When Elvis Costello’s first record was released in 1977, his bristling cynicism and anger linked him with the punk and new wave explosion. A cursory listen to My Aim Is True proves that the main connection that Costello had with the punks was his unbridled passion. He tore through rock’s back pages taking whatever he wanted, as well as borrowing from country, Tin Pan Alley pop, reggae, and many other musical genres. Over his career, that musical eclecticism has distinguished Costello’s records as much as his fiercely literate lyrics. Because he supports his lyrics with his richly diverse music, Costello is one of the most innovative, influential, and best songwriters since Bob Dylan.
The son of British bandleader Ross McManus, Costello (born Declan McManus) worked as a computer programmer during the early ’70s, performing under the name D.P. Costello in various folk clubs. In 1976, he became the leader of country-rock group Flip City. During this time, he recorded several demo tapes of his original material with the intention of landing a record contract. A copy of these tapes made its way to Jake Riviera, one of the heads of the fledgling independent record label Stiff. Riviera signed Costello to Stiff as a solo artist in 1977; the singer/songwriter adopted the name Elvis Costello at this time, taking his first name from Elvis Presley and his last name from his mother’s maiden name.
With former Brinsley Schwarz bassist Nick Lowe producing, Costello began recording his debut album with the American band Clover providing support. “Less Than Zero,” the first single released from these sessions, appeared in April of 1977. The single failed to chart, as did its follow-up, “Alison,” which was released the following month. By the summer of 1977, Costello’s permanent backing band had been assembled. Featuring bassist Bruce Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation to Bruce), the group was named the Attractions; they made their live debut in July of 1977.
My Aim Is True, his debut album, was released in the summer of 1977 to positive reviews; the album climbed to number 14 on the British charts but it wasn’t released on his American label, Columbia Records, until later in the year. Along with Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, and Wreckless Eric, Costello participated in the Stiffs Live package tour in the fall. At the end of the year, Jake Riviera split from Stiff Records to form Radar Records, taking Costello and Lowe with him. Costello’s last single for Stiff, the reggae-inflected “Watching the Detectives,” became his first hit, climbing to number 15 at the end of the year.
This Year’s Model, Costello’s first album recorded with the Attractions, was released in the spring of 1978. A rawer, harder-rocking record than My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model was also a bigger hit, reaching number four in Britain and number 30 In America. Released the following year, Armed Forces was a more ambitious and musically diverse album than either of his previous records. It was another hit, reaching number two in the U.K. and cracking the Top Ten in the U.S. “Oliver’s Army,” the first single from the album, also peaked at number two in Britain; none of the singles from Armed Forces charted in America. In the summer of 1979, he produced the Specials debut album.
In February of 1980, the soul-influenced Get Happy!! was released; it was the first record on Riviera’s new record label, F-Beat. Get Happy!! was another hit, peaking at number two in Britain and number 11 in America. Later that year, two collections of B-sides, singles, and outtakes called Taking Liberties was released in America; in Britain, a similar album called Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How’s Your Fathers appeared as a cassette-only release, complete with different tracks than the American version.
Costello and the Attractions released Trust in early 1981; it was his fifth album in a row produced by Nick Lowe. Trust debuted at number nine in the British charts and worked its way into the Top 30 in the U.S. During the spring of 1981, Costello and the Attractions began recording an album of country covers with famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, who recorded hit records for George Jones and Charlie Rich, among others. The resulting album, Almost Blue, was released at the end of the year to mixed reviews, although the single “A Good Year for the Roses” was a British Top Ten hit.
Costello’s next album, Imperial Bedroom (1982), was an ambitious set of lushly arranged pop produced by Geoff Emerick, who engineered several of the Beatles’ most acclaimed albums. Imperial Bedroom received some of his best reviews, yet it failed to yield a Top 40 hit in either England or America; the album did debut at number six in the U.K. For 1983’s Punch the Clock, Costello worked with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were responsible for several of the biggest British hits in the early ’80s. The collaboration proved commercially successful, as the album peaked at number three in the U.K. (number 24 in the U.S.) and the single “Everyday I Write the Book” cracked the Top 40 in both Britain and America. Costello tried to replicate the success of Punch the Clock with his next record, 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World, but the album was a commercial and critical failure.
After the release of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello embarked on his first solo tour in the summer of 1984. Costello was relatively inactive during 1985, releasing only one new single (“The People’s Limousine,” a collaboration with singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett released under the name the Coward Brothers) and producing Rum Sodomy and the Lash, the second album by the punk-folk band the Pogues. Both projects were indications that he was moving toward a stripped-down, folky approach and 1986’s King of America confirmed that suspicion. Recorded without the Attractions and released under the name the Costello Show, King of America was essentially a country-folk album and it received the best reviews of any album he had recorded since Imperial Bedroom. It was followed at the end of the year by the edgy Blood and Chocolate, a reunion with the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe. Costello would not record another album with the Attractions until 1994.
During 1987, Costello negotiated a new worldwide record contract with Warner Bros. Records and began a songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. Two years later, he released Spike, the most musically diverse collection he had ever recorded. Spike featured the first appearance of songs written by Costello and McCartney, including the single “Veronica.” “Veronica” became his biggest American hit, peaking at number 19. Two years later, he released Mighty Like a Rose, which echoed Spike in its diversity, yet it was a darker, more challenging record. In 1993, Costello collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters, a song cycle that was the songwriter’s first attempt at classical music; he also wrote an entire album for former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James called Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears. That same year, Costello licensed the rights to his pre-1987 catalog (My Aim Is True to Blood and Chocolate) to Rykodisc in America.
Costello reunited with the Attractions to record the majority of 1994’s Brutal Youth, the most straightforward and pop-oriented album he had recorded since Goodbye Cruel World. The Attractions backed Costello on a worldwide tour in 1994 and played concerts with him throughout 1995. In 1995, he released his long-shelved collection of covers, Kojak Variety. In the spring of 1996, Costello released All This Useless Beauty, which featured a number of original songs he had given to other artists, but never recorded himself. Painted From Memory, a collaboration with the legendary Burt Bacharach, followed in 1998.
The album was a success critically, but it only succeeded in foreign markets, outside of their home countries of the United States and Britain. A jazz version of the record made with Bill Frisell was put on hold when Costello’s label began to freeze up due to political manuevering. Undaunted, Costello and Bacharach hit the road and and performed in the States and Europe, then after Bacharach left Costello added Steve Nieve to the tour and travelled around the world on what they dubbed the “Lonely World Tour.” This took them into 1999, where both Notting Hill and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me featured significant contributions from Costello. In fact, he appeared with Bacharach in the latter as a pair of Carnaby Street musicians, albeit street musicians with a gorgeous grand piano at their disposal.
Continuing his tour with Nieve, he began singing the last song with a microphone, forcing the audience to sit in complete silence as he usually performed “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected #4” with nothing but his dulcet baritone filling the auditorium. After the record company’s various mergers ended, Costello found himself on Universal Records and he tested their promotional abilities with a second “Greatest Hits” record. The label promoted the album strongly, making it a hit in his native Britain. Unfortunately, they also made it clear that they had no intension of giving a new album the same promotional push, leaving him to venture into other fields as he awaited the end of his record contract. His first project was an album of pop standards performed with Ann Sofie von Otter, which included a few songs originally written by Costello. The album came out in March of 2001 on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and it neatly coincided with the extensive re-release of his entire catalog up to 1996 under Rhino Records. Each disc included an extra CD of rare material and liner notes written by Costello, making them incredible treats for fans.
In 2001 he found himself with a residency at UCLA, where he performed several concerts and was instrumental in teaching music during the year. He also began work on a self-produced album which featured Pete Thomas and Nieve entitled When I Was Cruel, and the album finally saw release on Island Records in the spring of 2002. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine