Elvis Costello likes to keep his past a mystery. This attitude has led fact-starved journalists to guess that he was once everything from an escaped mental patient to a one-time member of the Sex Pistols. The truth is nothing so exciting.
Costello was born and brought up in Liverpool. His real name is Declan McManus, the son of professional dance band singer Ross McManus.
He moved to London in his late teens, got married, had a child and took a job in the computer room at Eizabeth Arden Cosmetics. One story about him is that he used to study fellow passengers on the train to work, putting them into the songs he started writing.
By nights he played in bands, mainly for an outfit called Flip City. They were a pleasant, countryish group, but low on star quality. Flip City broke up and more or less gave up.
Declan McManus was of a different breed however. Convinced of his own enormous talent, he started to hawk his songs around every major record company in London, getting shown the door at every one of them.
His break came in August 1976 when he turned up on the doorstep of Stiff Records. A shoestring company with wacky ideas and big ambitions, Stiff had then just began operations from behind a sleazy shop front in Bayswater. They had about fifty quid in the kitty, but a lot of faith — and soon they had Elvis Costello.
Jake Riviera, one of Stiff's founders, was impressed by McManus's songs. Perhaps even more important, Riviera saw in Declan's unremarkable physical appearance the raw material which together they could use to create a new rock legend. A legend very much for the '70s.
Hang on to your hats, now, 'cos here's where the Costello story starts to take off. He was signed up, put on a wage by Riviera to allow him to leave his job in computers but still feed his wife and kid, kitted out in some really nasty old clothes, given a pair of ludicrous horn-rimmed specs and generally made to look like Buddy Holly on Social Security.
He was re-christened Elvis Costello (back then, remember, the first Elvis was still alive). He just had to be good to carry it off.
Elvis was sent into the studio to lay down some of his songs with American group Clover playing back-ups, and with Nick Lowe as his producer. "Less Than Zero" and "Alison," two tracks from these sessions, were released as singles to a certain amount of intrigued reaction, but it was his dynamite debut album My Aim Is True which signalled that a major new talent had arrived.
By the time the album went on sale Elvis had assembled his own band, The Attractions. Pub-band veteran Pete Thomas handled drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) from the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver was the bassist, and the combo was completed by Steve Naive from the Royal College of Music.
They shut themselves away in a house in Cornwall and rehearsed like crazy.
At this stage Elvis had only one solo appearance to his credit — supporting The Rumour at the Nashville in West London on May 27, 1977 — but he was to return to the same place three months later with The Attractions to a rather more enthusiastic reception.
If the album didn't convince people that here was a talent of sizeable proportions then the live shows did. Seven hundred people were locked out of the Nashville, a medium-sized pub, and the album entered the LP charts in the first week of release.
Elvis Costello happened so quick his audience could hardly keep up. He'd turn up and do a show completely made up of new songs. His mind seemed to be racing. He wrote and recorded with the frenzy of a condemned man and performed these startling songs like he was drowning.
On stage he was obsessed, shooting out put-downs of old girlfriends, old bosses, the record business. Anything that got in his way, he just savaged it with a couple of clever couplets. He told a writer, "The only emotions I understand are guilt and revenge".
These were the feelings which dominated his debut album, 10 years of pent-up frustrations bursting into the light of day. But Elvis Costello didn't just throw mud and scream. When he aimed, he generally hit the target. The tightness of the songs and the buzzing urgency of his melodies kept his anger in check.
"Watching The Detectives," a brilliantly constructed song with a reggae beat, went to No. 15.
The second album, This Year's Model, saw Elvis turn his attentions away from personal feelings to look outward at the business of fashion. His new single "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" was another 45 which leapt out of the radio and took you by the throat.
Small wonder that Elton John felt embarrassed when listeners to Capital Radio, the London station, voted him top male singer of the year. Elton thought the award should have gone to Elvis Costello, and said so. Most people agreed with him. (Incidentally, Costello's fans now also include Bob Dylan, who's gone out of his way to watch him play.)
"Radio Radio," a biting onslaught on the state of the airwaves, also hit in a big way. Here was Radio 1 playing a record which insulted just about everything they stood for! Only Costello could get away with it.
And so to Armed Forces, with Elvis bringing a whole new area of subject matter within range of his beady eye.
He still shies away from interviews, sometimes gets in fights with photographers and occasionally, as recently happened in Australia, starts riots when he refuses to do encores at concerts. Sometimes he seems like a spoilt child — trying it on to see how far he has to push people to get a reaction.
The only danger now is that he'll overstretch himself trying to crack the American market. He works at a punishing pace. But he's so far ahead of his rivals in terms of sheer talent that it's hard to see him failing now.