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The Rise And Rise Of Elvis Costello

by The Pope Of Pop, Paul Inglis

A Star Is Born

Declan Patrick MacManus began having the time of his life on Wednesday, the 25th of August, 1954. He was the son and only child of trumpeter, vocalist and erstwhile bandleader Ronald (“Ross”) MacManus (born in Birkenhead, October 20, 1927) and record store manager Lillian MacManus.

The MacManus family’s original association with music occurred quite literally by accident. Elvis' grandfather Patrick was an orphan – his father (Elvis' great-grandfather) John MacManus (who was an Irishman from County Tyrone who'd moved to England) was killed in an accident on the dockside in Birkenhead and Patrick's mother (Elizabeth Costello) didn't survive much longer herself. Patrick and his brothers got shipped off to an orphanage in Southall where they all learned to play musical instruments. Patrick later ended up in the British Army in Ireland and was shot in 1917 (I assume he didn't heed the warning he was given by his Irish mates – as retold by Elvis in his song "Any King's Shilling") but later recovered and played jazz on the luxury trans-Atlantic cruise ships "Georgic" and "Majestic" up until 1933.

London to Liverpool

Declan was born at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington in London, England. The family first lived in Olympia in Kensington (inner West London), and then moved to Twickenham, Middlesex, on the outskirts of West London, when Declan was seven. Declan later attended Hounslow Secondary Modern (high school) in the same area. Ross and Lillian then separated, and when Declan was sixteen, Lillian and Declan moved to Liverpool and he finished high school there, completing his “A Levels” (or University Entrance Exams) in English. Declan has four half-brothers courtesy of his father’s second marriage.

At the time of Declan’s early childhood Ross was a featured vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra (Britain’s premier big band) and he used to bring home acetate recordings to practice the latest pop tunes. Declan loved to listen to these and other records, his favourite (even as a toddler) being Frank Sinatra’s version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. At the age of nine, Declan bought his first record, the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”. Coming from a musical family (aside from his parents’ professional connections with the music world, MacManus’ grandfather, Patrick, was also a musician, as are Declan’s four half-brothers, Ronan, Liam, Kieran and Ruari who formed a band called “Manus”, later renamed “Riverway”, in the late 1990s) it was almost inevitable that Declan would have some interest in music.

Declan first performed his own compositions in public in 1970 in a London folk club and in January 1972 formed a duo called "Rusty" with Allan Mayes. A few months later Declan appeared in a television commercial for R Whites Lemonade. His father Ross also made an appearance in another commercial for the same product in 1973, as the singing voice of the "Secret Lemonade Drinker", now regarded as one of the greatest television commercials ever made in the UK. Ross also had some success as a pop star: in 1964 he wrote and recorded a ska styled song called “Patsy Girl” (HMV, POP 1279, credited to Ross McManus) which flopped initially on its release in the UK, but later entered the Top 20 in Germany in July 1966.

Early Bands

In 1974 Declan left home and moved into a shared house in Stag Lane, Roehamptom with some aspiring musicians, Mich Kent and Malcolm Dennis, who shared many of his musical interests of the time, which included such artists as The Band, Little Feat, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell and Brinsley Schwartz. Declan had met Nick Lowe, the bass player from Brinsley Schwartz, in a Liverpool pub in 1973 and the band that Declan founded with his friends was transparently modeled on the Brinsley Schwartz template. After flirting with unpromising names such as "The Mothertruckers" and “The Bizario Brothers”, it was eventually decided to name the outfit "Flip City" (from an off-hand remark made by Cheech Marin on Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" album). Declan married his first wife, Mary Burgoyne, in November 1974 and early in the following year their only child, Matthew MacManus, was born. Declan and Mary had already moved out of the shared house in Roehampton and into a flat in Twickenham. Declan’s father Ross had recently remarried and was living with his new wife Sarah in the same block of flats.

"Flip City" meanwhile were experiencing little in the way of success (not surprising as their idols Brinsley Schwartz also failed to achieve anything more than a cult following themselves), occasionally supporting some of the more well known "pub rock" acts of the era, such as Dr Feelgood, as well as achieving a couple of residencies; a brief one at The Kensington Tavern, and another at the Red Cow. Toward the end of 1975 the band was folded by mutual agreement and Declan went back to playing solo gigs, this time billed as "DP Costello" (Costello being the maiden name of his paternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Costello). Declan needed to provide a home for his young family and he wound up, almost by accident after an unpromising series of jobs, as a computer operator for the Elizabeth Arden factory in Wales Farm Road, Acton. As he was the only operator on his shift and he worked in a back room, Declan had plenty of spare time to pen new songs and plan his real career. Declan recorded a home demo tape, featuring vocal and acoustic guitar, of some of his songs and sent the tape to various record companies with little success. At one point, Declan even visited the record companies personally and played his songs live in their offices in an attempt to attract attention. Declan was eventually offered a very unsatisfactory deal with Island Records, which he wisely rejected. Declan also forwarded his tape to Charlie Gillett, who featured recordings of up and coming artists on his radio show (he also featured other struggling artists such as Dire Straits and Graham Parker). Gillett thought highly of Declan’s songs and contemplated producing a “DP Costello” album himself, if he could obtain some funding. Songs from that demo tape are now included as bonus tracks on the album “My Aim Is True”.

Elvis Is In The Building

Late in 1976, new independent label Stiff Records placed an ad in the English music press asking for demo tapes. Declan promptly dropped off his tape at the Stiff office, and as soon as Nick Lowe heard the tape, Declan was as good as signed. Stiff Records was the brainchild of Dave Robinson (manager of Graham Parker and the Rumour) and Jake Riveria (real name, Andrew Jakeman, ex-manager of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers) and had already signed up Ian Dury and Blockheads as well as Nick Lowe (born in Walton-On-Thames, 24 March 1949, who was on board as an artist, producer and all-round svengali). Jake Riveria agreed to manage Declan, and decided to merge Declan's stage name "DP Costello" with that of rock'n'roll's original icon "Elvis Presley".

And so, a star was torn. Later MacManus was to officially change his name to "Elvis Costello" to complete the transformation.

Riveria deduced a certain "American" influence in his new charge's songs and decided to pair Elvis Costello with his latest signing, Californian band "Clover" (now better known to the world as "Huey Lewis and the News", but originally known as "The Tiny Hearing Aid Company") who at the time included pedal steel guitarist John McFee (later of the Doobie Brothers) in their number (Huey Lewis skipped the "My Aim Is True" sessions as his vocal and harmonica talents were not required). The result, recorded in 24 hours of studio time at London's Pathway Studios and produced by Nick Lowe, became Elvis Costello's first album "My Aim Is True". However, before the album was released, Stiff issued a single "Less Than Zero/Radio Sweetheart" in March 1977. The single stiffed, and for a while there seemed to be some doubt as to whether there would ever be an Elvis Costello album at all. Two further singles were released: "Alison" and "Red Shoes". The latter in particular generated some rave reviews but little in the way of actual sales. Uncertain of his status as a professional musician, Elvis only quit his job as computer operator at the "vanity factory" when Jake Riveria and Dave Robinson agreed to match Elvis’ relatively meagre wages. Now assured of some kind of living, Elvis, Mary and Matthew moved into a house in Whitton, Middlesex.

What an Attraction

"Elvis Costello" performed his first live gig supporting The Rumour (sans Graham Parker) at London's Nashville on May 27, 1977. Reaction to the performance was very positive, and encouraged by this Stiff placed an ad in the June 3 edition of Melody Maker calling for musicians to form a "rocking combo" to back Elvis Costello. Pete Thomas (born in Sheffield, 9 August 1954, ex-Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers) had already been pencilled in as drummer, and a 17 year old keyboard player named Steve Nason (born 19 February 1960, later renamed "Steve Naive" and then "Steve Nieve") who was attending the Royal Academy of Music distinguished himself at the auditions not only by being the best player, but also by falling asleep while the other keyboard players vainly attempted to impress Costello, Lowe and Riveria. Bruce Thomas, (born in Stockton-on-Tees, 14 August 1948, ex-Sutherland Brothers and Quiver) was keen to join up but was initially rebuffed after phoning Stiff Records and announcing his influences as "Graham Parker" and "Steely Dan". Undeterred, Bruce quickly learned the bass parts to the Costello records that had already been released and arrived better prepared than the other contenders. It soon became apparent that Bruce's intensely melodic style would provide a very interesting contrast to Pete's all-out drum attack, and might even distract listeners from noticing that Elvis couldn't convincingly improvise lead guitar parts, even though he was a more than adequate rhythm guitarist.

The newly formed Elvis Costello and the Attractions played their first gigs shortly before the release of "My Aim Is True" in July 1977. The album garnered rave reviews from the UK rock press and soon entered the UK Top 20 chart. Shortly afterwards a non-album track recorded after the "My Aim Is True" sessions, "Watching the Detectives", became Elvis' first hit single in the UK, reaching #15. The track (again produced by Nick Lowe) featured musical backing by Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Steve Goulding (drums) from The Rumour (Andrew and Steve had also assisted at the Attractions’ auditions) with organ overdubs added later by Steve Nieve. Also in July Riveria persuaded Costello, as a publicity stunt, to busk outside of CBS Records in London during a visit by CBS US executives. Costello was arrested for obstruction, but the stunt paid off and Costello was signed to CBS' Columbia Records in the US within days.

Radar Love

Riveria, Lowe and Costello left Stiff Records in October 1977 and formed a new label, "Radar Records" with Andrew Lauder (formerly of Warner Bros, who were bankrolling the new label in return for exclusive distribution rights in the UK and most other territories). Work was quickly begun on a second album "This Years Model", with Costello and the Attractions heading for the airport to commence their first US tour while the studio still literally echoed with last chord of "Pump it Up". A fortuitous cancellation by the Sex Pistols gave Elvis the opportunity to appear on "Saturday Night Live" in December 1977. Elvis decided to interpret the lyric of his new song "Radio Radio" (recently debuted on tour) a little too literally and "bit the hand that fed him" by cutting the Attractions off during the first few bars of "Less Than Zero" and announcing to the audience that the song was "not relevant" and that they were going to perform "Radio Radio" instead. Elvis was subsequently banned from performing on the show again, and was not invited back until 1989. However, the incident won Costello the notoriety that Riveria undoubtedly craved. Subsequently a policy of not giving interviews was adopted (the only interview Costello gave in 1978 was with the UK's New Musical Express), and more than one incident of reporters being roughed up by Riveria and his minders was alleged to have occurred. Elvis and the Attractions returned to Eden Studios in London to apply the finishing touches to "This Years Model" (including guitar overdubs by Mick Jones of The Clash, most of which were not used in the final mix) while "My Aim Is True" finally entered the US Top 40.

"This Years Model" (earlier working titles included "Little Hitler", "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "The King of Belgium") was released in March 1978 in the UK and the US and amply confirmed Costello's reputation as the most talented and articulate of the "new wave" of performers. The album went on to reach the UK Top 5 and spawned two UK hit singles, "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" (#16) and "Pump it Up" (#24). The album also generated considerable sales outside of the UK, entering the Top 30 in the US, while a Top 10 chart position for "Pump it Up" was one of the highlights of Costello's new found popularity in Australia. Elvis and the Attractions toured the United States and Canada during the spring/summer of 1978, sharing some bills with Rockpile. One of the shows, at the El Mocambo club in Toronto, Canada, was recorded and later released as a promotional album that quickly found its way onto bootleg vinyl. This live recording was officially released on CD by Rykodisc as part of the "2 ½ Years" box set in 1994 and is the only officially released Elvis Costello live album to date.

Emotional Fascist

On his return to the UK, Costello generated further headlines when he was seen in public with model Bebe Buell (born in Portsmouth, Virginia, 14 July 1953). It soon became apparent that he had left his wife, Mary. Toward the end of 1978, Costello and the Attractions returned to the studio to record Costello's third album, provisionally titled "Emotional Fascism" and then headed off to the Far East and Australia for yet another tour. Meanwhile, a new single was released in the UK: "Radio Radio", a left over from the "This Years Model" sessions that was included only on the US version of that album. The single, which stalled just short of the UK Top 20, was backed by a new song: "Tiny Steps" from the sessions just completed at Eden Studios but ruled out of consideration for inclusion on the forthcoming album (presumably because it sounded like it belonged on "This Years Model").

The third album, now retitled "Armed Forces" was released in January 1979 and became Costello's first, and only, Top 10 album in the US. The album also spawned a #2 hit single in the UK, "Olivers Army" (Costello's highest charting single at the time of writing), as well as a second Top 30 UK hit single, "Accidents Will Happen". The album itself also reached #2 in the UK charts. "Armed Forces" also was popular in other territories, topping the charts in Australia and resulting in two top 10 Australian singles - "Olivers Army" and "Senior Service". Perplexingly, after adding "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace Love and Understanding)" to the US version of "Armed Forces", Columbia Records decided to release "Accidents Will Happen" as a single in the US instead. It subsequently stalled at #101. Despite the massive sales for "Olivers Army" in other markets, Columbia were wary of releasing that song as a single in the US due to the phrase "white nigger" in the second verse. Costello refused to allow an edited version of the song to be released by Columbia.

The Ray Charles Incident

Costello and the Attractions toured the UK and Europe early in 1979 and then returned to the US for a third time to undertake their most ambitious tour yet. However, the pressures of life on the road, in addition to the turmoil of Costello's personal relationships, large amounts of alcohol, plus the hostility of Costello and his manager Jake Riviera to the press, all contributed to an unfortunate incident in Columbus, Ohio in March 1979. A drunken slanging match in a Holiday Inn bar between Costello (and the Attractions) and members of Steven Stills' entourage (including Bonnie Bramlett) led to both sides making ill-considered remarks about British and American musicians. However, only Costello's derogatory comments about certain African-American musicians were reported to the press. The subsequent press furore was reminiscent of the outrage generated in the US by the out-of-context rehashing of John Lennon's "We're more popular than Jesus" remark in 1966. Despite his performances at "Rock Against Racism" shows in the UK, and his anti-fascism songs "Less Than Zero" and "Night Rally", Costello was forced to hastily convene a US press conference and apologise for his statements. Ray Charles, who bore the brunt of Costello's reported remarks, certainly holds Costello no ill will, and commented that "drunken talk isn't meant to be printed in the paper." The tour was quickly wrapped up, despite "Armed Forces" riding high in the charts, and Costello did not return to the US again until 1981, this defusing any commercial momentum he had generated. It is likely that Columbia’s ultimate decision not to release either "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace Love and Understanding)" or "Oliver's Army" as singles in the US may well have been made in the wake of the "Columbus Incident". Columbia certainly made no further attempt to promote "Armed Forces" despite its Top Ten chart placing, a decision which saw the album fall out of the Top Ten as quickly as it had arrived there. It is rumoured that Columbia executives even considered cancelling Costello’s contract at this time. For once, Columbia may have been grateful for Costello’s and Riveria’s "No Interview" policy, as the lack of Costello’s face on the cover of any major magazines probably helped the controversy to blow over more quickly. Subsequent events would demonstrate that Elvis Costello was certainly no racist, beginning with Costello’s work as the producer of The Specials, a multi-racial band, during 1979. Their self-titled album went on to top the charts in the UK.

Time to Get Happy

Costello reunited with his wife and son, did some low-key touring of the UK and Europe, and then returned to Eden Studios in London with the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe in September 1979 to record a fourth album, "Get Happy!!". After recording 10 songs, it became evident that the arrangements (a continuation of the style pioneered on "This Years Model" and polished on "Armed Forces") were not working, at least not to Costello's satisfaction, except for a slow version of "High Fidelity" modelled on David Bowie's "Station to Station". Costello decided to remodel all the arrangements for the album based on various 1960's R'n'B stylings, no doubt hoping that this would confirm his love of "black" American musicians in the wake of the "Columbus" incident. This inspiration led Costello to quickly pen several new songs whilst he, the Attractions and Nick Lowe relocated to studios in Holland where they rerecorded the 10 songs previously attempted and added 10 more. The result was twenty songs somehow jammed onto one mighty crowded album.

Due to the failure of Radar Records to achieve success with any artists other than Nick Lowe and Costello, Warner Bros. decided to exercise their option and they withdrew funding for the label. Riveria believed that this made Costello and Lowe free agents, but Warner Bros. had other ideas and the release of the "Get Happy!!" album was tied up by legal injunctions for several weeks. Eventually a new company called F-Beat Records was formed with "Riveria Global Productions" maintaining creative control and Warner Bros receiving exclusive distribution rights outside of the USA until 1983. The album, finally released in March 1980 sold well but failed to improve on "Armed Forces" chart placings (Get Happy reached #4 in the UK and #11 in the US). Costello's UK distributors, anticipating that the album would outsell "Armed Forces", were left with at least 50,000 copies of "Get Happy" literally collecting dust in a warehouse. The album produced one Top 10 single in the UK ("I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down"), and two other minor hits ("High Fidelity" and "New Amsterdam"), but Costello's previous seeming infallibility now looked shaky and the US Top 100 singles chart once again proved impenetrable, although Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt had both already had major chart successes with versions of "Girls Talk" and "Alison" respectively. Costello and the Attractions made an appearance at Paul McCartney’s "Concert for the People of Kampuchea" in December 1979 in London.

Before Costello and the Attractions could reconvene in 1980 to tour the UK and Europe to promote "Get Happy!!", Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve was injured in a serious car accident in the US which left one of the other passengers dead. Rather than replacing Steve with another keyboardist (for example, Bob Andrews from "The Rumour") Costello decided to opt for a twin guitar attack, drafting in rhythm guitarist Martin Belmont from "The Rumour", resulting in a thicker, heavier on-stage sound than hithertofore. Although no reasons have ever been offered for this experimental change to the Attractions line-up, Costello has commented since that on certain songs during this period he was attempting to emulate the sound that David Bowie achieved with his band in the mid to late 70s. Costello eventually realised that Bowie's "sound" was partly due to the layering of multiple guitar parts. Needless to say, any resemblance between Elvis Costello and David Bowie is safely locked away in Costello’s mind.

In the (Northern) summer of 1980, a rejuvenated Steve Nieve rejoined the Attractions. The "guitar experiment" was abandoned (although Martin Belmont was keen to continue as the "Fifth Attraction", he only ever performed this role once again: on one track on Elvis' next album). Elvis and the Attractions continued to tour, now adding new songs that would appear on the next album "Trust" and briefly headed over to Canada in August to play their only North American show in 1980 at the "Heatwave" festival.

Also during the summer of 1980, the Attractions released their solo album "Mad About the Wrong Boy", featuring songs written and sung by the Attractions themselves. The album garnered tepid reviews and sold poorly. Suprisingly, not only were the Attractions unremarkable singers and songwriters, but the songs themselves were not particularly well arranged, giving weight to Elvis' later claims that he was largely responsible for the "Attractions Sound". In the US, Columbia decided to round up all of the unreleased or rare Elvis tracks (including songs removed from the US versions of "This Years Model" and "Armed Forces") and issued a new US only album "Taking Liberties" which managed an impressive Top 30 chart placing. A UK equivalent of this album "Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How's Your Fathers" was also later released.

Trust Elvis

Elvis had been toying with retiring at this early stage in his career and it was only with some effort, particularly by members of the Attractions, that he was persuaded to continue. Elvis, the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe reconvened at Eden Studios to record Elvis' fifth studio album "Trust" (earlier working titles were "Cats and Dogs" and "More Songs About Fucking and Fighting"). Elvis and Nick Lowe continued the move away from the so-called "new wave" style of "This Years Model" and "Armed Forces", although on "Trust" the overriding production ethic seems to have been merely "turn the drums and bass up, keep it simple, and no synthesizers". "Fifth Attraction" Martin Belmont made a brief return to the fold playing guitar on "From A Whisper to A Scream" while Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook duetted with Elvis on the same song. The album included some departures for Costello, including his first piano composition, "Shot With His Own Gun", a country styled number "Different Finger", and a solo Costello performance "Big Sisters Clothes". Some of the tracks, including "New Lace Sleeves" and "Big Sisters Clothes" were old songs written in the days of "DP Costello". The first single from the album, "Clubland" reached only #60 in the UK chart, and the second single "From A Whisper to a Scream" failed to chart at all, Elvis' first outright chart failure in the UK since the Stiff era. The album itself peaked at #6 in the UK chart and #27 in the US charts, hardly a failure but certainly disappointing. Significantly, Costello's refusal to follow up the chart success of "Armed Forces", by repeating its formula, was already starting to cause resentment at Columbia Records.

Costello and the Attractions toured the US to promote the "Trust" album in early 1981 supported by English band Squeeze in what was known as the "English Mugs Tour". Surprisingly, Elvis' career took a very dramatic turn in May 1981 when, by now dissatisfied with his own songs, he took the Attractions to Nashville to record a country covers album with producer Billy Sherrill. The result, "Almost Blue" was released at the latter end of 1981. The album charted well for the most part, especially in some countries that had previously been resistant to Elvis' charms. The first single from the album, "Good Year For the Roses", achieved Top 10 placings in both the UK and Australia. However, the album was less successful in the US, reaching only #49. No doubt the relatively poor US sales were a result of the traditional country audience being uninterested in an album by someone they no doubt judged to be a "skinny, nerdy, British punk". Similarly, many of Costello's US following were unenthused by his latest musical direction. The overall result of the album for many music critics, especially in the US, was to call into question Elvis' sanity and musical judgement. Elvis then took a break to co-produce Squeeze's "East Side Story" album with Roger Bechirian, after earlier sessions with Dave Edmunds had been scrapped. The move proved to be an astute one for the band and resulted in their first US Top 40 single, "Tempted", and their highest US album placing at that time (#44). The album also included Squeeze’s third and last Top 10 UK hit single "Labelled With Love".

Masterpiece?