Vive Le Rock, June 2015

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Vive Le Rock


A rough guide to Elvis Costello

James Sharples

Earning his stripes in pub rock, punk and new wave before graduating to the global stage, the "pop encyclopedia" con-tinues to reinvent himself, be it as an angry young man playing agit-pop or a worldweary troubadour. Touring the UK in June, Costello remains at the head of the pack, acerbic, articulate and with an aim that's still stunningly true.

Born Declan Patrick MacManus in London's St Mary's Hospital (he would later take the nom de plume of "Elvis Costello," partly in tribute to The King and partly in tribute to his band-leader father Ross's stage name), the young Costello made his musical debut at a young age, providing backing vocals for his father's composition for R. White's Lemonade, "I'm A Secret Lemonade Drinker." A move from London to Cheshire and back would follow, with Costello forming pub rock band Flip City (1974-1976) along the way. And it would be in London that Elvis would be welcomed to the working week of the music industry.

Toiling away in office jobs, Costello would spend his free time writing and recording at home, committing the likes of "Wave A White Flag," "Poison Moon," "Jump Up" and "Mystery Dance" to tape in 1976. That same year heralded the arrival of Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson's Stiff Records, "the world's most flexible label." Seeing a good fit on the cards (not to men-tion that several record labels had apparently already passed on his home recordings), Costello hand delivered his demo tape to the label's offices in Alexander Street, resulting in a recording session with Nick Lowe for "Radio Sweetheart" and "Mystery Dance," the latter earmarked for Dave Edmunds as Stiff originally felt Costello's future lay in songwriting rather than performing. While he might have been signed to Stiff, it didn't mean that Costello could pack in the day job for limousines and champagne any time soon. Instead, he was working in data entry for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, recording songs on "sick days" and drawing inspiration from the mind-numbing tedium such as on "I'm Not Angry," which referenced his time at the "vanity factory."

"Less Than Zero" was the first official single, followed up with "Alison" shortly after. Neither is a spectacular success upon release but nevertheless Stiff continued to have faith in the bespectacled singer-songwriter, compiling six four-hour sessions at Islington's Pathway Studios into album My Aim Is True. Backing band the Attractions are recruited in 1977 (organist Steve "Nieve" Nason, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas) and debut in Penzance, supporting Wayne County and the Electric Chairs. Elvis Costello and the Attractions would then re-re-cord My Aim Is True in the space of a day in a studio in Cornwall with the intention of Stiff Records substituting the recording of the original by the new group after the initial pressing sold out. Weeks later, the band's first London appearance is preceded by the arrest of Costello outside the Park Lane Hilton for performing a guerilla set to record company executives on their lunch. It wouldn't be the last time Elvis would run up against the boys in blue: months later their residency at Nashville Rooms, West Kensington would be threatened with closure due to the over-capacity crowds. Hitting the US towards the end of the year, the band made their first american TV appearance on Saturday Night Live, replacing the originally booked Sex Pistols. However, switching out "Radio Radio" (from the soon-to-be completed This Year's Model) for "Less Than Zero" saw them banned from the show until 1990.

1978 saw This Year's Model completed, again under the watchful ear of Nick Lowe, with "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea." "Pump It Up" and "Radio Radio" hitting the Top 30 of the singles chart. The album would be quickly followed with the recording of the Armed Forces LP and a performance at the second Rock Against Racism in Brixton alongside Aswad and Sham 69 to 100,000 people. Flitting between London and the rest of the world over the tail end of '78, Costello would get up at CBGB's to play with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, record a video for "Oliver's Army" in Honolulu and incite an Australian audience to riot due to the lack of an encore.

1979 was a year of highs and lows for Costello, with the release of Armed Forces, "Oliver's Army" reaching second place in the UK singles chart and "Accidents Will Happen" appearing in Stephen Spielberg's ET. On the other hand, "idiotic remarks" saw a war of words between Costello and the Stephen Stills band descend into a drunken brawl in a Holiday Inn bar in Columbus, Ohio, resulting in the abrupt end of a tour and, according to Costello's website, "contro-versy, death-threats, employment of armed bodyguards and the removal of records from radio playlists." Costello and the Attractions wouldn't return to the States for three years.

Producing the first Specials album in '79, the recording of Get Happy also kicked off, with the album being released the following year . The rewor king of Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" reaches No.4 in the singles chart. Album Trust would follow in 1981, with the Almost Blue LP coming out the same year. An album a year would follow with the Attractions (Imperial Bedroom, Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World, King Of America, Blood & Chocolate) before Costello would part ways with the band, their appearance for an encore during his Glastonbury solo set in '87 being the last time they'd be seen together until the early '90s.

The following years would see Costello stretching his songwriting wings on albums Spike ('89), Mighty Like A Rose ('91) and The Juliet Letters ('93) and collaborating with the likes of Richard Harvey and Burt Bacharach before reuniting with the Attractions for 1994's critically acclaimed Brutal Youth.

Recording and performing throughout much of the 1990s with the Attractions, he would change his sound once more in 2003 with North, a collection of ballads allegedly inspired by his relationship with Canadian jazz musician Diana Krall, and 2004's 'II Sogno', a ballet score. He would later go on to ex-plore roots rock with The Delivery Man (2004), speed writing and recording on Momofuku (2008), americana on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009) and alt. rock on the most recent National Ransom (2010), simultaneously working with Allen Toussaint on 2006's The River In Reverse and The Roots on 2013's Wise Up Ghost.

Still touring and still clearly full of piss and vinegar, the angry young man who penned the likes of "Less Than Zero" clearly still remains as much in love with music and live performance as he ever was. Constantly challenging himself, be it using a spinning wheel to choose songs (the spectacular spinning songbook) or-performing stripped down solo shows in theatre as he is on his current run, Costello's influence and charismatic presence remains mighty like a rose.

Elvis Costello tours the UK in June

Photo by James O'Mara


Vive Le Rock, No. 27, June / July 2015

James Sharples profiles Elvis Costello.


2015-06-00 Vive Le Rock page 85.jpg
Page scan.

2015-06-00 Vive Le Rock cover.jpg


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