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 self-titled debut album by the Specials, the leaders of the ska revival movement.
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 cal 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. 2000's
In 2001, Elvis Costello
spent a great deal of time at UCLA in Los Angeles, California - as a music instructor, of sorts - which provided him with a legal excuse to be in the United States. He also took part in a number of concerts in the area and presided over a complete overhaul of his entire recorded catalog, this time on Rhino Records. Rhino re-released all of his CD's up to 1996 with a second disc of occasionally rare recordings. Occasionally, because Costello was making a habit of these catalog dumps every time he switched labels, which was happening quite often. This release included extensive liner notes by Elvis, notes which sometimes seemed determined to rewrite history. Some fans were not amused by the opportunity to re-buy what they had just bought on Rykodisc five years earlier (and some of the Ryko discs sounded better).
Elvis also began working on a series of demo recordings in Dublin with old pal Pete Thomas
on drums and new pal Davey Faragher
(of "Cracker" fame) on bass. As the album, When I Was Cruel
began to take shape, keyboards (by Steve Nieve
) and horns were added to the mix. Elvis had more-or-less reconstituted "The Attractions" with a different bass player, calling this edition "The Imposters". The album was released on Island Records in March of 2002 and did surprisingly well, opening at #20 on the US charts - his highest US chart start ever. Elvis and The Imposters hit the road, touring the world over in support of the album. At the end of the year, instead of including the b-sides, out-takes, remixes and extras on a free second disc, they were released separately under the title Cruel Smile
. It was during this tour that Elvis first met Diana Krall
and, soon thereafter, announced that his 16 year marriage to Caitlin O'Riordan was at an end.
Although snubbed again at the 2003 Grammy Awards, Elvis Costello and The Attractions
were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2003. Although Bruce Thomas, the band's bass player, was there to pose for pictures and accept the award, he was not invited to play onstage (as he and Elvis have never reconciled). Instead, Elvis performed with The Imposters. After that, however, Costello seemed content to abandon rock and roll for the promise of newer, and decidedly less commercial endeavors. In 2003 he released a collection of orchestral ballads, sometimes mislabeled as "pop songs", entitled North
(with his own orchestrations). The album briefly topped Billboard's Traditional Jazz Chart. This was followed by a collaboration with his soon-to-be new wife, Diana Krall, called The Girl in the Other Room
. Later that same year, Elvis released Il Sogno
, a purely orchestral work based loosely on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
. In a clear case of counter-programming, Elvis released The Delivery Man
, a roots-rock album recorded in Memphis and Mississippi with The Imposters at almost the same time. It featured several guest artists, including Emmylou Harris
and Lucinda Williams
. Although Elvis and the band toured extensively in support of the album, it failed to catch on, peaking at #40 in the U.S. and #73 in the U.K.
For the next two years, and indeed the rest of the decade, Elvis was a whirling dervish of contrasting : he was commissioned by the Danish Royal Opera; released a live album with Marian McPartland and a jazz orchestra (Piano Jazz
); released a live DVD with the Imposters at the Hi-Tone club in Memphis; released a video compilation of his music videos (with bonus live cuts); and released a second live jazz album, this time with a 52-piece orchestra, called My Flame Burns Blue
(which reached #2 on the U.S. Billboard Jazz Chart). If that wasn't enough, he also recorded and performed live with the Brodsky Quartet, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Allen Toussaint. Elvis composed and performed a new song called "River In Reverse" at a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert attended by many New Orleans musicians, including the New Orleans legend, Allen Toussaint
. He and Toussaint then got together and recorded an album in the still devastated city called The River In Reverse
. Released in 2006, the album featured The Imposters, backed by a horn section. Although it again rose to #2 on the Billboard Jazz Chart, it couldn't crack the top 100 on the main Billboard chart. Elvis and Toussaint toured North America with the Imposters, the last extensive tour Elvis would take that decade. On Dec 6, 2006, Elvis and Diana announced the birth of twin boys, which would keep Elvis close to home.
In yet another infuriating repackaging move, Elvis's first 11 albums were rereleased again
, this time by Hip-O in May of 2007. And then, just in case there was still anything one could've possibly missed, the next year saw the release of new "Deluxe Editions" of Elvis's first two albums by Rhino! In the fall, Elvis appeared occasionally with Bob Dylan
on his U.S. tour. Costello also reunited with Clover, the backing band on his first album, for a benefit concert in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. Since his first record company had insisted Elvis must have his own touring band (forcing him to form The Attractions), this was the first time Elvis and Clover had ever performed live together.
In April of 2008, after pausing to score a ballet
, Elvis released Momofuku
, his first rock record in 6 to 14 years (depending on how one sees these things). The album, however, was released on a country label, Lost Highway Records. Although Elvis failed to support it with a big tour (he and The Imposters were busy playing with The Police
on the North American leg of their huge Thirtieth Anniversary Reunion Tour), Momofuku
rose to #59 on the US Billboard Top 200 chart - although, in the U.K., it was Elvis's first album ever not to crack the top 100).
In late-2008, Elvis began recording episodes for his great music/interview show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with...
at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. On the show, which began airing in the U.S. December 3, 2008 on the Sundance Channel, Elvis interviews and plays music with a wildly eclectic group of musicians. The final episode closed with Costello and Smokey Robinson
duetting on "You've Really Got a Hold On Me." "That was one of the tracks on the first album I ever owned - albeit The Beatles
' version," said Costello. "Now I'm singing lead onstage at the Apollo with the man who wrote it. It was thrilling and terrifying."
A second season of the show began airing in the U.S. on December 9, 2009.