Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (born August 25, 1954), better known by his stage name, Elvis Costello, is a popular British musician, singer, and songwriter. He was an early participant in London's pub rock scene in the mid-1970s, and later became associated with the punk rock and new wave musical genres, before establishing himself as a unique and original voice in the 1980s. His output has been wildly diverse: One critic has written that "Costello, the pop encyclopedia, can reinvent the past in his own image."
MacManus was born in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington in London, living in the area until he was sixteen. With an already musical family (his father, Ross MacManus, sang with Joe Loss), MacManus moved with his mother to Liverpool in 1971. It was there that he formed his first band, Flip City, which had a style very much in the pub rock vein. They lasted until 1975-1976, by which time MacManus was living in London with a wife and child.
MacManus worked a number of dead-end jobs, during which time he continued to write songs, and began aggressively looking for a solo recording contract, which led to an incident in which he was arrested while busking outside a conference of record executives. On the basis of a demo tape, he was signed to Stiff Records. His manager at Stiff, Jake Riviera, suggested a name change (using Presley's first name and his mother's maiden name to form Elvis Costello) and teamed him with a country/soft rock band named Clover (who would later back Huey Lewis as "The News").
Costello's first album, My Aim is True (1977) was a moderate commercial success (number fourteen in the UK and Top 40 in the US) with Costello appearing on the cover in his trademark glasses, bearing a striking resemblance to Buddy Holly. Its release saw Costello marketed by Stiff as a new wave artist or a punk, despite the fact that the album featured the straightforward ballad, "Alison" (one of his most enduring songs). The same year, Costello recruited his own band, The Attractions (Steve Nieve, born Steve Nason, piano; Bruce Thomas, bass guitar and Pete Thomas drums (the Thomases are unrelated). He released his first major hit single, the cinematic "Watching the Detective", recorded with Nieve, plus Steve Goulding (drums) and Andrew Bodnar (bass), both members of Graham Parker and The Rumour.
Following a whirlwind tour with other Stiff artists (captured on the Live Stiffs album, notable for Costello's recording of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard, "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself", the band recorded This Year's Model (1978), a frenetic record filled with raucous energy and Costello's barbed lyrics. Stand-out tracks include the British hit, "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Lipstick Vogue", on which the rhythm section excels. A tour of the US and Canada also saw the release of the much bootlegged promo-only, "Live at the El Mocambo", which finally saw an official release as part of the 2-1/2 Years boxed set in 1993.
The peak of Costello's commercial success came in 1979 with the release of Armed Forces (originally titled Emotional Fascism). Inspired by the constant touring, the band was in fine form and Costello had further honed his lyrical wit, tackling both personal and political. Both the album and the single, "Oliver's Army", with a piano hook admittedly borrowed from ABBA's "Dancing Queen", went to number two in the UK. Costello also found time in 1979 to produce the debut album for ska band, The Specials.
Possibly as another statement of his oft-stated debt to black music, Costello and The Attractions' next album, Get Happy!!, was an inventive pastiche of new wave pop and soul music. It would be the first, and - along with King of America - possibly most successful, of Costello's many experiments with genres beyond those with which he is normally associated (the single, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" was an old Sam and Dave song, though Costello increased the tempo considerably). The brevity of the songs (20 tracks in about 45 minutes) suited the band's new style (the Thomas' typically melodic rhythm section and Nieve's reasonable impersonation of Booker T) as well as the frantic and stressful conditions under which it was written and recorded, crammed between live dates and fuelled by excessive drinking. Lyrically, the songs are full of Costello's signature wordplay, to the point that he later felt he'd become something of a self-parody and toned it down on later releases.
Trust (1981) had a more pop sound, but the overall result was clearly affected by the growing tensions within the band, particularly between Bruce and Pete Thomas. Despite its eclecticism ("Different Finger" had a distinct country feel) and pop hooks, Trust was not a major success and the first album since his debut to generate no hit singles.
Following the commercial disappointment of Trust, Costello took a break from songwriting and the band decamped to Nashville to record Almost Blue, an album of country music cover songs written by the likes of Hank Williams ("Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do?)", Merle Haggard ("Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down") and Gram Parsons ("How Much I Lied"). Receiving mixed reviews, some of which accused Costello of growing soft, the record was released with a sticker bearing the message:
"WARNING: This album contains country and western music and may cause offense to narrow-minded listeners".
Almost Blue did spawn a surprise UK hit single in a version of Jerry Chesnut's "Good Year for the Roses".
Imperial Bedroom (1982) marked a much darker, almost baroque sound for Costello, due in large part to the production of Geoff Emerick, famed for engineering several Beatles' records. Featuring a superior set of songs - both musically and lyrically - it remains one of his most critically acclaimed records but again failed to produce any hit singles. Costello has said he disliked the studio's marketing pitch for the album, weak ads consisting only of the phrase "Masterpiece?". Imperial Bedroom also featured Costello's song, "Almost Blue"; jazz singer and trumpeter Chet Baker would later perform and record a beautifully morose version of this song.
Another sidetrack in 1983 featured the Pop-Soul of Punch the Clock, with female backing vocals (Afrodiziak) and a four-piece horn section (the TKO Horns), alongside The Attractions. Clive Langer (who co-produced with Alan Winstanley), provided Costello with a melody which eventually became "Shipbuilding", an oblique and articulate look at the political contradictions of the Falklands War: The controversial military build-up provided jobs for Britain's struggling shipyards. The song featured a striking solo by Chet Baker. (Prior to the release of Costello's own version, an affecting, emotive version of the song was a minor UK hit for former Soft Machine drummer and political activist, Robert Wyatt). Equally political was "Pills and Soap"- a UK hit for Costello himself under the pseudonym of "The Imposter"- an attack on the changes in British society brought on by Thatcherism, released to coincide with the run-up to the 1983 UK general election. (The electorate was seemingly not swayed.) Punch the Clock also generated an international hit in the single, ""Everyday I Write the Book", aided by a prophetic music video featuring look-a-likes of the Prince and Princess of Wales undergoing domestic strife in a suburban home.
Tensions within the band were beginning to tell, and with Costello starting to feel burnt out, he announced his retirement and the disbandment of the group shortly before they were to record Goodbye Cruel World (1984). Costello would later say of this record that they had "got it as wrong as you can in terms of the execution". With a number of poor songs (and even the better songs harmed by murky production), the record was poorly received upon its initial release, and even many ardent Costello fans see Goodbye as his weakest album. Despite the record's poor reputation, a few songs were well-regarded, such as "The Comedians" (later recorded by Roy Orbison, and also quoted in Alan Moore's seminal comic series, Watchmen). On the album's first single, "The Only Flame in Town", Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates shared lead vocals.
Costello's retirement, although short-lived, was accompanied by two compilations, Elvis Costello: The Man in the UK, Europe and Australia and The Best of Elvis Costello and The Attractions in the USA.
In 1985, Costello teamed up with good friend T-Bone Burnett for a single called "The People's Limousine" under the moniker of The Coward Brothers. That year, Costello also produced Rum, Sodomy and the Lash for the punk/folk band, The Pogues. It was then that he met his second wife, Pogues' bassist Cait O'Riordan.
By 1986, Costello was preparing to make a comeback. Working in the US with Burnett, a band containing a number of Elvis Presley's sidemen (including James Burton and Jerry Scheff) and minor input from The Attractions he produced King of America, an acoustic guitar-driven album with a country sound, augmented by some of his best songs for some time. Around this time he legally changed his name back to Declan MacManus, adding Aloysius as an extra middle name.
Later that year, he returned to the studio with The Attractions and recorded Blood and Chocolate, heralded for a post-punk fervor not heard since 1978's This Year's Model. It also marked the return of producer Nick Lowe, who had produced Costello's first five albums. It is on this album that Costello used the alias of "Napoleon Dynamite", a character he later developed as the obnoxious emcee of the vaudeville-style tour to support Blood and Chocolate. (The pseudonym had previously been used in 1982, when the single b-side, "Imperial Bedroom" was credited to Napoleon Dynamite and The Royal Guard.)
In 1987, Costello, with a new contract with Warner Bros., began a long running songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. They wrote a number of songs together including Costello's "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" from Spike (1989), "So Like Candy" and "Playboy to a Man" from Mighty Like a Rose (1991) and McCartney's "My Brave Face", "Don't Be Careless Love", "That Day is Done" and "You Want He, Too" from Flowers in the Dirt, and "The Lovers That Never Were" and "Mistress and Maid" from Off the Ground. In 1989, he appeared on the HBO special, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, that featured his long-time idol, Roy Orbison and was invited back to Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1977.
In 1991 Costello released the aforementioned Mighty Like a Rose, during which time he infamously grew a long beard.
In 1993, Costello tested the waters of classical music with a critically acclaimed collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters. Costello would return to rock and roll the following year with Brutal Youth,
a project that reunited him with The Attractions.
An album of cover songs recorded five years previously was released in 1995, Kojak Variety, followed in 1996 by an album of songs he had originally written for other artists, All This Useless Beauty. This was the final album of his Warner Bros. contract.
He collaborated with Burt Bacharach in 1996 on a song called "God Give Me Strength" for the movie, Grace of My Heart. That collaboration led the pair to write and record an album together, Painted from Memory, released in 1998 under his new contract with Mercury Records.
For the 25th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, Costello was invited to the program, where he re-enacted his abrupt song-switch: This time, however, he interrupted The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage", and they acted as his backing group for "Radio, Radio".
In 2001, Costello was announced as the featured "artist in residence" at UCLA (although he ended up making fewer appearances than expected) and wrote the music for a new ballet. He produced and appeared on an album of songs (For the Stars) for opera singer, Anne Sofie von Otter.
In 2002 he released a new album, When I Was Cruel, and toured with a new band, The Imposters (The Attractions with a different bass player, Davey Faragher, formerly of Cracker).
In March 2003, Elvis Costello and The Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In May, his engagement to Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall was announced. September saw the release of North, an album of piano-based ballads. In December, Costello and Krall married at the London estate of Elton John. In 2004, the song, "Scarlet Tide" (co-written by Costello and T-Bone Burnett and used in the the film, Cold Mountain) was nominated for an Academy Award; he performed it at the awards ceremony with Alison Krauss, who also sang the song on the official soundtrack.
In July 2004 Costello's first full-scale orchestral work, Il Sogno, was performed in New York. The work, a ballet after Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, was commissioned by Italian dance troupe, Aterballeto, and received critical acclaim. While composing it, Costello deliberately avoided listening to the previous interpretations by Mendelssohn and Britten in order to ensure his own originality. A range of musical moods and styles are used to represent the different elements of the cast - satyrical pomp for the courtiers, jazz for the faeries, and for Bottom, a deliberately intrusive "brass band" motif. It was released on CD in September by Deutsche Grammophon.
The Delivery Man, a rock album recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, is mainly blues, country, and folk. The 2004 album received early acclaim as one of Costello's best albums, and continues Elvis' personal quest to release an album on each and every one of Universal's record labels.
There are few genres into which Elvis Costello hasn’t delved over the years, but he’s always seemed particularly comfortable within the traditional back-porch country that occupies this latest session. Like 1986’s similarly all-acoustic King of America, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009) pairs Costello with producer T Bone Burnett, whose expertise in capturing the subtleties and intense emotions of Americana - these songs flit wildly from dark to joyous, from love discovered and squandered to head-scratchingly opaque - is unmatched.
On National Ransom (2010) Elvis Costello once again teams up with Grammy award-winning producer T Bone Burnett and engineer Michael Pierante. Recorded in eleven days between Los Angeles and Nashville, Elvis is joined by all the members of the Imposters and Sugarcanes along with special guests Vince Gill, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell. All of these songs are newly composed by Costello with the exception of “I Lost You,” co-written with Jim Lauderdale and “All These Strangers,” for which Costello and T Bone Burnett collaborated on the lyrics. Costello and Burnett also provide the lyrics for “My Lovely Jezebel,” a Leon Russell rock and roll tune.