Born Declan Patrick McManus on August 25, 1955, in London, England; son of Ross McManus (a bandleader) and Mary (Costello) McManus; married first wife, Mary, 1974; divorced, c. 1985; married Caitlin O'Riordan (musician and actress), 1986; divorced, 2002; married Diana Krall (musician), 2003; children: (first marriage) Matthew. Addresses: Record company--Island Records, 825 Eighth St., New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.islandrecords.com. Website--Elvis Costello Official Website: http://www.elviscostello.com.

Combining piercing, literate lyrics and an uncompromising attitude with the melodicism and stylistic breadth of classic pop groups like the Beatles, Elvis Costello forged a much-imitated style that led the way for a great deal of the "alternative" music that followed. "Since his arrival on the postpunk scene 17 years ago," wrote Time magazine critic Guy Garcia in 1994, "Elvis Costello has shown himself to be one of the most prolific and protean songwriters of his generation." Costello has proven versatile, even writing his first opera in 2005. He performed sneak previews in Copenhagen of "The Secret Arias," based on Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen.

With his band the Attractions, Costello led the "New Wave" pack into the early 1980s, producing a catalogue of songs to rival almost any other in popular music. His own artistic restlessness, however, would never permit him to settle in one mode for long; reasoning that the Attractions limited his vision, he left the group abruptly in the middle of the 1980s, but reunited with them for 1994's Brutal Youth. He has experimented with country music, soul and avant-garde textures; wrote film scores; produced and wrote for other acts; recorded an album with a string quartet; collaborated with pop crooner Burt Bacharach; and recorded an album with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.

Name Poked Fun at Stardom

Costello wasn't born an Elvis. Declan Patrick McManus was born on August 25, 1955, in London, England; his father, Ross McManus, worked as a jazz bandleader. Young Declan first heard pop music on the radio and on demonstration records his father received, falling in love with rock and soul at an early age. Ross left his wife and children, however, and Declan moved to Liverpool with his mother before finishing school. Immediately upon graduating, he went in search of a job and ended up working with computers by day and playing his own songs in local clubs at night.

After suffering repeated rejections, McManus brought his tape to Stiff Records, one of England's stalwart supporters of the burgeoning underground scene. It was there that he met songwriter-producer Nick Lowe, who would become a steadfast friend and collaborator; he also met Jake Riviera, who became his manager and gave him his professional name: the "Elvis" poked fun at rock star pretensions, while Costello was the maiden name of the young performer's mother. Though McManus felt skeptical at first, he followed Riviera's suggestion; over time the name would strike many listeners as a perfect fit for his musical synthesis.

Early Efforts Showed Deadly "Aim"

The newly christened Elvis Costello went into the studio with American bar-band survivors Clover and--with 2,000 English pounds and in 24 hours of recording time--completed an album called My Aim Is True. The title came from a line in the anguished ballad "Alison," which would become one of Costello's most popular songs. Costello then proceeded to assemble the Attractions, which consisted of keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation).

Costello's musical output with the Attractions during this period was astoundingly prolific. The group went into the studio in late 1977 and the following year released This Year's Model, a collection of ferocious, streamlined songs that departed from the eclecticism and intermittent whimsy of Costello's debut. The American edition includes "Radio, Radio," not to mention virulent rockers like "Lipstick Vogue" and "Pump It Up."

Already certain signature themes were emerging in his songs: sexual misadventures, power struggles in interpersonal relationships, and the tyranny of fashion. And often these conflicts occurred in the vexed realm of speech: "little triggers," as he sang in the song of the same name, "that you pull with your tongue." In the words of Creem writer Richard Gehr, Costello's "earliest records seemed like nothing more than knotty, nerve-jangled expulsions on the mouth and the damage it can do."

"Pop Expressionism" and Road Fatigue

Armed Forces, released in 1978, signaled the beginning of what a Rolling Stone writer would later call Costello's "pop expressionism." It demonstrated his increasingly ambitious songwriting approach and his band's seemingly unlimited dexterity. The album begins with the symphonic "Accidents Will Happen," which Costello aficionados generally number among his best songs, and concludes--in the United States version--with Lowe's sincere, upbeat "(What's So Funny `Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."

It was a time of excess: alcohol and drugs fueled the band's touring and, to some degree, Costello's writing. But when the group hit a wall trying to find a sound for the next album, it was downing a few beers in a local pub that gave them their approach. Thus was born the sound of 1980's Get Happy!!, which bore the stylistic imprint of American soul groups like Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MG's. The good-time feel of the arrangements provided a unique tension with Costello's typically pun-riddled, multi-layered, and conflict-filled lyrics. Get Happy!! features a cover version of "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down"--originally recorded by Stax soul legends Sam and Dave--which was a fair-sized hit in England.

Next came Trust, which displayed an even greater compositional reach. By this time Costello's songwriting had captured the fancy of his more commercially successful peers, including singer Linda Ronstadt, who recorded several of his songs. Costello disparaged Ronstadt's versions, but they indicated that the musical mainstream now saw him as a major songwriter. He, in turn, had begun to refine his talents as producer, working with the English ska band the Specials, among others. He also recorded an album of country standards, Almost Blue.

Costello's next album, Imperial Bedroom, was a hit with critics; many hailed it as his first masterpiece. Suggesting the sonic grandeur of pop's greatest moments, its best songs have been compared to the Beatles' and Beach Boys' finest work. 1983's Punch the Clock, meanwhile, opted for a more radio-friendly sound at the expense of its predecessor's baroque explorations; it yielded the small-scale hit "Everyday I Write the Book," but also included one of Costello's most highly regarded compositions, the elegiac "Shipbuilding," which he cowrote with Clive Langer and which features a trumpet solo by jazz idol Chet Baker. With their 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World, however, despite the airplay granted the single "The Only Flame in Town"--a duet with blue-eyed soul star Daryl Hall--Costello and the Attractions appeared to be running out of steam.

End of Road for Attractions

Costello worked with the Attractions for part of his next album, King of America, the first recording that identified him as Declan McManus (he added an imaginary second middle name, "Aloysius," on the sleeve) and his musical enterprise as "The Costello Show." Mixing roots-based forms like country, rockabilly, and folk and including numerous guest artists, the album suggested a new direction for Costello. His personal life took a new direction as well: having left a previous marriage of some 13 years, he married Cait O'Riordan, former bassist for the band the Pogues, with whom Costello had worked as producer. The two periodically collaborated as songwriters during their marriage, which ended in divorce in 2002. One year later, Costello married Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall at a ceremony at singer Elton John's castle in London.

After a return to garage-pop for the album Blood and Chocolate, Costello peremptorily left the Attractions and began to work as a solo artist. "To be honest, I didn't handle the situation with much grace," he confessed years later in an Entertainment Weekly interview. "I just sort of announced that I was going, and it wasn't negotiable. That must have been pretty hurtful after what we'd put in. I guess I got a little arrogant, you know, as I got more confident." This confidence was no doubt bolstered by the fact that he was invited to collaborate with Paul McCartney, first on a B-side to a single and then on some songs for the former Beatle's album Flowers in the Dirt. The two also cowrote some songs that ended up on the first Costello solo album, Spike, which was also his first release on his new label, Warner Bros. Among these is the single "Veronica," which enjoyed some rotation on MTV. Spike features guest appearances by Roger McGuinn of the seminal folk-rock band the Byrds, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and McCartney himself.

By the time of his next album, 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, Costello was adamant that there would be no reunion with his old band. "The divorce is final," he maintained in Creem. "Costello and the Attractions are history." Mighty includes the McCartney co-composition "So Like Candy"; a Rolling Stone reviewer, despite some reservations, called the album "Costello's most ambitious and adventurous music in ages." Bruce Thomas wrote a dishy book about the Attractions' touring days that never mentioned Costello by name and was generally trashed by critics. "The boring member of the band always writes the book," Costello himself scoffed in Creem.

Costello appeared on a number of anthologies and tribute albums; he also elected to take a rare step: recording an album of songs with a string quartet. Based on the letters written over the centuries to the heroine of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the suite of songs were the result of mutual admiration between Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. The resulting album was The Juliet Letters.

Costello's next project resulted after he was contacted by former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James about writing a song for her solo album; he eventually decided to write an entire album's worth. Working alone and with O'Riordan, he composed all the songs in a weekend. It was while recording the song demos for her--with Thomas on drums--at Pathway, the tiny London studio where he'd recorded some of his earliest work, that Costello rediscovered the unadorned, scruffy pop sound he'd long since abandoned. James's album fared poorly, but the project sowed the seeds for the long-forestalled reunion with the Attractions.

Costello contacted Lowe and Nieve, as well as producer Mitchell Froom, and brought in Pete Thomas in play drums. Soon, through Lowe, he met with Bruce Thomas; the two hadn't spoken in several years, but Bruce played bass on about half the album. Lowe and Costello played bass in the other songs, and soon the vaunted return of the Attractions--and the messy sonic grandeur of the early days--was a reality. The recording, which Costello first wanted to call Idiophone, was released in 1994 as Brutal Youth.

In 1997, Costello released a boxed set consisting of five CDs, which was limited to a pressing of 30,000 copies. Costello and Nieve, recorded with longtime collaborator and Attraction member Steve Nieve, consists of five short CDs of live radio broadcasts the duo recorded while touring the United States in May of 1996.

Moved to Island Records

That same year, Costello's tenure at Warner Bros. Records came to a close with compilation disc Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years. Costello then signed with Island Records; his contract was more open and allowed him to release collaborations on other labels, such as Universal Classics.

One collaborator Costello would work with was Burt Bacharach. The two first teamed up in 1995 when director Allison Anders asked them to write a song for an upcoming film. The resulting "God Give Me Strength," completely composed over the telephone, was featured in Anders's film Grace of My Heart. They worked side by side for 14 months to compose Painted From Memory, a collaboration of lost-love songs, which was released in 1998. Costello and Bacharach received a Grammy Award in 1998 for their collaboration on the song "I Still Have That Other Girl." The two met up again in 1999, when they made a cameo appearance together in the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me as sidewalk piano players. Costello contributed music to both that film and the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant vehicle Notting Hill that same year.

Costello collaborated with classical vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter in 2001. The resulting album, For the Stars, featured music by Costello and vocals by von Otter. Costello wrote some of the songs and arranged and produced all of them. Songs from Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and ABBA were also on the album. That same year, Rhino Records began reissuing the entire Costello catalog through 1996. Each CD included a bonus of rare material and lengthy liner notes written by Costello especially for each album.

Costello became the first artist in residence at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), remaining at his post until the summer of 2002. Over the course of the year, Costello performed at a few additional events and was instrumental in teaching music at the University over the 2001-02 school year. Costello also appeared on an episode of the hit television series the Simpsons in 2002.

"Return to Form"

Costello's prolific work shows no signs of flagging. He released When I Was Cruel in 2002, hailed by critics as a "return to form" for the genre-defiant artist; recorded a concert with country star Lucinda Williams that aired on the Country Music Television channel in the United States in 2002; and finished his first full orchestral score, Il Sogno, for an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Mauro Bigonzetti and the Italian dance company Aterballetto.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, alongside the Police and the Clash. Looking back on his career, Costello remarked to Entertainment Weekly, "I haven't made any half-hearted records. That's probably the most I would allow myself to say. I haven't made any records that I didn't really care about."

Costello also released his album, North, in 2003. He was nominated for a 2004 Academy Award for the song "Scarlet Tide", which he co-wrote with T Bone Burnett, and also in 2004, signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster for nonfiction works relating to music and his career. The same week in September of 2004, his album, The Delivery Man, was released as was his instrumental album performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, called Il Sogno. Of his operatic debut, Costello was quoted on the British Broadcasting Corporation

by Simon Glickman

Elvis Costello's Career

Worked as computer operator, Elizabeth Arden, London, early 1970s; performed in English clubs, both solo and with group Flip City, early 1970s; signed to Stiff Records, 1976; released debut album My Aim Is True (released in United States on Columbia), 1977; performed with group the Attractions, 1977-86, and intermittently thereafter; produced other artists, 1979-; appeared on various benefit albums and as guest artist on others' recordings, 1979-; cameo role in film No Surrender, 1986; wrote score for film The Courier, 1988; signed with Warner Bros., released album Spike, 1989; released numerous albums on Warner Bros., 1990-97; signed with Island Records, 1997; collaborated with Burt Bacharach on Painted From Memory, 1998; collaborated with Anne Sofie von Otter on For the Stars, 2001; released When I Was Cruel, 2002; artist in residence, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 2002; wrote opera, 2005.

Elvis Costello's Awards

Rolling Stone critics' poll, Album of the Year for My Aim Is True, 1977; Rolling Stone critics' poll, Songwriter of the Year, 1989; MTV Video Awards, Best Male Video for Veronica, 1989; Grammy Award, Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (with Burt Bacharach) for "I Still Have That Other Girl," 1998; British Academy of Composers, Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement; Nordoff-Robbins, Silver Clef Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 28, 2006: Costello's album, My Flame Burns Blue, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bbcom/reviews/album_review_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002074468, February 28, 2006.

Further Reading

Sources

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about 9 years ago

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