Synopsis of Pop Music
“My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant.” – Elvis Costello
Over the years, many pop performers have vied for the title of ‘the angry man of rock.’ Few have ever fit the bill as perfectly as Elvis Costello, an intense English songsmith who first rose to fame in 1977 during the punk rock revolution. Although his sound wasn’t as in-your-face as The Sex Pistols or The Clash, the often-venomous lyrics of songs like “Miracle Man” and “This Year’s Girl” proved that Costello’s selection of words could hit just as hard as a power chord. He has mellowed somewhat since then, but his ability to combine edgy yet poetic lyrics with addictive pop melodies has helped him become one of the best and most challenging songwriters in modern pop music.
Born Declan MacManus in London, Elvis Costello grew up surrounded by music. His father was a jazz bandleader who often brought home the records of the day for his son to hear. Hearing The Beatles, The Who and classic Motown albums inspired MacManus to begin writing and performing his own music. By the time he reached adult age, he was moonlighting in bands and sending demos of his songs to record companies. The rise of punk rock inspired him to vent his anger in lyrical form, and he began pairing succulent pop melodies to acidic but literate lyrics that tackled both the personal and the political in bracing terms.
This unique writing style won MacManus a record contract in 1977. He took the reigning rock legend’s first name and his mother’s maiden name to create a new moniker, Elvis Costello, and quickly recorded My Aim Is True. It became an instant smash in the U.K. thanks to its combination of old-fashioned rock and pop elements with Costello’s fresh, energetic lyrics. Critics were soon singing the praises of songs like the bittersweet ballad “Alison” and the anti-fascism tale “Less Than Zero.” Costello quickly acquired a formidable backing band that he dubbed the Attractions and they began playing a series of live shows that married the energy of punk to solid musicianship to create one of the best rock and roll shows around.
At the end of 1977, Elvis Costello traveled to the States and became the new cult favorite of many pop music fans. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone magazine voted My Aim Is True as their Album of the Year. He also became a stylistic icon for new-wavers thanks to his combination of a short, spiky pompadour with geeky glasses. Later in 1978, Costello released his first album with the Attractions, This Year’s Model. This powerful slice of pop-inflected rock overflowed with gems like “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea” and “Pump It Up.” He also made a notorious appearance on NBC's Saturday Night Live, surprising the show’s producers by stopping his scheduled performance of “Less That Zero” in mid-song to launch into the anti-corporate screed “Radio Radio.”
Elvis Costello reached a new peak in 1979 with Armed Forces. It combined slick production and a new sense of musical complexity to bring out the beautiful melodies beneath jagged lyrics of songs like “Accidents Will Happen” and “Two Little Hitlers.” As a result, it became Costello’s first Top-10 album in the U.S. He continued to build his reputation as a master of edgy pop on both sides of the Atlantic with albums like Get Happy!, Trust and Imperial Bedroom. He also showed off the depth of his musical knowledge by recording Almost Blue, an album of country music standards. Costello’s combination of ambition, musical skill and an unpredictable nature made him one of the most intriguing figures on the pop music scene.
In 1983, Costello scored his first Top-40 hit single in the U.S. with “Everyday I Write The Book,” a charming love song kept fresh by his typically clever and complex sense of wordplay. Its parent album, Punch the Clock, was also a success. After one more album in a slick pop vein (Goodbye Cruel World), Costello turned his attention to a roots-rock sound. The end result was one of his finest albums, King of America. It was recorded with a stellar band—including several musicians who used to back Elvis Presley—and featured gems like “Brilliant Mistake” and “Sleep Of The Just.” The always prolific Costello followed it up that same year with Blood and Chocolate, an album of power-pop done with the Attractions.
By the end of the 1980’s, pop fans all over the U.S. and U.K. were getting tired of corporate rock and developing a taste for the indie sounds of English groups like Depeche Mode and The Cure. This led to a second wave of popularity for Costello as his music began to be rediscovered by new fans that were mere tykes during the era of My Aim Is True. Costello responded to his new popularity with one of his most diverse albums to date, Spike. This collection of pop songs embraced every style from jazz to folk to pure pop and produced a Top-20 hit in “Veronica,” a baroque-styled song that Costello penned with Paul McCartney.
As the 1990’s began, Elvis Costello dropped his geek-with-glasses image for the scruffy, bearded look he displayed on the cover of Mighty Like A Rose. This visual shift also represented a stylistic change in his music as he began to tackle ambitious new musical forms. For instance, he combined chamber music and pop with the help of the Brodsky quartet on the Shakespeare-inspired The Juliet Letters. Just the same, he never forsook his pop roots: One of his biggest hits from this period was Brutal Youth, a new-wave styled reunion album with the Attractions.
Most recently, Elvis Costello collaborated with one of his inspirations, the classic songsmith Burt Bacharach, to create the divine Painted From Memory. This album revealed the heart hidden behind Costello’s confrontational appearance and also showed off the beauty in his unconventional singing style through gorgeous vocal showcases like “God Give Me Strength.” Today, Costello continues to tour the world and write at the same prolific rate he established when he was rock music’s Angry Young Man. He may not be as ‘angry’ as he used to be, but his consistently excellent music proves he remains as talented as ever.
Artist Release History09/77 - My Aim Is True
03/78 - This Year’s Model
01/79 - Armed Forces
03/80 - Get Happy!
11/80 - Taking Liberties
01/81 - Trust
10/81 - Almost Blue
07/82 - Imperial Bedroom
08/83 - Punch The Clock
06/84 - Goodbye Cruel World
02/86 - King Of America
09/86 - Blood and Chocolate
12/87 - Out Of Our Idiot
02/89 - Spike
10/89 - Girls, Girls, Girls
05/91 - Mighty Like A Rose
02/93 - The Juliet Letters
03/94 - Brutal Youth
10/94 - The Very Best Of Elvis Costello and the Attractions 1977-1986
04/95 - Kojak Variety
04/96 - All This Useless Beauty
12/96 - Costello and Nieve
10/97 - Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Brothers Years
09/98 - Painted From Memory
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsArmed Forces (Ryko)
The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions 1977-1986 (Ryko)
Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Brothers Years (Warner Bros.)
Band MembersElvis Costello guitar, vocals
Steve Nieve keyboards
Bruce Thomas bass
Pete Thomas drums