Elvis Costello (vocals, guitar; born August 25, 1954), Steve Nieve (keyboards; born February 19, 1960), Bruce Thomas (bass; born August 14, 1948), Pete Thomas (drums; born August 9, 1954)
Elvis Costello’s remarkable career spontaneously kicked into gear in 1976. According to a record-company bio, “An unknown and unannounced Elvis Costello walks into the offices of Stiff Records, strikes up an instant rapport with Stiff’s then-supremo Jake Riviera, and is signed immediately.” Thus began a career in song that has been almost unmatched in its reach – from furious, biting punk-era nuggets to art-minded collaborations with an opera singer and string quartet – and consistency. Costello has been called “the finest songwriter of his generation,” and he ranks among the most prolific, too.
Born Declan Patrick McManus, Costello had the audacity to adopt “Elvis” as a stage name (at manager Riviera’s suggestion) and the talent to live up to such a seemingly scandalous appropriation. Greil Marcus profiled him in 1982: “He combined the brains of Randy Newman and the implacability of Bob Dylan, the everyman pathos of Buddy Holly and the uniqueness of John Lennon.” Indeed, every one of those figures exerted some degree of influence upon the broadminded Costello. His father, Ross McManus, was a jazz vocalist and trumpeter who’d sung with Joe Loss (“the British Glenn Miller”). Costello grew up listening to the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who and Motown artists. At the dawn of the punk era, Costello worked as a computer programmer (“I was operating an IBM 360 in an office next to a lipstick factory”) while playing pub-rock - a melange of rock and roll, rhythm & blues, and country music - on the side.
He’d begun writing his own material and was endeavoring to develop an original style. The first wave of punk records by the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned helped sharpen his sensibility, and his debut single (“Less Than Zero”) reflected an anti-fascistic, angry-young-man outlook. Its chorus – Everything means less than zero – resonated with the punk nihilism of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (No future for you) and Richard Hell (I belong to the blank generation). However, Costello’s musical outlook hardly made him a card-carrying punk, and his debut album, 1977’s My Aim Is True (recorded with members of the somewhat mellow American band Clover) ranged from the ballad “Alison” (later covered by Linda Ronstadt) to the affable, chugging pub-rock of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” My Aim Is True was produced, as were Costello’s next four albums, by Nick Lowe, late of British pub-rock mainstays Brinsley Schwarz and an estimable solo artist in his own right.
In June 1977, Costello’s outlook and sound toughened considerably when he recruited the Attractions: keyboardist Steve Nieve (born Steve Nason), bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas (no relation). His persona would be henceforth described with such adjectives as “coiled” and “angry.” He would, in a rare early interview, allow that his principal songwriting motivations were “revenge and guilt.” Costello’s fourth single, “Watching the Detectives,” was edgier than anything on the British version of My Aim Is True. It was appended to the American edition of the album, which appeared late in 1977. Following the Live Stiffs tour, which also introduced British audiences to Stiff Records rockers Lowe, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, Costello and the Attractions worked their way across America in November 1977, generating media attention and controversy. In his early-1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Costello spontaneously substituted “Radio Radio,” a venomous attack upon the co-optation of commercial radio, for the song he’d been scheduled to play. Costello suddenly found himself on the covers of British music magazines, and My Aim Is True won Rolling Stone’s Critics Poll for best album of 1977. He was, in his words, “an overnight success after seven years.”
Costello’s second release, This Year’s Model, was the first of many with the Attractions. It also kicked open the door that My Aim Is True set ajar. A more hard-hitting disc driven by Costello’s articulate fury and the Attractions’ well-tempered garage-rock approach – particularly Nieve’s Vox Continental organ – it included such seminal tracks as “Pump It Up,” “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea.” “This Year’s Girl,” “Lipstick Vogue” and (on American copies) “Radio Radio.” This Year’s Model became one of the defining albums of the late 1970s, virtually forcing music fans to declare for or against the uncompromising wave of bands emanating from Britain. Costello and the Attractions followed it with Armed Forces, whose sardonic, biting broadsides were written while touring America. (“Every shop front or nightclub seemed like the line from a song,” Costello has written. “In some cases, that was just what they became.”) The working album title was Emotional Fascism, and true to that discarded title, Armed Forces was a highly charged set that blurred personal and political issues so that both seemed fatally entangled. Addressing the troubles in Ireland, Costello based Armed Forces’ central track, “Oliver’s Army,” on the premise that “they always get a working-class boy to do the killing.” It became Costello’s biggest hit to date, reaching Number Two and selling more than half a million copies in the U.K. The American version of Armed Forces concluded with the anthemic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a fiercely impassioned rendition of a gently ironic antiwar song by Nick Lowe.
The conflict inherent in Costello’s songwriting manifested in reality when he made a regrettable offhand remark about Ray Charles as a way of outraging some American musicians with whom he was drunkenly feuding at a hotel bar during the 1979 Armed Forces tour. Abashed by the ensuing controversy, Costello – an R&B fanatic who’d steadfastly agitated against racism in song and deed – publicly apologized and privately reconsidered the image that had formed around him, exacerbated by the rigors of constant touring. He titled his next album Get Happy!! and filled it with 20 pithy, soul-inspired nuggets, including the leadoff cut and first single, a remake of Sam and Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.” In Britain, Costello’s fourth album came out on his third label: F-Beat, which followed stints at Stiff and Radar. In America, all four albums appeared on Columbia, where he would remain through the 1980s.
Taking Liberties, also issued in 1980, collected a raft of rarities and B sides. The British version was entitled Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers. It was followed by Trust (1981), the fifth consecutive studio album produced by Nick Lowe and fourth with the Attractions, who executed some fine ensemble playing on Costello’s most mature album to date. That same year, Costello also released Almost Blue, an album of favorite country tunes cut with legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. After this labor of love for a form of music one might not immediately associate with Costello, he embarked on the hugely ambitious Imperial Bedroom (1982). Produced by former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick during a three-month period, it has been described by Costello as “the album on which the Attractions and I granted ourselves the sort of scope that we imagined the Beatles had enjoyed in the mid-‘60s.” To the hype-wary Costello’s consternation, the word “masterpiece” appeared in the ad campaign for and many reviews of Imperial Bedroom. Yet it was a masterpiece. Costello’s switch from guitar to piano as his main composing instrument could be detected in the more ornate arrangements of “Man Out of Time,” “Town Cryer,” “Shabby Doll” and “The Long Honeymoon.” The song “Almost Blue” – an Imperial Bedroom original unrelated to Costello’s previous country album – was later covered by jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, who’d inspired its composition.
The tirelessly productive Costello and the Attractions kept up the pace with the more accessible and poppier Punch the Clock (1983), which yielded their first bonafide American hit, “Everyday I Write the Book” (Number 36). Costello did, however, sound somewhat overdrawn on Goodbye Cruel World (1984), his first album to receive mixed reviews. Nonetheless, it contained its share of sterling tracks, including “Peace in Our Time” and “I Wanna Be Loved.” Having cut 10 albums in seven years, touring the world all the while, Costello somehow also found time to produce albums by the Specials (The Specials), Squeeze (East Side Story) and the Pogues (Rum, Sodomy and the Lash). The release of The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, a hit-filled overview, marked time while he caught his breath at mid-decade.
Soon enough, Costello was furiously busy again, releasing two albums – King of America and Blood and Chocolate – in 1986. King of America was the first album since My Aim Is True not to have been recorded with the Attractions. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, it was cut with American musicians, including guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff (both longtime Elvis Presley sidemen). By contrast to King of America’s careful assembly, Blood and Chocolate was ripped out in short order by Costello and the Attractions. An ambitious, theatrical world tour (“Costello Sings Again”) found Costello backed both by the Confederates (his American band) and the Attractions. Onstage sat the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook,” a gaudy, game show–style wheel with concert selections determined by audience members’ spins. Costello thereafter parted ways with the Attractions and Columbia Records, his American label, signing with Warner Bros.
Truly a solo artist for the first time since 1976, Costello thereafter worked at a more deliberate pace, issuing Spike in 1989 and Mighty Like a Rose two years later. Recorded in London, New Orleans and Hollywood, Spike’s dark, topical songs and dense arrangements were, by Costello’s own admission, “rather odd,” though the inclusion of “Veronica,” a poppy collaboration with Paul McCartney, helped make it Costello’s best-selling album to date. Guest artists included Roger McGuinn (formerly of the Byrds), Chrissie Hynde (the Pretenders), and Allen Toussaint. Of Mighty Like a Rose, Costello has written: “Many of my early records have been described as being ‘angry’... However, if you really want to hear an angry record, then this disc is for you.” Indeed, it reflects Costello’s grim world view with customary insight and honesty.
Costello completely broke with context by recording 1993’s conceptual The Juliet Letters, a series of pieces based on letters to Shakespeare’s fictional heroine, with the classical Brodsky Quartet. At the other extreme, Costello wrote an entire album’s worth of rock-oriented material, Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears, for pop singer Wendy James, late of Transvision Vamp. That same year, the U.S. based Rykodisc, in concert with the U.K. label Demon Records (co-owned by Elvis Costello and longtime manager Jake Riviera), began a comprehensive two-year reissue of Costello’s 1977-1986 albums in expanded editions.
Costello reunited with the Attractions (and Nick Lowe, who played bass on some songs) for 1994’s Brutal Youth. It was an aggressive, high-energy return to classic form that included, among many harder-edged items, the nostalgia-tinged “London’s Brilliant Parade.” Much as Bruce Springsteen rediscovered his “rock and roll voice” on 2002’s The Rising, Costello did the same on 1994’s Brutal Youth. That same year, Costello served as artistic director of the nine-day, London-based Meltdown Festival, whose eclectic billing provided him with collaborative ventures for years to come.
Another album with the Attractions, All This Useless Beauty, appeared in 1996. It was a more downbeat, ballad-based outing with a lower-key approach that favored Costello’s voice and Steve Nieve’s piano. Costello recorded 2002’s When I Was Cruel with two Attractions (Nieve and Pete Thomas) and bassist Davey Faragher, dubbing the trio “the Imposters.” In the midst of these periodic returns to rock, Costello also covered favorite songs from 1930 to 1970 (Kojak Variety, 1995) and kicked off a new label deal with 1998’s Painted from Memory, a collaboration with songwriter Burt Bacharach. Costello’s contract with PolyGram gave him the right to release albums in any genre – even classical, which wasn’t so far-fetched since Costello had already written pieces performed by the London Philharmonic and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field. 2001 saw the release of Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello: For the Stars, a daring collaboration with the renowned Swedish mezzo-soprano. In August 2001, Warner Bros./Rhino began a massive reissue program of Costello’s work. Original albums have been expanded with an additional disc of B sides, live cuts and rarities, underscoring just how prolific Elvis Costello has been during the last quarter century.