Off the Charts

Pump It Up: Elvis Costello

Issue 139

In the early 1970s, some young musicians in London were getting tired of the fancy productions being pawned off as rock music. They made an effort to get back to the harmonic and structural roots of rock, in defiance of the hifalutin synth arrangements that the record industry was backing. Thus was pub rock born, and Declan MacManus, soon to change his name to Elvis Costello, jumped right into the scene.

It was not a big leap to the burgeoning punk attitude that convinced folks like the Sex Pistols and the Clash that absolutely anyone could play music, even without the establishment’s blessing. While Costello was punk at his heart, he had a sardonic wit and poetic bent that made his songs stand apart from the usual punk fare. These characteristics placed him in the New Wave school.

While playing in a band called The Flips and working as a data entry clerk, Costello landed himself a solo contract with the indie label Stiff Records. That company released My Aim Is True (1977), his debut album. It was the first of five records to be produced by fellow songwriter Nick Lowe. The album itself did well, entering the Top 40 in the U.S., although neither single made much of a splash. Time has changed that, however: “Alison” is now one of Costello’s best-known songs.

“I’m Not Angry” is a good example of Costello’s unique blending of old-fashioned rockabilly style with the wildness of punk and the humorous societal criticism of the likes of Oscar Wilde. The raunchy lead guitar line is by John McFee, who was soon to join the Doobie Brothers.

 

Solo Costello was off to a strong start, but he needed a backing band. The Attractions were formed in time for his second album, This Year's Model (1978). Steve Nieve played ukulele, piano, and organ, Bruce Thomas covered bass guitar, and Pete Thomas was on drums. That trio would make nine albums with Costello. The reception to This Year’s Model was similar to that of the debut: decent album sales but no successful singles. That situation started to change, at least in Britain, with Armed Forces (1979), whose single “Oliver’s Army,” about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, reached the No. 14 spot on the UK charts.

Armed Forces also includes the rumbling, intense, and grimly sarcastic “Goon Squad.” Costello uses interrupted and asymmetrical rhythmic phrases to express the narrator’s fury at the hopeless fate society forces on him. Thomas’ drumming is a distinctive feature of this track.

 

With Get Happy!! in 1980, Costello introduced into his music the laconic backbeat of ska and the bluesy harmony of soul. Fans’ reacted well to the change: the biggest UK single off this album, and one of the biggest in Costello’s career, was his cover of the Sam and Dave R&B hit “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.”

The rock star lifestyle was starting to affect Costello’s health when he made Trust in 1981. In interviews he has admitted to being “close to a self-induced nervous collapse” because of drug use and drinking. He was also angry. The UK had elected conservative Margaret Thatcher, and Costello despaired for the future of his country. Another song-inspiring social irritant was the rise of Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer, whose misandry is believed to have sparked the lyrics to Costello’s “You’ll Never Be a Man.” The syncopated, rolling piano part from Steve Nieve is right out of Motown.

 

In spite of his physical and mental condition (or maybe because of it), Costello was tremendously prolific in the early to mid 1980s. And he was as musically adventurous as he was productive. Almost Blue (1981) embraced Nashville to such a degree that it featured a label warning potential buyers to expect a significant helping of country music. For Imperial Bedroom (1982), Costello wanted a producer who would push the boundaries of studio technology, so he turned to former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. He brought in female backup singers and a horn section on Punch the Clock (1983), which garnered him his first US Top 40 single, “Everyday I Write the Book.”

Goodbye Cruel World came out in 1984, colored by the fashionable electronic sounds of the day. The writing and recording of that album was arduous due to dissent among bandmembers, particularly bass player Bruce Thomas. Still, there are some good tracks in the collection, including “Room with No Number,” amusing for being a bit deranged harmonically, rhythmically, and lyrically.

 

While some tracks on King of America (1986) featured the Attractions, other songs are accompanied by a pickup band dubbed the Confederates. The record’s Americana feel is in part inspired by producer T-Bone Burnett, who had recently toured with Costello.

During that same year, Blood and Chocolate was released, which would be the last collaboration between Costello and the Attractions for ten years. “I Hope You're Happy Now” features an organ-backed, Phil Spector-style wall of sound. It also contains some classic Costello lyric snarls, such as “You make him sound like frozen food, his love will last forever.”

 

After the Attractions split up, Costello struck out on his own for several years, relying on session musicians. He then rounded up a “new” backing band, the Imposters, for All This Useless Beauty (1996). But the Imposters were actually the Attractions, with Davey Faragher replacing Thomas on bass. They have stuck with him for the past 25 years, with especially intensive output in the early 2000s: When I Was Cruel (2002), North (2003), Il Sogno (2004), and The Delivery Man (2004). 

Costello made the 2008 record Momofuku so quickly that he named it after the man who invented instant ramen. He was helped out by Jenny Lewis, whose band Rilo Kiley had recently hit international fame with their album Under the Blacklight. Lewis sings backup on many tracks, including the heavy metal-inspired “Stella Hurt.”

 

Although he took an eight-year break from releasing albums following Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009) and National Ransom (2010), Costello is back at work in the studio. 2018’s Look Now uses a full orchestra in addition to the Imposters. His latest offering is Hey Clockface (2020), a solo venture and his 31st studio album. Nor does he ever stop seeking new styles to embrace. The title song is a delightful cover-cum-modernization of an old Fats Waller/Andy Razaf tune with a New Orleans-flavored horn arrangement.

 

I have no doubt that album number 32 is just around the corner.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Robman94.

3 comments on “Pump It Up: Elvis Costello”

  1. While Armed Forces is an early career masterpiece, National Ransom is an overlooked later career stunner.
    There are so many excellent albums in Elvis' discography, it's easy for an exceptional one to fly under the radar. National Ransom is one of my personal favorites. It's such a standout that pointing out favorite songs is almost insulting to the whole.

  2. I would add that "Imperial Bedroom" and "King of America" are especially unique and clever which is a signature Elvis trait. His lyrics are without compare when it comes to tongue-in-cheek and are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

    P.S. He is married to Diana Krall. Now there's a powerful music duo.

  3. Anne, I have a feeling you intentionally made no mention of Costello's disgraceful behaviour in a bar when he found himself in the presence of a bunch of American musicians. In response to Costello's racist insult of Ray Charles (EC should be so lucky as to be able to sing and play like Ray), Bonnie Bramlett punched him in the face, knocking him off his bar stool. Good for her. For me, that was the end of Elvis Costello; he was dead to me.

    I made one exception---the King Of America album. The assembled musicians (thank you T Bone!) are just too good to miss on account of one no-account.

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