was later rereleased on Music For Pleasure, where it is still available, though the Stiff original shouldn't be hard to find.
The other Stiff release was rather scarcer: a 33 rpm disc jockey promotion record was issued of Stiff's Greatest Hits, which consisted of extracts from many of the Stiff singles, including "Alison," "Red Shoes" and "Watching The Detectives," linked by introductions by the late Les Prior of the Albertos. This record is now selling for about £10.
At the start of 1978 Jake Riviera took Elvis and Nick Lowe away from Stiff as part of his own company, Riviera Global Productions, and negotiated contracts for them with the newly-formed Radar label, run by two former United Artists directors, Martin Davis and Andrew Lauder. As part of this deal, Elvis was also signed to Columbia Records in the States. Elvis's first Radar release was a single, "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," which was a big hit in March 1978. It previewed his new album, This Year's Model, released just a fortnight later, with the first 5000 copies including a free bonus single, "Stranger In The House"/"Neat Neat Neat." "Neat" was the Damned song, recorded live with the Attractions, and dedicated to Chris Miller, alias Rat Scabies of the Damned. "Stranger" dated back to the recording sessions for the first album, and was another clear indication of the country influence on Elvis's songwriting. The LP had a much richer musical sound than the first album, with far more emphasis being put on the melodies, some of which were positively Beatle-ish. "Pump It lip," the second single from the LP, was criticised by some people as being too heavily influenced by Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" — but they forgot that Dylan's song was itself influenced by Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." Lyrically, the album didn't pull its punches, with attacks on trendy London and the Kings Road fashion scene on tracks like "Chelsea," "This Year's Girl" and "Lipstick Vogue." The album is still available, though the free single is quite scarce — several months ago it was selling for rather inflated prices but has now levelled out at about £4 for a Mint copy.
Sales of the LP were helped by a nationwide headlining tour in March and April 1978, during which he previewed his next single, "Radio, Radio." As with almost all of his singles, the first few thousand copies were pressed in a picture sleeve which is now pretty hard to find, selling for £3.50, but the single itself shouldn't cost any more than the price of a new 45. Both "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio" feature non-album B-sides: "Big Tears" is particularly interesting as it includes Mick Jones on lead guitar.
After playing at the giant Anti-Nazi League rally in Brixton in September, Elvis rounded off 1978 with a week at London's Dominion Theatre, from which came one of his rarest records. "Wednesday Week" and "Talking in the Dark," two songs he included in his set that week, but which hadn't been released, were pressed up as a limited-edition single, and given away free to the audience. The market price of this 45 soon rocketed to about £15, but fell back to £7 after both tracks were included on the B-side of a later single.
One other track from this period, which is probably the least well known of all his records, was Costello's version of the old Brinsley Schwarz number, "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding," which had become a regular part of his stage act. This was included unannounced as the B-side of Nick Lowe's "American Squirm" single, which didn't repeat the success of Lowe's earlier singles for Radar, and is now becoming hard to find.
In January 1979, Elvis released a new single, "Oliver's Army." as a trailer for his next album. Lyrically it seemed to be more clever than meaningful, although it retained the overall sound of his previous album. The B-side was a solo rendition, with no frills, of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," which was also issued by Columbia in America as a promo single backed with "Peace, Love and Understanding."
The album followed in February, complete with another limited edition free single. Armed Forces featured a fold-out cover, inside which were the record, four pictures of the band members and — for the lucky early buyers — a live record from Hollywood High School, containing versions of "Alison," "Watching The Detectives" and a song from the new album, "Accidents Will Happen." The single didn't really contain the best cuts from Elvis's live set, which led to speculation that a proper live album might be coming up next.
The album itself — which was originally going to be called "Emotional Facsism" — was also disappointing, as Elvis's lyrics had become trite, with most songs hitting at easy targets, such as the army, Nazism and the media. Musically it added nothing to the previous album, and somewhere along the line the emotional content that inspired all of his best songs had been lost, and for the most part Costello sounded cynical and tired. The album is still available — in fact, it's very easy to pick up new copies for about half the original price, if you shop around — while the free single was issued in sufficient quantities for it not to be particularly rare, and it sells for about £1.50 in its picture sleeve.
"Accidents Will Happen," probably the best song on the album, was issued as a single and included the two songs from the Dominion freebie on the B-side. Again the picture sleeve copy is fairly rare, and sells for about £3. Another track recorded at the same time as the LP, "Crawling to the USA," was included together with "Chelsea" on a film soundtrack album, Americathon, which also included new material by Nick Lowe and the Beach Boys. An LP track, "Goon Squad," has recently appeared on the album Rock Against Racism's Greatest Hits, which also includes an alternate version of the Clash's "Hammersmith Palais" and other live and studio cuts by New Wave bands.
At the end of 1979, WEA Records bought out Davis and Lauder's share of Radar, which entitled Warner Bros. in the States to release Radar material. However, Nick Lowe and Elvis were already under contract with US Columbia, which led to arguments between Warners and Radar. Meanwhile, Jake Riviera announced that Lowe and Costello were under contract to his own company, and that he had only leased the rights to Radar on an album-to-album basis. Riviera and Lauder decided to form a new label, F-Beat, and meanwhile to let Elvis release his new single, which was already finished, on the Specials' 2-Tone label, again as a one-off release.
13,000 copies of the single, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"/"Girls Talk," were pressed on the 2-Tone label, but 2-Tone didn't have the facilities to allow the single a quick release. In addition, a court injunction was taken out to prevent the 45 being issued. Eventually a solution was agreed whereby WEA would distribute the new label, although they would have no artistic control over what was released.
The single was finally issued in February 1980 as the first record on F-Beat. "I Can't Stand Up" was a cover version of an old Sam and Dave hit, while "Girls Talk" was Elvis's rendition of a song he had originally given to Dave Edmunds. The A-side emphasised the new influence that soul music was having on Costello, a direction that was even more evident on the LP, Get Happy, released in March.
Meanwhile, the original 2-Tone pressings of the single had supposedly been destroyed, although a few had already gone out as review copies. Gradually more and more appeared on the market, and they began to change hands for over £60 each. However, Elvis recently played a concert to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Rainbow Theatre in London, at which many members of the audience were given free copies of the original pressing; and as a result the price has dropped to about £20; and whether even this price will hold up in the future is doubtful.
Get Happy, Elvis's fourth album, contained a massive 20 tracks, including "I Can't Stand Up" and a cover of "I Stand Accused," a hit for the Merseybeats in 1965, besides eighteen new songs, many of which carried a strong soul influence. For almost the first time, a Costello album sounded joyful rather than bitter, and the LP showed that Elvis had regained all his songwriting talent, after a lean spell. A second single was quickly released from the LP, combining "High Fidelity" with another soul cover version, Betty Everett's hit "Getting Mighty Crowded," written by Van McCoy. In addition, a 12" single was issued, which also included an alternate take of "Clowntime Is Over" from Get Happy. The 12" wasn't easy to find when it was first released, and is liable to become a collectors' item in the future, although it's not changing hands for more than £2.50 in Mint condition now.
Neither F-Beat single had been very successful so far, so Elvis tried again with another album track, "New Amsterdam," which was actually released in three different forms. First of all, a single was issued, with a recommended retail price of 50p, which included an out-take from This Year's Model, "Dr. Luther's Assistant." Simultaneously an EP was put out in a startling picture cover, with "Ghost Train" and "Just A Memory" being added to the original two tracks. This sold for normal single price, and was also issued as a limited edition picture disc, which is now fetching anything up to £8, though if you shop around you should be able to find it for around £4.50. The EP should still be available, but some dealers are now starting to mark it up to about £3.
Since then, the collector's view of Elvis has been made both more confused and at the same time simpler. In October this year Columbia in the USA issued a compilation LP entitled Taking Liberties, which is also available in Britain as a cassette only, called 10 Bloody Marys and 10 How's Your Fathers, with a slightly different track listing. This album, which should be available in most record stores as an import, includes almost all of the rare songs only available on singles or promos, besides three previously unreleased tracks. All the non-album F-Beat material is included, together with other rare tracks like "Radio Sweetheart," "Big Tears," "Tiny Steps" and "Crawling to the USA." The American LP includes "Sunday's Best," "Chelsea" and "Night Rally," all from UK albums, which are replaced on the British cassette by "Peace Love and Understanding," "Watching the Detectives" and "Radio, Radio."
The only material which is not now available on LP is the live versions of "Neat Neat Neat," "Alison," "Detectives," "Accidents Will Happen," "Blame It On Cain" and "Mystery Dance." The result has been to leave the market in a state of flux, as no-one yet knows how this release will affect the value of those singles which contained the rare tracks. Obviously the hardcore collector will still want the original issues, but the general collector or fan might be content with the re-issue, in which case the prices of the original records may drop.
One other. Columbia issue that is well worth looking out for is the Canadian "Live At El Mocambo" promo album, 500 copies of which were originally pressed. This was selling for very high prices, but has now settled down at about £13, as many thousands of counterfeit copies have flooded the market, which are almost impossible to tell from the originals. This album is liable to remain very collectable, at least until Costello issues an official live album.
There are a number of other rare American promos and 12" singles which there isn't space to deal with here, and which we hope to cover in a future issue, but none of these contain any unreleased tracks, so they are really most of interest to collectors of promos, or to the Costello fanatic who must have everything. Even though his last album and recent singles didn't sell particularly well, Elvis's career seems well and truly set up at the moment. As long as his music and songwriting continue to progress, and he keeps up his exhilarating stage performances, then there is no reason why he should not still be a major rock figure when Record Collector celebrates its tenth birthday! Certainly he is one of the most collectable artists of recent years, whose recording career has thrown up, as we have seen, many rarities, which are not only interesting but musically exciting as well — which after all is one of the main keys to long-term collectability!