Elvis Costello (Declan MacManus) (b. 25 August 1954)
He was at first, with the approval of management, tagged an “angry young rebel” as a result of more than a few brash words and deeds, and the coming of the New Wave in 1976. Add the reaction to him taking the sacred first name of Mr Presley, who would slide off his toilet to immortality just as his namesake was in the first flush of fame.
Yet the label hardly stuck because Costello, though personally scratchy at times, is a dogged craftsman, a superb lyricist, a consummate performer and a lover of music in its many forms (witness, for example, his brilliant interview / jam show, Spectacle – see below^).
His father was Ross McManus, who sang as front-man with the Joe Loss Orchestra in the 1950s and 1960s. Young Declan got hand-me-down records, usually advance copies, once Ross had learnt them for his band’s set. Thus he started early to amass a formidable and eclectic collection of popular music, foreshadowing his multi-faceted output as a professional.
He was the original new wave nerd (new wave, not punk, because he could sing and play instruments) – a garish meld of Buddy Holly and the little thug in Chinatown played by Roman Polanski. In the memorable phrase of an influential critic, Bob Stanley, he sang and danced like he was ‘standing in a fridge’.
On 27 May 1977 he first appeared as Elvis at London’s Nashville Rooms and in early interviews (let’s call them, ‘exchanges’) he displayed an apprehensive arrogance that in some ways belied and in some ways reflected the callowness of youth. He told Sounds “If people weren’t interested in what I was doing [in the past] why do they want to know all about it now?” He said to Melody Maker “As far as I’m concerned, it’s pointless talking about the past.” (TVC looks forward to the imminent release of an autobiography, savouring the irony – Note we now have his Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink – see link for our review).
His first record (My Aim is True) was superb, a sparse but classy selection of fresh and original songs – 12 songs, at least 8 or 9 classics. By the time of his second album, you knew he was no fluke and since then, whilst not everything has been as good, it mostly has been and certainly always has been full of invention and interest. His voice – throaty, tenor/baritone – can be harsh, but soulful. Generally, he eschews overly technical production techniques but he is not averse to lush orchestration where apposite. He has been an extremely industrious artist over the years – L jokes that if there is a major recording artist with whom he hasn’t worked, she’d like to know the name.
His lyrics are in general delightfully clever, sometimes too clever*, certainly for three minute pop songs. Subjects often cover doomed love, betrayal, naughty sex and Catholic guilt. There are a number of songs that have a political thrust (e.g. Tramp the Dirt Down, Let Him Dangle, Shipbuilding, Pigeon English, Pills and Soap, Oliver’s Army, Less Than Zero) but thankfully, rarely of the overt, in-your-face, Billy Bragg kind.
Whilst his first concert tour of Australia was unfortunate (a riot in Sydney) and his first tour of the US was disastrous (dissing Ray Charles), TVC has been ‘stalking’ EC’s live performances for decades (around Australia and the UK) and he is consistently the best act around (see below). He has grown up in public, and the public is all the richer for it.
THE RECORDS[TVC favourites marked +]
My Aim is True (1977)+
This Years Model (1978)
Armed Forces (1979)+
Get Happy (1980)+
Taking Liberties (1980)
Almost Blue (1981)+
Imperial Bedroom (1982)+
Punch the Clock (1983)
Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
King of America (1986)+
Blood and Chocolate (1986)+
Ten Bloody Marys and ten How’s Your Fathers (1986)
Out of Our Idiot (1987)
Girls Girls Girls (1989)
Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
The Juliet Letters (1993)
Brutal Youth (1994)+
Deep Dead Blue (1995)
The Kojak Variety (1995)+
All This Useless Beauty (1996)+
Painted From Memory (1998)
For the Stars (2001)
When I Was Cruel (2002)+
Cruel Smile (2002)
The Delivery Man (2004)+
Il Sogno (2004)
My Flame Burns Blue (2005)
The River in Reverse (2006)
Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009)
National Ransom (2010)
Wise Up Ghost (2013)
Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes (2014)+
Among the many great performances of EC that TVC has been lucky enough to see, or which is caught on film / record:
Live at the El Mocambo (1979) is great early EC in the US, along with his Live at Hollywood High featuring a superb piano and vocals only version of Accidents Will Happen (TVC’s selector’s choice for Best Song Ever). Off the record, we have had some suspicious looking records left on our doorstep that we have retained in the higher aesthetic interest – Elvis Goes To Washington (1979) on “Pacifist Records”, & Saturated, with their great versions of 1977/8 hits.
c. 1982 EC’s returns to Thebarton Theatre Adelaide, with the highlight of Elvis throwing a glass of water over a front row boor who demanded “no country songs”, then broke into Good Year For the Roses. Yes! (By the way, EC deserves a Purple Heartbreak Tennessee Award for his championing of C/W music, an oft despised genre that deserves more respect.)
1999: EC cancels his Adelaide concert at Her Majesty’s Theatre because of a throat infection, but returns a few months later to give a whale of a concert, (the first L saw, in which she became an Elvis Baby) including an astonishing a capella music hall version of Couldn’t Call it Unexpected # 4, sung from the footlights, unaccompanied, un-miked, as if to say, ‘my pipes are OK again’. Simply sensational.
2004: EC on the green at Peter Lehmann’s Winery on a gorgeous December night is magical, our sceptical friends Steve and Cathy totally won and a glorious post mortem with wine and scotch among the vines.
Elvis Live in Memphis is his best concert film, a great set at the intimate Hi Tone Club with ‘The Imposters’, featuring rollicking versions of Waiting For the End of the World, Radio Radio, Mystery Dance, Bedlam, Blame it on Cain, High Fidelity, The Judgment, The Delivery Man and more, lovely renderings of Country Darkness, Blue Chair, and Hidden Charms, three duets with Emmy Lou Harris, a magnificent Alison which segues into, fittingly, Suspicious Minds, and the crescendo of Peace, Love and Understanding and Pump It Up. Pete Thomas’ green, white and black ‘amoeba’ shirt is also a classic.
A slimmed down set with EC and Steve Nieve at the baroque Sydney State Theatre, January 2006, a magnificent set featuring an early portmanteau Accidents Will Happen/24 Hours From Tulsa, an early lost classic The Girl is Gone and a stirring Jackie Wilson Said. EC was terrific 2 nights later at the Opera House but nothing could top this.
Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook (2011) is great, late, Elvis, channelling his roots, including a nifty version of the Stones’ Out of Time and a high-powered, sandblasting Uncomplicated. TVC saw his Spinning Songbook Show in beautiful Birmingham in 2013.
Bluesfest in Byron (2011) (2014). The King is still King.[EC aficionados can also check out the ‘Live Stiffs’ concert record, a rather raw recording of what was a legendary raw tour – Elvis does some nice early Bacharach (I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself) and Miracle Man – EC fanatics can view the 52 minute ‘film’ of part of that chaos, featuring several backstage, bus and hotel glimpses of Elvis, looking like he “would rather be anywhere else than here today”…] Lou Reed (doing ‘Femme Fatale’) and talking to the Man about influence (who else could do that with Reed?) and a perfect roundelay duet on ‘Perfect Day’; his rapprochement with those good sports The Police (Sting nails the fact that EC’s teeth means There Will Be Sputum and that his song, Every Breath You Take is so inappropriate for weddings); his consensus with Elton John re Julie Nyro; reprising ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ with the great Smokey Robinson (who’s on the first record EC owned with his own money, ‘With the Beatles’) humbly acknowledging his debt to Leoncavallo; the celestial ‘guitar pool’ with Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Norah Jones and John Mellencamp; a great session with James Taylor (including a great impersonation of George Jones doing ‘She Thinks I Still Care’), inter alia…] [* “Too clever”: I use this phrase with trepidation, recalling the Seymour Glass statement in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey that cleverness was a permanent affliction, a wooden leg, and it was in the worst possible taste to draw attention to it.]
A SHORT AND TRANSFORMATIVE LIST OF FAVOURITE ELVIS SONGS
All the Rage
American Gangster Time
American Without Tears
Battered Old Bird
Big Sister’s Clothes
Black Sails in the Sunset
Blue Chair (Out of Our Idiot version)
The Bridge I Burned
Couldn’t Call it Unexpected # 4
Georgie and Her Rival
God Give Me Strength
Good Year For the Roses
How Much I Lied
I Almost Had a Weakness
I Hope You’re Happy Now
I Want You
Jack of All Parades
Less Than Zero
Lost on the River
Man Out of Time
My Dark Life
New Lace Sleeves
The Other Side of Summer
Pump It Up
Remove This Doubt
Sleep of the Just
Still Too Soon to Know
Stranger in the House
Suit of Lights
Sulphur to Sugarcane
Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)
This is Hell
Watching the Detectives
What’s Her Name Today?
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?
You Little Fool
I Don’t Want our MTV
To be honest, the early EC videos for his songs are not of a quality to commend them to posterity: there’s the dancing-in-fridge, by-the-numbers stuff – Chelsea, Pump It Up, Radio Radio, Peace Love & Understanding, Oliver’s Army, Love For Tender, I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down), High Fidelity these latter two both with their precise, pin-point choreography, (some of these obviously shot hastily while on tour); the strangely compelling cartoon for Accidents Will Happen, and several others that seem to have a few outside shots of the lads, stitched together to no apparent thematic purpose.
By the time Trust was released, the montages had at least some crude style and relevance – Clubland and New Lace Sleeves are miles ahead of what had gone before. and You Little Fool (1982) amounted to the first of EC’s clips to attain the status of a mini film, as was becoming de rigueur. And they got better, sometimes better than the songs (e.g. The Only Flame in Town). His film for I Wanna Be Loved, filmed at Flinders Street Railway Station in Melbourne (below) is sweet, sad, and L’s favourite clip. Other good clips: Veronica, The Other Side of Summer, and Sulky Girl.
Update: the death of Merle Haggard (on 6 April 2016, aged 79) recalls one of his great songs, covered by Elvis on Almost Blue: