Declan Patrick MacManus, born 25th August 1954 in Paddington, was the son of Irish-born Lilian Costello (apparently it originally rhymed with 'pedalo') and Ross MacManus, a singer and trumpeter chiefly with the Joe Loss Orchestra who most famously sang the R Whites Secret Lemonade Drinker advert song, which his son features on somewhere. Elvis' first open mike came aged fifteen and a change of name to Declan Costello followed in 1973, shortly before forming pub country-rockers Flip City, who lasted two years before by now DP Costello went solo. After early support by Capital Radio's Charlie Gillett and a VDU operator's job at Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, Costello sent a demo tape to maverick new indie label Stiff Records in August 1976 and was signed virtually on the spot, the first artist under proper contract to the label, co-founder and self appointed manager Jake Riviera's first major decision being to rechristen Declan as Elvis.
So quick was Costello writing material that album sessions could be funded by the end of that year, backed by a pick-up band comprising all but the singer from cult California-originating country bar band Clover - guitarist John McFee, bassist Johnny Ciambotti, keyboardist Sean Hopper and drummer Mickey Shine (Ciambotti and Hopper joined Clover's singer's next project Huey Lewis And The News, while McFee joined the Doobie Brothers and later sessioned on Almost Blue) - and recorded in sick days and holidays into early 1977 with Stiff's other signee Nick Lowe producing. Less Than Zero became the debut single in March of that year, a cryptic attack on Blackshirt leader Oswald Mosley, two months before his first solo gig under this guise, which tied in with the Philly soul-countrified second single Alison. Neither charted. Third single (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, likewise. By this time Costello had realised that Oswald Mosley meant nothing to Americans and so rewrote the lyrics for their own infamous Oswald, Lee Harvey.
Needing a live band to replace the reunited Clover, Riviera put out audition notices and got bassist Bruce Thomas, who'd made two albums with country rockers Quiver and been in bands with Steve Howe of Yes, Paul Rodgers of Free, Al Stewart and Bridget St John; drummer Pete Thomas, decamping from ex-Dr Feelgooder Wilko Johnson's band; and Steve Nason, a Royal College Of Music classically trained improv pianist who would eventually rename himself Steve Nieve. The Attractions began their residency as Costello's band in July, by which time the weeklies were taking note in time for My Aim Is True, released 22nd July 1977 and fronted by the iconic, arresting shot of Costello, knock kneed and pigeon-toed, Fender aweigh. It didn't sound like punk, either country wistfulness or something akin to bar blues new wave, but the mix of blunt bile and sensitivity, heightened by Costello's melodic metre, gave it an honorary position amid the cool class of '77. Days after the other Elvis died (Stiff briefly toyed with renaming him Elton Costello) it hit number 14, and went on to reach 32 on the Billboard list after huge import sales. An interview with Nick Kent a week later in the NME saw Costello coin his famous remark that all his songs were about "guilt and revenge", as well as claiming "I'm not going to be around to witness my own artistic decline".
After a spell on the bacchinalian Stiff's Greatest Stiffs Live Tour with Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, Costello joined Riviera and Lowe at the former's breakaway label Radar, but not before standalone single Watching The Detectives, a new wave-noir influenced by the Clash's version of Police And Thieves, featuring Nieve and Graham Parker's The Rumour rhythm section Andrew Bodnar and Steve Goulding. In December he and the Attractions were invited onto Saturday Night Live after the Sex Pistols had been refused passports to perform Watching The Detectives and Less Than Zero... or at least that was the idea, until Costello halted Less Than Zero seconds in, in a move inspired by Jimi Hendrix's change of plan on Lulu's BBC show, told the audience that "there's no reason for me to do this song here" and launched into media-castigating new song Radio Radio instead, a move that got him banned from the show for twelve years. (In 2000 he guested on a Beastie Boys cover on SNL's 25th anniversary special)
The first Attractions-backed album was March 1978's This Year's Model, still in the top 100 the last time Rolling Stone listed the greatest albums ever. Taut, angry and driven, as the vast majority of the Attractions' work was, by the rhythm section, Costello tirades against exes, fashion and the world that's turned against him, as he sees it. Number 4 in Britain, 30 in America, and the continuation of a tour that Elvis later estimated lasted two and a half years from Stiff tour to end with only studio time in between. The start of 1979 saw an album nearly entitled Emotional Fascism but changed late on to Armed Forces, the first to officially credit the Attractions. Inspired by Berlin-era Bowie and Iggy plus ABBA, it was more intricately arranged yet even more directly confrontational, as if to befit his truculence - he'd been cited in attacks on photographers during his world tour and got arrested in Japan for playing on the back of a flat-back truck to advertise his tour - and less personal, pointing fingers and commentating on social decadence. Northern Irish Troubles commentary Oliver's Army, nearly dropped from the album until Nieve added the piano line from Dancing Queen, became a number two single, the album doing likewise in Britain and hitting number ten in the US.
Then everything suddenly caught up with Costello, as during his fourth proper US tour a stopover at a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio in March 1979 the band became embroiled in a row with Stephen Stills' band and in particular accomplished backing singer Bonnie Bramlett which culminated in Costello referring to James Brown as a "jive-ass nigger" and pronouncing Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." At a hastily convened press conference in New York, Bramlett having given her story to any news organisation that would listen, Costello admitted that in his drunken and tour wound-up state "it became necessary for me to outrage these people with about the most obnoxious and offensive remarks that I could muster" in the hope the 'debate' would cease. It was too late, firstly as both he and Bruce Thomas were injured in the subsequent melee, and then as his music was swiftly dropped from radio stations (a move Costello concurred with, and Charles publicly forgave him) and Rock Against Racism activists picketed a number of concerts, ironically using posters bearing a picture of him taken at one of their own benefit gigs the previous year. Back in Britain, where the news reports were greeted with understandable surprise, a new single was issued.
Finally taking time out, Costello produced The Specials' landmark debut album, wrote Girls Talk for Dave Edmunds and watch him take it to number four, and decided his next album would be fuelled by a longstanding love of soul and recorded in Holland. A cover of Sam & Dave's I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down had nearly come out on 2-Tone at the end of 1979 until WEA intervened, and after legal shenangians Riviera's latest label F-Beat issued Get Happy!! in February 1980, Costello's first of many sidesteps, 20 tracks given an intentional retro feel playing off Booker T & The MGs but claustrophobic, with wordplay set to full and laced with the rhythmic sense and tense playoffs the Attractions had brought all along. Another number two in Britain, 11 in America, was the result. Before the year was out, while Costello took some time out, the Attractions had brought out their own album, Mad About The Wrong Boy, mostly written by Nieve and with him sharing vocals with Bruce Thomas. It didn't go down well.
The American label put out an obscurity compilation, Taking Liberties, followed by F-Beat's similarly tracklisted Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers, before 1981 started with a new album. Trust was by all accounts difficult to record but it sounds his most sumptuous to date, more direct than before and switching from buoyant new wave to early rock'n'roll to soul mod-pop to intimate piano-led territory, Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook guesting on joint vocals on one track. In terms of character subject matter the title is ironic - Costello, who has admitted this was the most drunken and drugged recording session of his career, built the songs around his political and personal disenchantment. This one only made it to number nine in Britain and 28 in America, none of the singles going top 40 here, while Costello helped take Squeeze out of the New Wave rut by co-producing their fourth album East Side Story, adding backing vocals to Tempted.
With the New Wave he'd initially surfed overtaken by the New Romantics, Elvis chose this moment to jump the tracks again to the sort of music he'd been talking up since the start, having in 1978 duetted with George Jones on his own Stranger In The House. Taking up residence in CBS Studio A, Nashville, where Dylan recorded The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited, with Billy Sherrill, who'd also worked with Tammy Wynette (he co-wrote Stand By Your Man), Johnny Cash, George Jones and Charlie Rich, covers album Almost Blue was a respectful but not cloying experiment that made number 7 in October 1981, preceded by the single, Jones' A Good Year For The Roses, hitting number 6. Early copies came with a sticker: 'WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.' The writing space left Costello with room to formulate his most ambitious projects yet, and 1982 started with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall before everyone moved into George Martin's AIR studios to work not with Nick Lowe, for the first time on an album of original material, but with Geoff Emerick, the engineer on Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road and in some ways Martin's equal in achieving their desired sonic innovations. Imperial Bedroom is Costello's crowning achievement for many (reputedly including himself), classy, intelligent baroque pop that asked for trouble with a US advertising campaign headlined 'Masterpiece?' but carried it off with rich textures, and if Costello really thought it was his most optimistic album he may well have been deluding himself, full as it is with sleaze, regret and love eroding, speculation surrounding whether the subject of some of these songs is Elvis' own extra-marital dalliance with notoriously prolific groupie Bebe Buell. The UK public took it to number six, America to 30. The first track was recorded in one take, Costello not having played the song to his bandmates before, and the steamingly drunk Pete Thomas thinking he was merely hanging on for dear life to the rhythm. He says he was later told by Britt Ekland that it was the best piece of drumming she'd ever heard.
The singles still weren't selling, though, despite a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' From Head To Toe which came with a free copy of Get Happy!! During the promotional tour for the album Costello penned "the best lyrics I've ever written" to a tune producer Clive Langer had written and called it Shipbuilding. A critique of the Falklands War, dragging to a climax at the time, from the point of view of traditional shipyard areas back in business for the purposes of sending their sons off to war, it was given to Robert Wyatt, who took it to number 35. Costello's own version, with Chet Baker on trumpet, turned up on August 1983's Punch The Clock, produced by Langer and Alan Winstanley, itself a departure - their work, previously with Madness, gypsy Dexys and the Teardrop Explodes and later with the Hothouse Flowers and Morrissey, was far more contemporarily set then what Costello had previously been used to. The lead single, Pills And Soap, was released as The Imposter to circumvent label distribution problems, in shops nine days after recording to get it out before the General Election. It took him back into the top 40, as did proper lead single Every Day I Write The Book. The pop approach worked, taking the album to 3 in the UK and 24 on Billboard. Even The Imposter made a follow-up, although Peace In Our Time stalled just inside the top 50 the following April, while that summer saw his acting debut in Alan Bleasdale's Channel 4 dark sitcom Scully. Alongside this came Goodbye Cruel World, another Langer/Winstanley effort more tied up in the synth sounds and electronic drums of the day. In 1995 Rykodisc reissued the first ten years of albums with Costello providing fulsome liner notes. The notes for this album began "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album". He later quantified it as "the worst record of the best songs that I've written" - indeed, Roy Orbison later had a go at The Comedians - blaming himself - his divorce was being finalised during recording and he'd found his dark songs being turned into ubercommercial entities - and the mix as much as anything.
A third and final production credit, this time co-working on the Pogues' own milestone Rum, Sodomy And The Lash (one of Colin Meloy's favourite ever albums) came in 1985, after which he started dating their bassist Caitlin O'Riordan, whom he married a year later and remained with for sixteen years. Most of 1985 was taken off, bar the odd guest appearance, no.8 best of The Man, a one-off single with T-Bone Burnett under the name The Coward Brothers and a slot at Live Aid, singing All You Need Is Love solo. Towards the end of the year work commenced on phase two of Costello's career trajectory, preceded by a deed poll change back to his birth name. King Of America, released February 1986, is credited to The Costello Show Featuring The Attractions And Confederates, but the Attractions are on one track, the Confederates being a pick-up band selected by Costello and co-producer Burnett largely comprising sessioneers but also producer Mitchell Froom on keyboards, James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt from Elvis Presley's TCB Band, Beatles associate Jim Keltner, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and New Orleans drumming great Earl Palmer. The cover shot of Costello in beard, crown and rhinestones, taken by Terence Donovan, says quite a bit about the contents - here was a man still as wry and vengeful as ever, but tempered by experience, alienation and growing nostalgia. New imprint Demon released the straight cover of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood and then forgot about it as it became his first album since My Aim Is True to miss the top ten.
Costello's reaction was to start making a new Attractions-only album a month after King Of America's release. Blood And Chocolate, named after an incident on the Stiff tour that ended up with a crew member in hospital, saw Nick Lowe back behind the console and Costello styling himself as both Eamonn Singer and Napoleon Dynamite (the film character naming is a coincidence, apparenntly) as the pissed-off band channelled their frustration through an intensity of playing. It's not quite back to basics, as it often lacks the groove that made the Attractions their name, but it's impressive for a band that knew they were falling apart. Ever the contrarian, the singles were Tokyo Storm Warning and I Want You, both around the six and a half minute mark. This was the last album under Columbia's wing, but not before they'd bankrolled the Costello Sings Again world tour, five night residencies incorporating ever evolving backing bands around the Attractions and Confederates and a host of guests and for one night in each run a twelve foot high spinning game show wheel which picked out the setlist with the aid of audience volunteers.
After all that came some time away from the studio, moving to Warner Bros in the interim while Nieve and Pete Thomas became part of Jonathan Ross' house band on The Last Resort, before the single Veronica in 1989. Co-written by Paul McCartney, the story of his grandmother confined to a home with Alzheimer's struck some sort of chord, becoming Costello's highest-charting Top 40 hit in the US, peaking at 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and #1 on its modern rock chart as well as earning a Best Male Video nomination at the MTV VMAs. The associate album Spike saw Burnett come back on production duty and guests include Roger McGuinn, Chrissie Hynde, Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot, New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint...oh, and Pete Thomas. All over the place genre-wise, Costello once labelled it a "comedy record", named after bandleader madman Spike Jones, but it's a comedy of human error if so, still growing old vengefully.
Vengeful in another sense was Bruce Thomas, whose The Big Wheel, published in August 1990, was, he maintains, a novel, but the code of 'The Singer', 'The Keyboard Player' etc wasn't difficult to crack. Costello doesn't come out of it well, although no worse than Thomas himself does in expressing the ennui and internal tensions of endless touring. Thomas for his own part described it as "not a whinge about being in the band, it's not even a whinge about any of the other guys, or any of that... I know that he would be more upset by me saying that he was overweight and he was sweaty than by cataloguing endless misdeeds, so it was really just to deflate him, but the book wasn't written just for that." Nieve and the other Thomas contributed to Mighty Like A Rose, released May 1991, which saw two McCartney co-writes and Costello unveil a new beard and long hair look to complement the best part of a year spent in LA. Another UK number five, Mitchell Froom and Donal Lunny were two of five producers and it shows in the muddled styles and faltering voyage of self-discovery offset by the sumptuous performances and complex lyrics. Reputedly Elvis isn't keen on this one either. Just two months later came the orchestral soundtrack album to Bleasdale drama G.B.H., 22 songs, 21 co-written by Costello and soundtrack composer Richard Harvey.
Although he'd promised a new rock album in 1992, next came another reflection of his growing fascination with classical music, January 1993's The Juliet Letters. Inspired by a newspaper story about letters from across the world being sent to Verona's main post office addressed to the Shakespeare femme fatale, the stories of love and betrayal were a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, who Costello had been a long time fan of. Nobody quite knew what to make of it, although for the genre number 18 was nothing bad. Nobody really knew what to make of Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears, written over a weekend to order as Wendy James of Transvision Vamp's solo album (single London's Brilliant) featuring Pete Thomas and some of Bob Dylan's band, portraying James as an eager to please industry puppet. She seemingly didn't get the gag, and both parties have long since washed their hands of it. The old days were represented by 2½ Years, the first three albums plus Live At The El Mocambo, recorded in 1978, starting a series of reissues that seemingly recharges itself every six months. (Tip: look for the Rhino Recordings 2002 double CD sets, with full Costello sleeve notes and a pile of demos, B-sides and live tracks)
Even for those who expected the unexpected from Costello by now, the next move came a a shock - the Attractions reformed. Initially for single Sulky Girl from another best of, Brutal Youth, which basically was that 1992 rock album re-recorded, Costello saw it as a sop to Warners, who wanted him to recapture his commercial height. His loudest album in a while - Costello claimed Bikini Kill as a roundabout influence - in context it is largely flavoured of going through old motions, although it reached number two, the last time a new Costello album would come anywhere near the top ten. A run of high profile gigs, guest appearances and even time as a manager on Fantasy Football League meant a decent profile for Kojak Variety, a completists-only covers album recorded over the previous five years which reached number 21. Costello also spent part of 1995 curating the South Bank's Meltdown festival, including performances by Jeff Buckley, the Brodskys, the Jazz Passengers, Donal Lunny, Marc Ribot, the Fairfield Four, June Tabor, BJ Cole and Bill Frisell, whose live collaboration with Elvis was later released as EP Deep Dead Blue. There was also God Give Me Strength, recorded with Burt Bacharach for the film Grace Of My Heart, Brian Eno collaboration My Dark Life for X Files soundtrack Songs In The Key Of X and another soundtrack with Richard Harvey, Jake's Progress. Both Attractions and Brodskys showed up for All This Useless Beauty in May 1996, originally planned as Costello taking back songs he'd written for others but less co-opted and patchwork then that sounds. A VH1 Storytellers and Later special A Case For Song followed in its wake, as did four singles in four weeks, one of which featured probably pop's only known Sleeper cover version.
Costello's association with Warners Bros came to an end in 1997, marked by Extreme Honey: The Very Best Of The Warner Bros. Years, featuring odd hip-hop inflected new track The Bridge I Burned featuring Supergrass' Danny Goffey on drums, while he worked with composer and Michael Nyman associate John Harle on Terror And Magnificence, publicly announced the end of the Attractions, guested on The Larry Sanders Show and cameod in Spice World. Meanwhile Polygram picked up Costello the musician, starting with a whole album orchestrated by Burt Bacharach. Winner of the 1998 Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals Grammy, Painted From Memory sounds completely out of time, even with the Bacharach fan club growing around the time, albeit not too far from Costello's own history of balladry. Bil Frisell's companion album The Sweetest Punch, which featured Costello on two tracks, followed months later.
A brief return to the chart's higher reaches came in mid-1999 with a cover of She, featured on the Notting Hill soundtrack, giving him just his sixth top 20 single, followed by a number 4 position for the latest Very Best Of. A cameo alongside Bacharach in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me coincided, as did an As Himself in 3rd Rock From The Sun (IMDB also registers The Simpsons, Two And A Half Men, The Kumars at No. 42, Talladega Nights and a David Letterman stand-in). In 2001, alongside For The Stars, a collaboration with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, he took up UCLA’s Artist in Residence position, performing a series of concerts and a few tutorials, while working on what he labelled "a rowdy rhythm record". Although credited as a self-produced (one of four producers, in fact) solo album, When I Was Cruel saw Elvis backed by The Imposters, namely Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, formerly of Cracker, on bass. Hailed as his own return to form album and reaching number 17 in the UK, it does stand up alongside his best post-Radar fare, alternating between vintage post-New Wave riffery and programmed beats and trickery. Leftovers album Cruel Smile is best left to completists.
In 2003 Costello was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame, Bruce Thomas turning up for the speech but not to perform, and got married for the third time, to jazz singer Diana Krall. This relationship inspired North, a collection of piano ballads released on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, and it sounds written for them. As indeed does Krall's The Girl In The Other Room, featuring six Costello co-writes. In September 2004 came two albums released on the same day: Il Sogno, a symphonic score based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and composed for the Italian dance company Aterballetto, and The Delivery Man, recorded in the Mississippi Delta with the Imposters and guesting Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, inevitably inflected with Southern country-blues roots but with no less passion. Aside from DVD collection The Right Spectacle 2005 was spent touring, reflected in the following year's My Flame Burns Blue, reconfiguring some of his back catalogue with Steve Nieve and The Metropole Orkest at Holland's North Sea Jazz Festival, while Pete Thomas' daughter Tennessee's band The Like briefly became hyped. Another joint project emerged in June 2006, The River In Reverse, Allen Toussaint co-authoring Costello's trawl through less regarded corners of his back catalogue plus one new song and four new co-writes, with the Imposters and Crescent City Horns to hand. Nominated for a Grammy, it still feels mannered and duly respectful to the source. At the time of writing Costello has authorised two new compilations, The Best Of The First 10 Years and Rock'N'Roll Music and contributed to Joni Mitchell and June Carter Cash tribute albums as well as Nieve's opera Welcome To The Voice, also featuring Sting and Robert Wyatt. Where he goes from here only he knows.