Elvis Costello - Biography

By Michael Keefe


              British pop singer-songwriter Elvis Costello was born Declan Patrick McManus on August 25, 1954 in Paddington, Westminster, and grew up in Twickenham, in Greater London. His mother was born Mary Costello, and his father, Ross McManus, was a bandleader, singer, and composer. So, young Declan seemed destined to be a musician, and his future stage surname was already in place. His first gig came as his father's backup singer on the 1974 recording of a commercial jingle written by the senior McManus. That same year, Declan married his first wife, Mary Burgoyne, and formed his first band, Flip City. Lasting until 1976, he went under the name D.P. Costello during that time. He worked a number of data entry and computer programming jobs while trying to break into the music business.


            Deciding to go solo, Costello sent demo tapes to various record labels and was signed by hip and eclectic Stiff Records in 1976. One of the label's heads, Jake Riviera, suggested a first name change to Elvis (inspired by Presley, of course). During four six-hour sessions conducted late at night in late 1976 and early 1977, the freshly dubbed Elvis Costello recorded his debut, backed by the US band Clover, who were in England at the time. Pub rocker and label mate Nick Lowe was chosen to produce, initiating a fruitful bond between the two terrific songwriters.


            Elvis Costello's first release was the single "Less Than Zero" (1977 Stiff), released in March. It missed the charts. His debut album, My Aim Is True (1977 Stiff) hit UK stores that July, peaking at #13 on the charts. Costello earned a US distribution deal with Columbia Records by busking in the street in front of a London convention of the label's executives. My Aim Is True hit #32 in America the following February, while earning strong reviews. The album's second single, the ballad "Alison," failed to chart, although it has since become a classic. However, the third single, "Watching the Detectives," landed at #15 in Britain.


            In the summer of 1977, Costello assembled the trio who would be his backing band for decades to come, The Attractions: Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums. They performed on Saturday Night Live in December 1977, filling in for The Sex Pistols. After starting to play "Less Than Zero," Costello halted the band and then jumped into "Radio Radio," a song that hadn't been released yet. This impromptu change led to Costello being banned from the show for a dozen years.


            Elvis Costello & The Attractions recorded album number two in late 1977, finishing early the next year. Riviera got Costello signed to WEA-distributed Radar in 1978. This Year's Model (1978 Radar/Columbia) was released in March and peaked at #4 in Britain and #30 in the US. The sophomore LP showcased a powerful and hungry band with great chops. Compared to the mid-paced and easily digestible pop/rock of its predecessor, the tones and tempos of This Year's Model were more closely aligned with the intensity of the punk and new wave movements. The generally stingy Robert Christgau awarded the LP an A, and Pitchfork gave its 2002 reissue a perfect 10.0. Singles "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," the exuberant "Pump It Up," and "Radio Radio" all went Top 40 in the UK.


            Costello was on a roll. He created his third successful album in as many years with Armed Forces (1979 Radar/Columbia). The LP nearly topped the charts in England, landing at #2, while shooting all the way up to #10 in America. The piano-driven first single "Oliver's Army" equaled the success of its parent album in the UK, but Elvis's drought on the US singles chart would continue for four more years. The more nuanced second single, "Accidents Will Happen," only reached #28 in England. The album tracks ranged from percolating pop ("Senior Service") to serious ("Goon Squads") to somber ("Party Girl"), all executed to perfection by Costello and the Attractions.


Elvis Costello jumped to another Columbia-distributed label, F-Beat, after Radar went under. He also dropped his band's name (but not their contributions) from LP number four, Get Happy!! (1980 F-Beat/Coumbia). A 20-track mad dash of R&B-tinted pop, the album again won over critics and fans, nearly replicating its predecessors chart positions (#2 in the UK, #11 in the US). The first single, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," was a cover of a 1960s Sam & Dave tune. It peaked at #4 in England. "High Fidelity" (later immortalized by the Nick Hornby novel of the same name) and "New Amsterdam" both went Top 40 in Britain, but nearly every song on the record was as catchy as the next and could have been released as a single. Two very similar collections of non-LP tracks (B-sides, mostly) were released on either side of the pond that year: Taking Liberties (1980 Columbia) in the US and Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers (1980 F-Beat) in Costello's homeland. The American compilation actually fared well, peaking at #28, while its counterpart missed the charts (probably because his British fans had been buying the singles and, therefore, already owned the songs).


            The Attractions were back for Trust (1981 F-Beat/Columbia), a transitional album that found Costello stretching out his writing talents even further and balancing up-tempo pop numbers like lead single "Clubland" (a disappointing #60 on the UK charts) with slow-building dramas such as "Shot with His Own Gun," and everything in between. An often overlooked title in the Costello discography, Trust is a well-reviewed gem that went Top 10 in England and Top 40 in America. That same year, Costello side-stepped into country music on Almost Blue (1981 F-Beat/Columbia), a pleasant if unexciting assemblage of country standards from Hank Williams, George Jones, and others. It peaked at #7 in the UK, but Christgau and Rolling Stone gave the LP lukewarm reviews, and it managed only a modest #50 in America.


            Elvis Costello went baroque on his next album, Imperial Bedroom (1981 F-Beat/Columbia). He had moved beyond the "angry young man" lyrics of his earlier works, and his songwriting had grown more sophisticated. Geoff Emerick, a recording engineer for The Beatles' Revolver (1966 Capitol), produced the record. While maintaining a new wavy pop feel, Costello and company carved out more intricate arrangements, even using a 40-piece orchestra for "… And in Every Home." The album had an air of musical theater to it, but this jauntiness was balanced by Costello's acerbic wit and wizardry with wordplay. None of the singles charted well, but the album his #6 in the UK and #30 in the US.


            Costello & the Attractions finally found success on American radio with "Everyday I Write the Book," which went Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic. Its parent album, Punch the Clock (1983 F-Beat/Columbia), also performed well peaking at #3 in England and #24 in the US. It was produced by fashionable hit-makers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who polished Costello's sound for maximum palatability. Despite its chart success and pretty good ratings at the time, the record has not stood the test of time with future critics or fans. That said, the same production team helped Costello sink to a deeper low the following year. The artist himself has acknowledged that Goodbye Cruel World (1984 F-Beat/Columbia), is his worst album. To be sure, the duet with Daryl Hall on "The Only Flame in Town" is not a highlight of Costello's career. "Inch by Inch" and "Love Field" are the only worthwhile numbers on the LP, despite its commercial success (#10 UK, #30 US). Costello's fragile emotional state may have contributed to the lackluster album, since he and his first wife divorced that year.


            Usually good for at least one album a year, Elvis Costello was quiet for most of 1985, aside from a solo performance of The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" at Live Aid and a very fine The Best of Elvis Costello (1985 Columbia). However, he made up for this relative dearth with two albums the following year. February's King of America (1986 F-Beat/Columbia) was credited to The Costello Show. The Attractions participated in the T-Bone Burnett-produced recordings, but a set of studio musicians dubbed The Confederates were the main force backing Costello on his mellow side trip into Americana-flavored singer-songwriter mode. A great and understated LP, ratings were high, while chart positions were consistent with his past few albums. The Attractions were back on the billing for September's Blood & Chocolate (1986 Columbia). After a five year split, Nick Lowe returned to the producers chair for this rock 'n' roll album that displayed more Rolling Stones-like grit than a typical Costello effort. Despite well-justified critical raves, US music buyers were disinterested in Blood & Chocolate, sending it only up to #84 on Billboard. In the UK, it peaked at a solid (though substandard) #16. In addition to blues-rockin' highlights "Uncomplicated" and the lengthy "Tokyo Storm Warning," the LP featured Costello's most devastatingly bleak portrait of love, the amazing "I Want You." Also that year, Costello married The Pogues' bassist Cait O'Riordan.


            Aside from a UK rarities comp, Out of Our Idiot (1987 Demon), Elvis Costello abstained from releasing new albums once more, this time for three years. When he finally reemerged, it was with new label Warner and without the Attractions. Costello brought his birth name back out, re-teamed with T-Bone Burnett, worked with a slew of guests (including Roger McGuinn, Chrissie Hynde, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band), and co-wrote several songs with Paul McCartney. The result was the excellent Spike (1989 Warner). A four-star album according to Rolling Stone and a return to his usual chart positions (#5 UK and #32 US), it spawned his second American hit single (#19), the infectious "Veronica." The rest of the album veered from big band jazz to pop to ballads, yet remained surprisingly cohesive. That same year, Costello assembled his own compilation for the two-disc Girls Girls Girls (1989 Columbia), a 47-cut collection picked and sequenced by the artist himself. Despite the personal touch, it wasn't a hit.


            Elvis Costello's first album of the 1990s marked a return to more straightforward pop/rock. Unfortunately, Mighty Like a Rose (1991 Warner) also saw Costello returning to a team of producers and uneven results. Bouncy lead single "The Other Side of Summer" reached only #43 in the UK, but hit #1 on Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. Second single "So Like Candy," a brooding and beautiful ballad co-penned by McCartney, failed to chart. US critics maligned the LP, likely leading to its low chart position of #55. However, the Brits remained true to Costello, sending the album to #5 in England.


            With The Juliet Letters (1993 Warner), Elvis Costello began a lasting pattern of experimenting with non-rock genres at least every other album. Recorded with The Brodsky Quartet, the album was a strange hybrid of classical and art pop. The result is a strange aside in the artist's catalog that bombed in the US (#122), but reached a remarkable #18 in England, proving that the populace of his homeland would buy anything Costello released. Fortunately, he followed quickly with Brutal Youth (1994 Warner), a solid album of much more standard Costello fare. It zoomed up to #2 in the UK and made a respectable showing in the US, making it up to #34. Singles "Sulky Girl," "13 Steps Lead Down" and "London's Brilliant Parade" are highlights, all of which charted in England. That year also saw a lengthier Costello compilation called The Very Best of Elvis Costello and The Attractions (1994 Ryko/Demon), which covered 1977-1986.


            While sticking to rock music once again, Costello strayed from the norm by next releasing a covers album, Kojak Variety (1995 Warner). He offered his own takes on everyone from Willie Dixon to Bob Dylan to Randy Newman, but few were impressed with this vanity project. It received poor ratings and hit only #21 on the UK album charts, his worst showing to date. Later that year, he teamed with eclectic jazz guitarist for the live mini-album Deep Dead Blue (1995 Warner), a somber and hazy set of five standards and two Costello tunes ("Love Field" and "Poor Napoleon"). An obscure record, it's pretty but not a terribly significant entry.


            Both The Attractions and Geoff Emerick returned for All This Useless Beauty (1996 Warner). A good album with surprisingly little success on the charts, Rolling Stone gave it four stars, but record buyers only took it to #28, in the UK and #55 in America. Quality singles "It's Time" and the title track also failed to make a splash. On the ensuing tour, Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas had a falling out, leading to the publicly announced disbandment of The Attractions. Costello switched to new label Mercury in 1997, and Warner immediately issued their own compilation of the artist's works for them, Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years (1997 Warner), a solid compilation of his pop/rock material from Spike through All This Useless Beauty. His next project was a pairing with legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach titled Painted from Memory (1998 Mercury). Bordering on easy listening, the critics were more sympathetic to Costello's efforts than his fans, who let the album stall at #32 in the UK and #78 in the US. The next year, he teamed up again with Frisell for a jazz sextet remake of Painted from Memory entitled The Sweetest Punch (1999 Decca), which hit #5 on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart and received deservedly strong reviews. That year yielded yet another Costello compilation, this one a two-disc UK retrospective covering 1977-1998. The Very Best of Elvis Costello (1999 Polygram) paired one CD of hits with another of strong album cuts and a few rarities.


            Elvis Costello's first entry in the new millennium was another collaboration, this time with classical mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Costello arranged and produced For the Stars (2001 Deutsche Grammophon), an album of pop cover tunes sung by von Otter. Neither critics nor fans took much interest. That same year, America got its own domestic release of The Very Best of Elvis Costello (2001 Rhino).


            However, the world had been waiting for a real Elvis Costello album since All This Useless Beauty. He finally delivered with When I Was Cruel (2002 Island), which featured the return of Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas, along with former Cracker bassist David Faragher. The new backing band, dubbed The Imposters, brought a vintage Attractions feel to Costello's sharpest set of songs since Spike. The album's peak at #20 on Billboard was Costello's highest US placing since 1980's Get Happy!!. In the UK, the album hit #17, Costello's best since 1994 (and, bizarrely, this would be Costello's final climb up the British charts). Rolling Stone and Pitchfork both rated the album highly. A companion collection of B-sides and radio sessions, Cruel Smile (2002 Universal), followed later that year. After 16 years together, Costello and O'Riordan divorced in 2002.


            In May 2003, Costello and jazz vocalist Diana Krall announced their engagement. The restless Costello followed with another left turn, North (2003 Deutsche Grammophon), a lovely disc of understated jazz pop, the lyrics of which concerned the break up of Costello's previous marriage and his love affair with Krall. It reached #57 in the US and #44 in England and earned mostly complimentary reviews. Costello and Krall married on December 3, 2006. The following year, Elvis Costello again found himself in the classical mood. Il Sogno (2004 Deutsche Grammophon) hit #1 on the Billboard Top Classical listing. The orchestral work was commissioned to accompany a dance production of Shaespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Later that year, Elvis Costello & The Imposters went country, recording The Delivery Man (2004 Lost Highway) in Mississippi. Aided by singers Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams (plus a pair of session guitarists), the very good Americana roots rock record landed at #40 on Billboard.


            Big band jazz was next on Elvis Costello's projects list, resulting in My Flame Burns Blue (2005 Deutsche Grammophon), a live set of newly penned tunes, old Costello tunes, and a few standards, recorded with Steve Nieve and The Metropole Orkest at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. The release only skimmed the Billboard 200 at #188, but peaked at #2 on the Jazz Top Albums chart. Thankfully, Costello wasn't ready to abandon collaboration albums, because his pairing with legendary New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint on The River in Reverse (2006 Verve Forecast) was a strong record of bluesy, horn-soaked tunes, the majority penned by Toussaint (along with four Costello co-writes and the Costello-penned title track). The album received strong reviews and somewhat dubiously) reached #2 on Billboard's Top Jazz Albums (and #103 on the Billboard 200). At the end of that year, Krall and Costello's twin sons were born.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters returned to rock music on Momofuku (2008 Lost Highway), an album of roots-leaning pop-rock released on vinyl and download that April and on CD in May. Named for Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant noodles, the album was recorded immediately following sessions for Jenny Lewis's sophomore album, on which Costello and his Imposters guested. Lewis returned the favor, and Damien Rice joined in, creating a spontaneous-sounding and diverse outing from Costello. That summer, he joined The Police for their reunion tour.


            Elvis Costello's discography has been reissued multiple times. In the early and mid- '90s, Ryko re-released his Columbia output with bonus tracks. From 2001 to 2006, Rhino issued 2-CD remastered versions of all of his Columbia and Warner LPs (i.e., Costello's 1977-1996 discography), all of which contained bonus discs loaded with B-sides, out-takes, live cuts, and other curios. Beginning in 2007, Universal's Hip-O label began yet another reissue campaign, first re-releasing Costello's 1977-86 output as single CDs and then gradually putting out two-CD versions to replace those issued by Rhino, thus allowing consumers the opportunity to "upgrade" their copies of My Aim Is True as many as four times since the original LP was first replaced by a Columbia CD in 1990.


            In 2003, Elvis Costello & The Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The next year, Rolling Stone ranked Elvis Costello #80 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Having proved himself one of the masters of guitar-based pop/rock, Costello has tackled jazz, country, classical, and other forms. One never knows what to expect from a new Elvis Costello album, keeping his music fresh and exciting after more than 30 years in the recording industry.

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