Few artists have received as much press as Elvis Costello by dealing with the press so little. Since his startling debut album, My Aim Is True (in mid-1977), Costello has bombarded the world with his unique brand of rock 'n' roll and with the continued development of his music has come an ever-increasing interest in his enigmatic and prolific talent.
Born Declan Patrick McManus (son of cabaret singer Ross McManus), Elvis grew up in Whitton, Middlesex, before leaving home at 16 to work as a computer operator at a cosmetics factory in London (the "vanity factory" of "I'm Not Angry)"- He married in 1974 and spent a few years in Liverpool, where he met his one-day producer Nick Lowe hanging out at Brinsley Schwarz gigs (the fine band that featured Lowe, Ian Gomm, Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews, who would both eventually join the Rumour, plus drummer Billy Rankin). Back in London, and determined to make a career in music, Costello (under a different name) "was taking tapes around to all the labels and not getting very far with anybody. " ( A fascinating artifact from this period is the bootleg e.p. Honky Tonk Demos, which consists of six solo acoustic guitar songs sent to British country & western DJ Charlie Gillett. Four of these songs have yet to be issued in any form). Personal appearances in music industry offices, guitar in hand , fared no better. Even Stiff turned him down. Later, Stiff honchos Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, having received another tape (and not realising Costello was the same artist earlier refused under another pseudonym) decided to put out a single, "Less Than Zero" and "Radio Sweetheart."
The single sessions eventually grew into My Aim Is True, on which Elvis was backed by the transplanted Marin County band Clover (that's John McFee, now with the Doobie Brothers, playing the blazing lead on "I'm Not Angry"). My Aim Is True became the highest selling import of the '70s in the U.S., and led to a stateside contract with Columbia. The American issue included "Watching The Detectives" (which has become a crowd favorite if not a Costello anthem), released only as a single in England. The single (also released a bit later in the U.S.) has a tremendous live medley of "Blame It On Cain" and "Mystery Dance" by Elvis and the Attractions from an August 1977 Nashville Room London performance. Late 1977 saw Elvis's first U.S. tour, which ended with his fine Saturday Night Live appearance (as a last minute replacement for the Sex Pistols), where he performed "Watching The Detectives," an aborted "Less Than Zero," and "Radio, Radio." By now most American rock listeners were at least vaguely alerted to the strange newcomer from England, and many totally caught up with his extreme vision.
Within a few months a hungry Elvis and group had returned to the U.S. for a more extensive tour, and midway through February '78, his second l.p., This Year's Model, was released. It was the first album with the Attractions, and the playing of Steve Naive (formerly Steve Young) on keyboards, bassist Bruce Thomas (who'd previously been a long-time member of the excellent group Quiver) and drumming giant Pete Thomas, plus a superb batch of songs and perfect production by Nick Lowe, have given This Year's Model a firm place on the ten best rock 'n' roll albums of all time list. The American issue compromised the definitive British version, with "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally" dropped in favor of the anti-media single "Radio Radio." The first 50,000 copies of the British version (with Elvis now on Radar Records, the company formed by Jake Riviera after his split from Stiff) also included the bonus single "Stranger In the House" (a great country western ballad) b/w "Neat Neat Neat" (a funky live version of the song from the first Damned album). "Neat Neat Neat" remains a rather rare item, while the flip eventually appeared on Taking Liberties and as a duet with George Jones on his My Very Special Guests l.p.
A short British tour followed (with Nick Lowe filling in on bass for Bruce Thomas, who'd injured his hand in an incident involving a broken bottle in a bar), then it was right back to America for the full scale Rockpile/Mink Deville/Costello invasion of larger halls, with Elvis headlining this impressive aggregation of talent. Elvis typically debuted many new songs live, most often "Party Girl" and "Goon Squad," both destined for release on his third album Armed Forces (January '79), Armed Forces (the original title, Emotional Fascism, was abandoned "because it became obvious that it was impossible to get away with it...") was quite a departure, with the raunchy guitar/Farfisa organ sound of the last album replaced by a more heavily produced keyboard-dominated sound, somewhat comparable to the Beatles jump from Rubber Soul to Revolver (without comparing the respective musical merits of these records). Once again Columbia felt the need to tamper with the finished British product, substituting Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" (earlier released as a single in England under the name Nick Lowe and His Sound) for "Sunday's Best."
The Armed Funk Tour of the U.S. continued through April 1979 with a variety of mishaps marring some fans' feelings about Costello. There were incidents caused by the short length of some of the shows (as in Seattle's Paramount and the Berkeley Community Theater), and the notorious comments about Ray Charles and James Brown, made in a drunken argument with Bonnie Bramlett (and others) after a gig in Columbus, Ohio. Costello held an unprecedented press conference two weeks later in New York, where he stated: "I'm sure everybody's had occasion to go to absolute extremes, even to say things you don't believe. Ask Lenny Bruce."
January 1980 saw the release of the fourth Elvis Costello album Get Happy!!, which featured twenty new songs ("All Different!" exclaimed a promo poster) packed onto a single l.p. Critical and public reception was cool - certainly the songs were more complex and there was simply much more to digest. But Get Happy!! ages well and stands up to his finest work.
Amazingly, the album nowhere near exhausted Elvis's backlog of compositions, and a four-song e.p. (with three new songs) on F-Beat Records (Riviera's new label) soon followed. Elvis produced and played almost all the instruments himself (he's earlier produced the first Specials l.p.) on "Dr. Luther's Assistant," "Ghost Train" and "Just A Memory." An off-the-beaten-path tour of Britain commenced followed by a European tour with Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont filling in for Steve Naive, who'd been injured in a car accident.
In late 1980, CBS released another twenty-song album, Talking Liberties, in the U.S. It was..
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