A decade has passed since the pigeon-toed man wearing horn-rims rode the New Wave of British punk music onto American shores.
For Elvis Costello, considered by critics as the father of modern pop music, the last 10 years which precede his concert Tuesday at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium mark a period of change. The horn-rims have been replaced by a more contemporary style, and the pseudonym Elvis Costello has been dropped for his legal name Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus.
After 10 years and 10 albums with 150 original songs, Costello's chameleon-like music style has elicited the respect of critics and fans. Running the gamut from post-punk to country to pop, Costello is often recognized for his versatility. Critics rated Costello's last two LPs, King of America and Blood and Chocolate (both 1986) among the top 10 albums of the year.
King of America represents a mellower period in Costello's music, though one distinctly different from his tribute to country music — the almost ignored Almost Blue (1981). Some critics attribute the albums' laid-back mood to his relationship with second wife Caitlin O'Riordan, bass guitarist and singer for the Celtic band the Pogues.
King of America is the first album Costello has produced without his regular backup, the Attractions. The Attractions play in only one song, "Suit of Lights." Another first: songs on the album are accredited to MacManus instead of the pseudonym Costello.
In an '86 interview, Costello spoke about critics' reactions to King of America. "It seems crazy that a record with such solid sounds on it could be regarded as unconventional ... It's all voice and songs. No fancy arrangements, no all-star guest performances. It's not the soundtrack of a movie. I'm not on heroin, and I don't have AIDS. So I have no chance of having a hit."
The son of a big band singer and solo cabaret performer, Costello grew up in England listening to promotional records passed onto him by his father.
"I was just into singles, whatever was on the radio the Kinks, The Who, Motown. It was exciting. I was in the Beatles fan club when I was eleven," Costello said in an interview with Greil Marcus in 1982.
Costello got his break in 1976, signing with the small independent British label Stiff, operated by Jake Rivera and Dave Robinson.
It was Rivera who dubbed the musician "Elvis," borrowing the tag from another prominent musician, though the singer himself added Costello from his mother's family side.
"I hadn't picked it at all. Jake picked it. It was just a marketing scheme. I thought he was out of his mind," Costello commented to Rolling Stone.
Realizing the limitations of signing with a small company, Costello made his ploy for international exposure by holding a solo sidewalk performance outside the London Hilton where executives from CBS were holding a conference.
He was arrested for public disturbance, but managed to get a contract with the American company. In 1977, Costello made his American debut with My Aim is True. The album, produced by Nick Lowe (who will be appearing with Costello at the concert April 21), was honored by Rolling Stone as one of the magazine's albums of the year. Some critics also consider it to be the first New Wave LP to make the American top 50.
With his second album, This Year's Model (1978), Costello continued his success in America and further established himself as a pop artist. Costello's third release, the album Armed Forces ( 1979), followed This Year's Model and is considered by critics to be one of his best and most adventurous works.
If Costello is praised by critics and fans for his musical diversity, he is not known for his charming disposition.
Costello became controversial in 1979 when he and members of the Attractions got into a brawl with members of another band during a 53-concert, 63-day tour of America. Also, in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, Costello made blatantly racist remarks against James Brown and Ray Charles, downgraded America and derided American Black Music.
If Costello's remarks were racist, his music wasn't. Many of the artist's supporters found it difficult to believe that Costello, who performed in the British Rock against Racism concerts, would make such blatantly prejudiced statements.
The media had a heyday with the '79 incident. Costello, who rarely gave interviews, was forced to hold a press conference and attempt to explain himself. He received over 120 death threats and hired a bodyguard to accompany him for the remainder of the tour. Costello barely spoke to reporters for three years.
Costello and the Attractions returned to England and produced Get Happy. Costello's self-proclaimed version of a motown album.
"I had the feeling people were reading my mind. But what could I do, hold up a sign that said I REALLY LIKE BLACK PEOPLE?" asked Costello in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1982.
In 1980, Columbia records produced Taking Liberties, a compilation of previously unreleased cuts, some songs from the B-sides of previous Costello records and other songs not included in the American versions of British LPs.
Critics consider Imperial Bedroom (1982), his next album, to be one of his best since Armed Forces. In "The Long Honeymoon," a cut from Imperial Bedroom, Costello sings, "There's no money-back guarantee on future happiness." Regardless, the past 10 years for Costello have meant a decade of productivity and, some might say, success.
Despite those 10 years in the business, Costello's philosophy, as stated in Newsweek in 1978, remains one of simple cynic wittiness:
"...I'm chipping away at a certain attitude that has a stranglehold on music. I'm a menace, but that's not the point it's that I want it now. I'm up for a fight. I'm saying, 'What are you gonna do? Deal with us? Try to stamp us out, or just sit there and vegetate?' I'm here to corrupt American youth. but my Visa will probably run out before I get to do it."