Date Printed: 1996
Elvis Costello was born Declan Patrick MacManus on August 25, 1955 in Paddington, London. His father, Ross MacManus, was a singer with the popular Joe Loss Orchestra during Declan's early years in Liverpool, where he was raised. After playing in various ensembles, including Flip City -- the only pre-professional band he recorded with -- Declan secured his first recording contact with the newly formed Stiff Records. The first demo that label-owner Jake Riviera listened to was Elvis', and he liked it so much, he signed on as his manager. Costello's first three singles, "Less Than Zero", "Allison", and "Red Shoes", were all recorded with fellow Stiff artist Nick Lowe at the production helm, and heralded the auspicious arrival of a new artist who embodied both the raw-nerved emotion of the cresting punk movement and an amalgamation of traditional styles.
The sessions for his first album, MY AIM IS TRUE were backed by the American band Clover, sans lead singer Huey Lewis. Recorded in a mere 24 hours on vacation and "sick" days from his job as computer operator in the Elizabeth Arden factory, the July 1977 release made an instant splash in the U.K, where Costello was immediately lauded as a major new talent. The spare, cutting sound of the album gave way to a distinctive tightly-wound groove on his next single and first top-20 U.K. entry "Watching The Detectives," which was subsequently added to the US version of the LP.
In the meantime Costello set out to find a permanent backing band. The Attractions -- keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) -- became the permanent combo perfectly suited to the task of keeping up with the rapidly developing songwriting skills of Elvis. The quartet immediately hit the road, undertaking a successful stateside tour to coincide with Columbia's pre-Christmas release of MY AIM IS TRUE in the US. The 22-year old Elvis garnered a devoted following in the States, highlighted by a legendary appearance on Saturday Night Live (where he changed songs on camera without notifying the director), winning Rolling Stone's coveted Album of the Year, and emerging as a big favorite in year-end critic's lists.
Following a split with Stiff, Elvis Costello and the Attractions cut two terrific albums, THIS YEAR'S MODEL and ARMED FORCES with unheard-of swiftness. Both were released on Riviera's new label, Radar. THIS YEAR'S MODEL entered the U.K. charts at number 4, and remained there for four months. Most of 1978 was spent on the road, enmeshed in a hectic touring schedule. A March radio broadcast of a Toronto show (LIVE AT EL MOCAMBO) was officially manufactured by Columbia Canada as a promotional device. It was quickly counterfeited, and became one of the most coveted bootlegs ever released.
ARMED FORCES was enhanced by the production of Nick Lowe, and its pop anthem "Accidents Will Happen" helped Elvis score his first American top ten record. Simultaneously, in the U.K., ARMED FORCES hit #1 and the single "Oliver's Army" reached #2. Amidst the whirl of roadwork and stardom, Elvis found time to produce the debut album by the Specials, make a film appearance as performer "Earl Manchester" in the comedy "Americathon," and record a duet with George Jones. Add in another album's worth of top shelf b-sides (TAKING LIBERTIES, whose cuts have all been relocated to various Rykodisc CD's), and you have one of the most creative, influential, and prolific artists since Bob Dylan.
In 1980, Costello inaugurated the new f-beat label with the release of the 20-song GET HAPPY!!, veering towards a Motown/Stax sound. January 1981 saw the release of his fifth Nick Lowe-produced album, TRUST, featuring a duet with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook on "From A Whisper To A Scream." A mere nine months later, TRUST was followed up by ALMOST BLUE, a collection of country covers recorded in Nashville with legendary producer Billy Sherrill. Though it confused his American fans, in Britain it hit the top ten and spawned a hit with George Jones' "A Good Year For the Roses". In January 1982, Costello and the Attractions supported the LP with a concert at the historic Royal Albert Hall in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Another refreshing about-face resulted with the stylistic sonic and lyrical territory of IMPERIAL BEDROOM, produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. Complex studio arrangements and the latest wizardry brought out nuances of his music only hinted at on earlier albums.
After IMPERIAL BEDROOM, f-Beat left their distributor and began negotiating for a new home. During this time, Costello released a one-off recording as "The Imposter". The single "Pills and Soap" on the IMP label surprised everyone and became a top twenty hit before the disc was deleted on election day. The song turned up again in a different version on 1983's PUNCH THE CLOCK, produced by the British hitmaking team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. The upbeat material of this LP was augmented by the punchy brass section of the TKO horns and yielded one of his largest US hits, "Everyday I Write The Book."
Langer and Winstanley returned to produce GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD, a more sedate, downbeat collection of songs that includes another "Imposter" title, "Peace In Our Time". After completion of the album, Costello undertook a tour without the Attractions, but with T-Bone Burnett opening. The two got along fabulously, and a single "The People's Limosine", featured both of them in the guise of "Coward Brothers". 1985 also found Elvis producing for the Pogues, and appearing at Live Aid, performing "All You Need Is Love." A greatest hits package was released that year, but no new material would issue forth from Elvis until 1986's KING OF AMERICA.
The Attractions only appeared on one of the tracks on KING OF AMERICA, with the rest of the work credited to the Confederates (featuring longtime Elvis Presley sidemen), with T-Bone sharing production credit. With the album credited to "the Costello Show", it is today regarded as one of Costello's finest.
On May 16, 1986 Costello married former Pogues bassist Caitlin O'Riordan, who was a guest performer on the tense autumn release, BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE. The album, which reunited him with Nick Lowe, would be his last record with the Attractions until 1994. Another ambitious tour followed, featuring the Spectacular Spinning Songbook (a spinning wheel that would determine which songs were played), and varying musicians every night.
In 1987, amidst writing songs with Paul McCartney, Costello signed worldwide with Warner Brothers. The only Costello album to be released that year was the U.K. compilation OUT OF OUR IDIOT -- which compiled 21 unreleased and non-album tracks. He scored the soundtrack to the Irish film "The Courier" in 1988. His Warner debut, SPIKE, featured a bevy of musicians -- O'Riordan, McCartney, Roger McGuinn, Christy Moore, Chrissie Hynde, Allen Toussaint, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Costello/McCartney composition "Veronica" was a major hit, and the double retrospective GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS was released in this year as well as the soundtack to the British televison mini-series, GBH.
The spring 1991 release MIGHTY LIKE A ROSE, coproduced by Costello, Killen, and Mitchell Froom (who played keyboards on KING OF AMERICA and SPIKE) featured more songwriting collaborations with McCartney and O'Riordan plus a stellar supporting cast including old pals Nick Lowe and Pete Thomas, not to mention Elvis' dad, veteran big-band singer Ross MacManus on trumpet.
Never one to be pigeonholed easily, 1993 found Elvis experimenting with yet another musical context, collaborating with the classical Brodsky Quartet on THE JULIET LETTERS and also writing an album's worth of material for former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James. The juxtaposition of these two wildly variant projects firmly underlines the restless spirit of artistic invention that has always set Elvis Costello apart from his peers.
BRUTAL YOUTH was released by Warner in 1994, and the album found him reunited with the Attractions and Nick Lowe, for the first time since BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE. The album and subsequent tour -- whch featured material from the first three albums, much of it played for the first time in nearly a decade -- were both universally praised. In 1995 Costello released KOJAK VARIETY -- a wide-ranging all-covers album recorded four years earlier -- while fans waited eagerly for his next move.
Copyright 1996, RykoDisc All rights reserved