Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: Elvis Costello
By Mike Duffy
Considering Elvis Presley is known the king of all things rock ‘n’ roll, nobody would have the audacity to take Presley’s first name as his own, right?
Not so for Declan Patrick MacManus.
The perennially edgy and literately talented British singer, songwriter and musician officially became “Elvis Costello” in 1976 at the behest of manager Jake Riviera, launching a highly eclectic career that would produce a rich wealth of recordings, generate enormous critical acclaim, encompass the mastery of seemingly all music genres and lead to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
With humble beginnings in the vital mid-’70s London pub-rock scene, Costello became one of popular music’s most prolific artists, carrying the torch for punk sensibilities while dabbling in R&B, soul, country and even more art-minded collaborations venturing into opera and classical music.
Acclaimed journalist Greil Marcus once noted that Costello “combined the brains of Randy Newman and the implacability of Bob Dylan, the everyman pathos of Buddy Holly and the uniqueness of John Lennon.” Interestingly, each of those luminaries would touch Costello’s career at some point, shaping and feeding his diverse proclivities.
Born in 1954 to a jazz vocalist father, Costello grew up listening to Motown and the British Invasion, developing broad tastes in music.
|My Aim Is True was released in 1977.|
When punk detonated in the U.K. in the mid-1970s, Costello was working as a data entry clerk for Elizabeth Arden and a computer operator for the Midland Bank. Although manning a desk during this period, MacManus – who had around then adopted the stage name “D.P. Costello”—refused to let it limit his creativity, and he recorded during his free time while actively looking for a label deal. Stiff Records co-founder Riviera signed him in 1977.
MacManus then took a new stage name, Elvis Costello, and his first single for Stiff, “Less Than Zero,” was released March 25, 1977, followed shortly thereafter by debut album My Aim Is True. Buoyed by the success of ballad “Allison,” the album was a moderate success, but it wasn’t until Costello recruited ace backing band the Attractions in June 1977 that his sound truly took on the edgier anti-establishment direction that would define his early success.
With his horn-rimmed glasses and Fender Jazzmaster, Costello’s angular swagger and sarcastic irritation with just about everything in sight set him apart from the safety-pinned punk crowd. His music, however, fit the bill, and fourth single “Watching the Detectives” was edgier than anything on My Aim Is True (it was added to the U.S. version of the album later in the year).
With the Attractions – keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (the two Thomases weren’t related)—Costello then released 1978 second album This Year’s Model, which featured “Pump It Up,” “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” “This Year’s Girl,” “Lipstick Vogue” and (on the U.S. release) “Radio Radio.”
“Radio Radio” in particular was a hit that also earned Costello some legendary notoriety. When he and the Attractions appeared on a December 1977 Saturday Night Live telecast, they were supposed to play the aforementioned “Less Than Zero,” but Costello dramatically stopped the song a few bars in, upon which he and the band tore through the incendiary “Radio Radio.” The infamous incident got him banned from SNL but landed him in music mags everywhere. And even though “Radio Radio” wasn’t on the original version of This Year’s Model, the song helped Costello earn the top spot on Rolling Stone’s critics poll for 1977’s best album.
While touring the United States for This Year’s Model, the band wrote its third album, Armed Forces (1979), the original working title of which was Emotional Fascism. A biting collection of songs addressing personal and political issues, it included Costello’s biggest hit to date, “Oliver’s Army,” which landed at No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart. One of Costello’s most commercially successful albums, Armed Forces eventually went platinum in the U.K. (his only album to do so there) and gold in the United States.
|Get Happy!! is a soul-pop gem from Costello.|
Costello then switched to more soul-inspired writing with 1980’s Get Happy!! The album came after a controversial March 1979 episode when Costello drew fire in the United States for making inflammatory comments about James Brown and Ray Charles during an argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in an Ohio hotel bar. A regretful Costello apologized days later at a New York press conference. A longtime R&B fan and public rights activist (he’d worked with the U.K.’s Rock Against Racism campaign before and after the incident), he explained that he was drunk at the time, that he’d behaved obnoxiously in order to bring the conversation to a swift conclusion, and that he hadn’t expected his remarks to be reported in the press.
Costello denied that the retro-soulful Get Happy!! was an attempt to atone for his mistake. In the liner notes for an expanded 2002 version of the album, he wrote, “It might have been tempting to claim that I had some noble motive in basing this record on the music that I had admired and learned from prior to my brush with infamy. But if I was trying to pay respects and make such amends, I doubt if pride would have allowed me to express that thought after I had made my rather contrived explanation … I simply went back to work and relied on instinct, curiosity, and enduring musical passions.”
As the 1980s progressed, Costello began issuing albums at a frenetic pace; a trend that would continue throughout his catalog of more than 30 studio albums on his own, with the Attractions and with others. After Trust and Almost Blue (both 1981) and Imperial Bedroom (1982), he scored his first American Top 40 single in 1983 with “Every Day I Write The Book” from that year’s Punch the Clock. By this time, however, tensions within the often-volatile Attractions began to boil over, most notably between Costello and Bruce Thomas, and the group split in 1984 after that year’s Goodbye Cruel World.
Costello performed as a solo artist at the 1985 Live Aid benefit, singing the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” and by that time had also become known as a producer, working with artists including the Specials (The Specials, 1979), Squeeze (East Side Story, 1981) and the Pogues (Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 1985).
The Attractions reunited twice; first in 1989 for Blood and Chocolate, a post-punk ode that received critical if not commercial success, and again from 1994 to 1996 for Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty.
|T Bone Burnett produced this Americana effort.|
But Costello surely scored his greatest solo success in 1989, when a set of songs co-written with Paul McCartney turned into Spike, his best-selling album to date since Armed Forces. The album contained his best-selling U.S. single, “Veronica.”
Costello remains just as busy today, continuing to pursue varied projects and even getting into acting – he has appeared in several films and television shows and has hosted two seasons of Sundance Channel interview and performance series Spectacle: Elvis Costello With … from 2008 to 2010. He assembled new backing band the Impostors in the early 2000s and has remained close to the studio all along, continuing with his own material and collaborating with artists such as T Bone Burnett, with whom he put out 2009 Americana-flavored collection Secret, Profane and Sugarcane and 2010’s National Ransom, which covered everything from jazz-pop to cabaret.
And throughout the years, Costello has kept his Jazzmaster close. His original instrument has undergone many changes since My Aim Is True, and the signature Elvis Costello Jazzmaster model that Fender introduced in 2008 replicated the guitar as it existed when he recorded his debut album, adding features essential to getting that “Watching the Detectives” tone, or, as Costello himself calls it, that “spy movie” sound.
“This guitar,” he said of his Jazzmaster, “I don’t know, it’s had a funny life. And I’ve just always stuck with it; I always come back to it. I mean, I’ve done all sorts of different music, but whenever it’s involved electric guitar, I don’t think there’s one record I’ve made on which the Jazzmaster doesn’t feature somewhere.”
Looking back, Costello fans are likely thankful that he continues to do so.