Cover image for Elvis Costello : a biography
Elvis Costello : a biography
Clayton-Lea, Tony.
Personal Author:
First Fromm International edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Fromm International Pub., 1999.

Physical Description:
viii, 243 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
"First published in Great Britain by Andre Deutsch Limited, London, 1998"--T.p. verso.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML420.C67 C6 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Gain an insight of the fascinating life story of a rock music icon--the hits, the drugs, the drink, and the critics--who one said it was his ultimate life vocation to be an irritant.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Of all the musicians who emerged from the British punk-new wave scene of the late 1970s, Elvis Costello is arguably the only one still producing worthwhile music, albeit much different from the terse, angry rock numbers that first brought him acclaim. Clayton-Lea's modest but solid account of Costello's prolific career (18 albums in two decades) is, though short on critical insight, several notches above the typical rock bio in quality, despite his obscurer British idioms that may leave Americans knackered. He traces Costello's progress from being the epitome of the angry young punk, which was more calculated image than genuine reflection of his emotional state or musical interests, to his public and private mellowing and latter-day embrace of diverse musical styles, including classical chamber music, gospel, and jazz. Most recently, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach garnered critical raves and a Grammy. Although Costello has never achieved superstar status, his following is loyal and literate and may generate a demand for this book disproportionate to its subject's standing on the pop charts. --Gordon Flagg

Library Journal Review

In 1977, Elvis Presley died and Elvis Costello emerged from London's iconoclastic punk rock scene. Costello declined to be interviewed for this book and denied permission to reprint his lyrics, so Clayton-Lea, a travel and arts writer for the Irish Times, has relied heavily on interviews from rock magazinesÄa strategy that works exceptionally well here. Clayton-Lea's measured narration bleeds into Costello's brutally articulate quotes, creating an intimate, "authorized" rapport. Costello evolves from computer operator to Burt Bacharach collaborator without seeming pretentious or David Bowie-esque. Moreover, Clayton-Lea proves that his subject has put more pop into pop music by incorporating country, classical, and jazz. David Gouldstone's Elvis Costello: God's Comic (St. Martin's, 1990) stops at 1989's Spike, but Clayton-Lea critiques all of Costello's studio albums and many of his side projects with tasteful asides about his personal life. For a nastier, more sensational look at Costello, former Attraction Bruce Thomas's The Big Wheel (Faber, 1991) covers touring life between the late 1970s and 1980s. Recommended for all popular music collections.ÄHeather McCormack, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One `The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs, are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about, that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs.' Elvis Costello, talking to Nick Kent, NME, August 1977 `I said that more for effect. When you're confronted by a 35-year old hippie asking you what the difference is between Punk and New Wave you tend to say things like that. I was just trying to irritate, you know?' Elvis Costello talking to Paul Rambali,The Face, August 1983 `Most of the punk bands couldn't play in time. So it was just cacophony that didn't mean anything. Whereas The Attractions could actually get on with the thing and make it musical. Plus we were really horrible to people ... In fact, we were much nastier than any of those groups. In fact, all of them put together.' Interview with David Wild,Rolling Stone, June 1989 At the time few could have guessed that Elvis Costello, one of the finest songwriters in the history of rock music, would have been spawned in the miasma of punk rock. In retrospect, of course, the natural evolution from pigeon-toed punk to the embodiment of musical eclecticism makes perfect sense, but in 1976 it would have made no sense at all.     While the musical influence of punk rock is negligible, the individualistic attitude that informed it has inspired millions. The word soon spread from the cities to the suburbs -- from London to Whitton in Middlesex, where a songwriter called Declan Patrick MacManus sat in his bedroom writing songs of biting hurt and bitter humour. Contacting record companies. Being humiliated. Biding his time ...     1976 was unkind to traditional singer/songwriters, especially in the UK. Sensitive, bedsit-angst merchants like Joan Armatrading, Clifford T Ward, Cat Stevens and Al Stewart were looked upon by the rock music press and its readers with as much indifference, antipathy even, as those at the opposite musical extreme, Yes, ELO and Pink Floyd. The London-based cognoscenti, the self-appointed arbitrators of taste, had new fish to fry and new ways in which to dish up the lip-smacking morsels.     This indifference was distinctly English, even though the musical influences behind it were American. The diehards of the more commercially-oriented North American branch of the singer/songwriters' union (notably old hand Bob Dylan, new kid Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young) still reigned supreme, with their credibility intact. Dylan had released Blood On The Tracks, The Basement Tapes and Desire in an eleven-month period from February 1975 to January the following year, and so at the time was critically unassailable. In 1975, Springsteen released Born To Run , Simon Still Crazy After All These Years , Mitchell The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Young both Tonight's The Night and Zuma . Leonard Cohen was, as usual, missing in action, practising Zen and the art of making records whenever the mood took him. Other US singer/songwriters, either in solo capacity or within the structure of a band (John Prine, James Taylor, JJ Cale, Carole King, the Band, Little Feat's Lowell George among them) continued to make records.     The literacy of the US hierarchy, occasionally surreal but more often than not purely commercial in its aim, was further smoothed out by the music itself. By and large this was dominated by session players, and therefore lacked a certain spontaneity. Dylan and Young were honourable exceptions. Although influenced by the Americans, the new British breed of singer/songwriter turned away from the pursuit of perfect sound, preferring instead to make their point with a fistful of acoustic strums and a headful of cynicism.     The catalyst was `pub rock' -- a phrase credited by some to Time Out 's then music editor, John Collis. One of the scene's mainstays, Kokomo, was actually drafted in by Dylan -- who at the time could tell which way the tide was turning -- for the initial Desire sessions. In his view, though, the English band seemed to lack the right spirit for the job in hand.     Ironically, the pub-rock scene was initiated by an American band called Eggs Over Easy. At the fag end of Spring 1971, they had arrived in London from New York's Greenwich Village to make a record with Chas Chandler, former Animals bassist and ex-Jimi Hendrix manager. Following contractual difficulties, the band grew tired of studio-bound work and, eager to flex their musical muscles, walked into a pub near their house in Kentish Town, The Tally Ho, and secured a Monday-night residency. This grew to four nights a week by the end of the year.     `We were basically a trio,' Austin de Lone told Mojo magazine. `I guess you could say we were a loose rockin' unit, with a countryish tinge.' Joined by a colleague of Chandler's -- Animals drummer John Steel -- the band's set comprised original songs and a judicious selection of crowd-pleasing cover versions. Aside from appearing at The Tally Ho, Eggs Over Easy also played at more established venues such as The Marquee. It was here that they met Irishman Dave Robinson, who managed Brinsley Schwarz. This band had endured an initial hype that fell apart hilariously -- Robinson secured them a down-the-bill spot at Fillmore East, and flew a planeload of journalists out to see them. By the time the party arrived at the gig, after endless delays, they were too late to see the band. The Brinsleys were now living in a communal set-up in Northwood, Middlesex, more out of lack of finances than domestic emulation of The Monkees.     Inspired by the Eggs Over Easy one-take human-jukebox approach to songs, Brinsley Schwarz member Nick Lowe quickly began to write rough'n'ready songs. Soon, Eggs Over Easy were influencing more than Lowe. `At first it was a groovy little thing,' Lowe recalled in Mojo , `rather Hogarthian, with snotty-nosed urchins hanging around the door and a Sikh bus driver doing a wild frug-a-gogo routine. But within a few weeks it was getting discovered by the clique, the beautiful people.'     The Tally Ho was descended on by throngs of people eager to hear the American band. People would shout out the names of songs they wanted to hear and the band would play them. So it was that Brinsley Schwarz began to play at the pub, happy in the knowledge that their abortive attempt at premier league success was forgotten, and that `a bit of credibility started to come our way'.     As Eggs Over Easy flew back to the US, new groups began to filter through. Consisting of working musicians (regularly comprising a smattering of Irishmen, due to Dave Robinson's Murphia connections), eager for the dosh and free beer for the night, the bands included Bees Make Honey, Ducks Deluxe, Kilburn And The High Roads, Roogalator, Help Yourself, Clancy, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Ace and The Winkies.     The new bands needed more places to play, however, and gradually other pub venues were made available to them, creating a gig circuit that enabled them to move around London on a nightly basis. Previously playing host to jazz, folk, and country & western outfits, the likes of the Hope & Anchor, The Kensington, The Cock Tavern and The Lord Nelson became the breeding ground for a motley assortment of jobbing musicians with an anything-goes attitude and an unpretentious approach to stagecraft.     Every scene needs some kind of glue to bond it together for more than the requisite few months, though. In this instance, it was Charlie Gillett's Honky Tonk radio programme. Broadcast each Sunday morning on BBC Radio London, the show's gig guide acted as a rallying call for denizens of the pub-rock scene, and by mid-1973 the pubs could hardly cope with the demand. As the scene grew, so did its fanbase -- generally speaking, ordinary music lovers who had become increasingly weary of the musical and on-stage excesses of the current rock bands. Glam rock was too poncy for them, Krautrock was too avant-garde, and US rock was too smooth. In pub rock (and in its genuine offspring, punk rock), the punter was in cahoots with the music, eyeballing the lead singer and the guitarists, smelling the body odour, stepping on the butt ends, and wiping the spilt lager from his jacket. `The regrouping of a bunch of middle-class ex-mods who'd been through the hippy underground scene and realised it wasn't their cup of tea,' is how Nick Lowe described the scene.     It didn't last, needless to say. With a few exceptions (Dr Feelgood, Ace, Kokomo, Eddie and the Hot Rods), the record companies weren't biting, and even with these bands commercial success was short-lived. The rest of the groups carried on for a couple of years, but with Ducks Deluxe, The Winkies, Kilburn and the High Roads and Brinsley Schwarz splitting up, an era had come to an end. However, it was not without its benefits. The seeds were sown for a musical aesthetic that would have endless repercussions for many generations of (especially) British musicians. A large number of band members were, as Nick Lowe testified, people who had all but forgotten how to rock, but who were swiftly energised by the no-nonsense spirit of the genre. As the musicians picked up on the energy, so did the audience, who saw in the music a vitality that their erstwhile lumbering rock heroes and pouting pop stars sorely lacked.     While a number of the musicians drifted about, picking up gig work and sessions along the way, three participants in the `demo section' of Charlie Gillett's programme were soon to reap benefits from the fragmentation of pub rock -- Graham Parker, Dire Straits and Declan Costello's Flip City. Once described by his father, Birkenhead-born Ronnie `Ross' MacManus, as a `left-of-centre anarchist' in a Sunday Times interview, Declan Patrick MacManus was born in Paddington, London on 25 August 1955. An only child, he lived with his parents in Olympia, West Kensington until he was seven, and then Twickenham until he was sixteen when, following his parents' separation, he and his mother (born on Merseyside) moved to Liverpool for two years. His father subsequently re-married, providing him with four half-brothers, all of whom play music in both rock and folk bands.     There's as strong an Irish dimension as a musical one to Costello's background. His grandfather, Patrick MacManus, born in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, was an Ulster Catholic orphan who attended the Military School of Music in Twickenham. He was thus formally trained in music -- unlike Costello's father, who could in fact read music but who felt that a good musical ear was just as important as an ability to follow the rule book.     Invalided out of the First World War, Patrick was stationed in Dublin once he was removed from combat. Although he wasn't in active service he still nevertheless wore a uniform. Some Irish friends advised him, quite literally, to keep his head down -- there were people who would gladly kill a member of the King's forces.     In the political climate of Ireland at that time one was never too sure exactly who your real friends were, so Patrick left Ireland after the 1916 rebellion, and travelled to New York. There he became entangled in the Prohibition world of boxers, musicians, gangsters and bootleggers. At one time, he shared a house with the infamous gangster Legs Diamond. He later got work as a musician on the cruise liners that worked out of Birkenhead, the place where his family had moved to. His last semi-professional job was in the theatre pits.     Declan's mother, Lillian, held a number of jobs, including one as part-time usherette for the Liverpool Philharmonic, where she occasionally took her son to concerts, but perhaps more significantly she worked in Brian Epstein's NEMS store and as manager of the record department in Selfridges, Oxford Street. She had a broad interest in classical and contemporary popular music, numbering Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald among her favourites. When Costello was eight, his mother took him to see Tony Bennett, who, at that time, was singing with the Buddy Rich Orchestra. Costello had no time for the frantic drummer, but liked Bennett. Since Bennett was a singer, and so was his dad, singing was okay in Declan's book.     For as long as Costello can remember, his father worked with the Joe Loss Orchestra. This was a job out of the ordinary in comparison with those of his schoolmates' nine-to-five dads. When he was a kid, during the school summer holidays, Declan would travel around England with his father, meeting up with British jazz stars such as Ronnie Scott, Phil Seaman, Bill McGuffie and Tubby Hayes. Later, Joe Loss would play a residency at the Hammersmith Palais, where Declan would regularly go to watch. Occasionally, the orchestra featured a guest group or pop star, a lottery effort that included (if you were lucky) The Hollies or (if you weren't) Engelbert Humperdinck. The fact that Costello saw his father at work demystified the process of creating pop music, and made it a normal thing for him to listen to.     Ross MacManus was probably the most versatile of the three singers with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and was given songs that were more difficult to sing, interpretatively if not technically. The band was a huge strict-tempo attraction from the mid-1930s onwards with all levels of society, and aristocratic dances and Royal Family get-togethers were a speciality. The orchestra survived as a popular dance band in an era when many competitors were being drowned out by the noise of The Beatles. It didn't just restrict itself to ballads in waltz time. The orchestra -- through its arranger, a man with the most unlikely name of Leslie Vinyl -- had to learn the hits of the day, which included everything from The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield and Trini Lopez to Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who and Bob Dylan.     In order for Ross MacManus to learn the songs, he rigged up a repeating device on the trusty MacManus Decca Decalion, and it tricked the record player into thinking it had another record to play. Playing the song ad infinitum, Ross would sing along loudly. Referring to himself as a musical pawnshop, he would bring home acetates of new songs to learn for both gigs and radio programmes.     `I take anything in,' he recalled in the Sunday Times , `but Elvis was very specific, even then ... When he was three, he'd say `Siameses' -- he wanted the Siamese cat song by Peggy Lee.' Inevitably, Irish folk music was played and sung while he was growing up.     School education was of the regular kind, although Declan didn't appear to like it very much. He attended Catholic schools in Twickenham, was taught by nuns for the first few years and then by lay teachers until he was eleven, by which time he was a member of the Beatles' Fan Club. From then until sixteen he attended a secondary-modern school in Hounslow. And from there (with his mother, who had by this time separated from his father) to Liverpool, a move he regarded as more a return to home than an unwanted wrench from the pleasures of Swinging London. His education record wasn't particularly exemplary, with only a single `A' level to his name -- English, inevitably -- but he read voraciously, including newspapers and magazines from start to finish, particularly on topics of political theory. He had faith in the Labour Party, but possibly due more to his somewhat naive and fanciful notions about socialism than anything else.     He was somewhat of a loner, and friends didn't figure too much on his priority list. A strong sense of independence had developed in the wake of his parents' divorce and his father's regular absences. From an early age music was always his main interest, a lasting preoccupation that stemmed as much from his parents' tastes and lifestyles as his own specific ambitions. Too young to be a mod, too individualistic to want to be a skinhead, and too wary of the more farcical elements of glam rock, Declan listened initially to American singer/songwriters such as James Taylor, but eventually tired of the persistently confessional aspect of the songs. Party records in London consisted of Tamla Motown and reggae, the staple Sta-Prest diet of the discerning teenager, but when he moved to Liverpool he discovered that people there preferred either the calming sounds of US West Coast groups or British progressive rock bands such as Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath.     Unable to come to terms with either, he slowly drifted back to soul, though he did respond to peer pressure in forcing himself to like The Grateful Dead. Although he couldn't play any sport well he was fanatical about football, in particular Liverpool and Roger Hunt.     Already the model of a typical teenage social outcast was taking shape -- someone who didn't want to join in on just anything, or to kick a ball around when there was Tamla Motown and ska music to be listened to on the radio. The glasses more or less completed the picture. Elvis had quite good eyesight until he was fifteen, but when he left school at sixteen to work in a computerized office, the artificial lighting and paperwork began to give him serious headaches. Suffering from a condition known as astigmatism, he can go about normal daily life without wearing spectacles, but if he tries to watch television or films, or read for any length of time, the headaches keep on coming.     Declan left school in the same year that one million people signed on the unemployment register. Scarcity of work, particularly in the North of England, created an urgency about securing a job, irrespective of its suitability. He had neither the qualifications nor the inclination to go to college, and at sixteen was already too old for jobs that required apprenticeship entry-age levels. He once went for a job as a tea boy, only to be informed that he was over-qualified. Another job he applied for was as an Admiralty chart corrector, a Dickensian job requiring a high boredom threshold and precision handwriting, two things he didn't have.     He then applied for a job as a computer operator in a large banking centre, which he clinched despite his scant knowledge of computers and his virtual incompetence at mathematics. He decided this made him a perfect candidate. Didn't computers make all of that obsolete? Realizing that the (then) technological status of the job far outweighed the actual brainwork involved -- his work consisted of placing tapes on the machines, feeding cards, and lining up paper in printers -- Declan was content to push buttons while songs were beginning to ferment in his under-occupied mind. Costello was an IBM 360 operator, working on either an ICL or a Honeywell computer -- a gigantic billion-dollar brain with banks of whirring tapes and printers. The staff worked in shifts because the computer could never be switched off, giving Costello enough time to formulate his ambitions for international success.     His debut appearance on stage was at a folk club in Liverpool, just before he reached sixteen, in an attempt to try out his own songs, no matter what shape they were in. He had already harboured keen ambitions to be a professional musician, and knew that the only way to get better was to play his songs in public, performing them almost religiously, despite the abject humiliation he felt when audience response was indifferent.     In Liverpool, he played several folk club dates on his own, and a handful with a small group called Rusty, but he came to feel restricted by folk music's narrow and rigid boundaries. It's also likely that he was put off by the fact that at one of his folk dates Ewan McColl -- sitting in the first row -- fell asleep during his brief set!     `They weren't very interesting,' was how he described the songs in Q magazine. `It was quite funny, like anybody's first steps at doing anything, but you wouldn't want them put under the microscope ten years later ... I can't even remember a lot of it ... I used to play in those clubs, or the British Legion in Birkenhead, or in libraries, anywhere where they'd put something on for the night ... So I'd be up there with my little sensitive teenage songs, which I don't know now `cos I don't remember any of them. But I wrote from the start, from fifteen onwards.'     A minor turning point arrived in the form of an appearance by Brinsley Schwarz at a Liverpool pub called The Grapes in 1972. In contrast to the soothing sounds of American West Coast music, he heard soul and R&B played by white guys, and Costello's eyes were opened. Brinsley Schwarz reminded him of The Band, one of his favourite groups: `The Band were it for me,' he told The Face . `I thought they were the best. I liked them because they had beards ... It appealed to me that they looked really ugly. And they weren't boys. They were men, and all their songs seemed to be about olden days, but they weren't dressing up as cowboys ... It wasn't phoney.'     Declan saw Nick Lowe relaxing at the bar prior to the gig at the pub, and walked up to him. `There was a barrier at first,' Costello recalled in Mojo , `because although I'd been around music people often with my dad in the 1960s, I was just an amateur musician ... That night Brinsley broke a string and the gig just stopped. I think I liked that, together with the self-deprecating way they talked.'     By this time, Costello's singing voice and style were beginning to evolve from being merely copyist and were becoming extremely distinctive. The style was initially described as odd and unusual, an American with a sneer. This had evolved from the music he liked and listened to at the time -- either R&B acts or white musicians influenced by R&B. Suspicious of the way in which some white UK `soul' singers appropriated the vocal mannerisms of the black soul greats, he perfected a style that reflected his love of the work of people like Van Morrison, Doug Sahm, and, most importantly, The Band's Rick Danko.     `He was my absolute hero,' Costello admitted in The Face interview. `He had a unique style that was kind of nasal, and it had a little bit of what I now realize is country in it ... It was just so unusual to me, such a lovely relaxed falsetto.'     Eager to make his mark in the centre of the UK music industry, an increasingly cynical Costello moved back to London when he was eighteen, working in a small factory with a compact mainframe computer system that he was able to operate by himself.     `I read the papers all day long because ... no one realized that the computer did all the thinking,' he told Q . `I wore a white coat and people thought I was a rocket scientist because I was the only person in the building who could work this machine. That's how specialist it was ... Everyone thought I was a genius. It was brilliant. I just skived all the time ... I took my guitar in. I used to work evenings when it was the end of the month and the payroll stuff was due. I'd stay late, sometimes work thirty-six hours just on coffee and write two or three songs and read the music press.'     He played solo gigs for a while, preferring the immediacy and intimacy of the stripped-down tune, finding the prevailing mood of big rock bands playing `big' music distasteful. He liked the fact that nascent pub-rock bands were playing short songs that had no hidden, supposedly profound or unintelligible messages. And he respected the fact that these bands chose to have no virtuoso musicians peddling long-winded solos. Likewise, he loathed the likes of Yes, Caravan, and the heavy metal/progressive rock groups of the day.     His musical ambitions were such that a daily 9-5 job could not maintain his interest. There was solid support from his parents who, because of their own backgrounds, were not particularly distressed when their only son wanted to become a professional musician. `My parents were aware of the dangers and pitfalls and disappointments of it, but they never discouraged me,' he recounted in The Face . `On the other hand, sometimes when you get families in a career like that, they tend to be over-encouraging. My parents were never really insistent ... I think they were very conscious of not putting me off.'     1973 was pick-me-up time for a certain number of UK-based musicians who felt uncomfortable with the inanities of glam rock, and as he became more and more involved in the scene, Costello decided to develop his songs in a group setting. Flip City was Costello's pub-rock venture, a band in the vaguest sense of the word. Poorly organized, they played gigs (the Newlands Tavern, south of the Thames, being a fairly regular venue) but rarely saw a profit entered into their accounts ledger. With little shame and very few reference points, Flip City imitated the executive elements of Brinsley Schwarz.     `The Brinsleys switched instruments,' remarked Costello, who once roadied for the band, in Mojo . `A bit like The Band. I thought that was pretty hip. Also, they played pretty quietly, a club dynamic, and did unexpected covers ... Flip City ended up sharing a house, just like the Brinsleys. We thought if it worked for them, maybe it could work for us. We stayed there for a couple of years, mainly copying the Brinsleys' blueprint.'     Replicating the `Brinsleys' blueprint', however, wasn't one of Costello's more astute moves. Flip City turned out to be as much a commercial failure as the Brinsleys' own farcical attempt at achieving international success on their 1970 jaunt to New York.     By this time, the real name of Declan MacManus had been replaced by DP Costello (the surname taken from his paternal great-grandmother) and with a demo tape of his songs taking up air space on Charlie Gillett's Honky Tonk programme, the time had come to break up Flip City. Claiming later in Rolling Stone that this particular band format `trapped me in mediocrity', the closest Costello got to anything beyond that mediocrity was supporting Dr Feelgood at The Marquee, where they were resident house support act for a spell. The Feelgoods were pub rock's biggest UK success story, an exciting live act that featured the masturbatory beer-swilling gestures of Lee Brilleaux and the amphetamine-fuelled marionette antics of their William Wordsworth-loving, bug-eyed guitarist, Wilko Johnson.     By the end of 1975, Costello was both solo and in partnership. Now living in Whitton, Middlesex, with Mary (whom he married in 1974), with one young son, Matthew, and working as a computer operator at the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory, he began in earnest the long, often debasing trail as he hawked his songs around to various record companies. It was all to no avail, however. To the record company executives and A&R people, the rough and ready songs (some of which would end up on his acclaimed debut album) smelled of stale pub rock. If they'd listened, they might have heard songs that were, even then, different from the run of the mill. A different sound, however, is exactly what the record companies didn't want. If Costello had been a closet Queen fan, instead of trying to write songs to beat The Band, the reactions might have been more sympathetic.     `I'd say it was down to lack of imagination on the part of the people at most of the [record] labels,' he said of his well-worn and travelled demo tapes in an interview with Trouser Press . `They can't hear something unless it's put on a plate for them. I didn't think it was all that different; maybe they did. I think it was their ears at fault, not mine, and fortunately that's the way I kept thinking about it. I did sometimes wonder whether I wasn't mad and that maybe it wasn't any good, but I kept on thinking it was they who were wrong and not me. It turned out to be the best way to think about it.'     Experiences such as these didn't exactly enamour Costello to the often mindnumbing logic of the music industry. The responses from the industry `experts' were invariably the same: they couldn't make out the lyrics, the songs weren't commercial enough, and -- the rallying call of A&R divisions worldwide -- there was no hit single.     `Those tapes were just voice and guitar demos,' Costello recalled in Melody Maker . `I didn't have enough money to do anything with a band. I felt as if I was bashing my head against a brick wall, those people just weren't prepared to listen to the songs. It's a terrible position to be in. You start thinking you're mad. You listen to the radio and you watch the TV and you hear a lot of fucking rubbish. You rarely turn on the radio or TV and hear anything exciting, right? And, all the time, you know that you're capable of producing something infinitely better. But I never lost faith ... I wasn't going up to these people meekly and saying "Look, with your help and a bit of polishing up, and with all your expertise and knowledge of the world of music we might have a moderate success on our hands." I was going in thinking, "You're a bunch of fucking idiots who don't know what you're doing. I'm bringing you a lot of good songs, why don't you go ahead and fucking well record them." They didn't seem to understand that kind of approach.'     Eventually, after being turned down and shunted about by too many record companies to mention (he would either send demo tapes or carry his acoustic guitar into their offices to be offered advice he didn't want or record deals he knew he'd be mad to accept), Costello handed his standard demo tape, which included the likes of `Blame It On Cain' and `Mystery Dance', to Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman, at London-based Stiff records in August 1976. The new record company had placed an ad in the music press inviting new acts to submit tapes. Ironically, a previous demo tape that Costello recorded under a different name had been rejected by Robinson. `He was quite surprised when I turned out to be the same person,' said Costello of the incident. `When I submitted the tapes to Stiff, he didn't realise that it was the same person who'd done the earlier tape ... It turned out he already had over an hour of me on tape and didn't know it.'     Costello already knew Robinson from the pub-rock days -- the Irishman was now managing rapidly-rising rock wordsmith Graham Parker. A former advertising executive from Pinner who had decided to change career direction, Jakeman was the former manager of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers who now styled himself as Jake Riviera -- the shit-hot manager with sharp jackets and a tongue to match. The other constituent parts of Stiff were the label's in-house producer Nick Lowe (by now a Costello chum), Riviera's assistant Cynthia Cole, general manager Paul Conroy and designer Barney Bubbles, formerly the director of Hawkwind's light shows.     When they heard the songs on the demo tape (which emerged on the bootleg album 5,000,000 Costello Fans Can't Be Wrong ) both Riviera and Robinson instinctively knew that a talent was in the making. `The tape was actually the very first tape we received at Stiff,' Jake Riviera told NME . `I immediately put it on and thought, "God, this is fuckin' good" -- but at the same time I was hesitating because after all it was the first tape and I wanted to get a better perspective.' Riviera contacted Costello, saying he liked it and was interested in signing him, but wondered if he could wait for a week while he listened to other demo tapes. Costello agreed. Riviera received `a load of real dross in the mail' and promptly signed Costello to the label.     The label purchased a tape recorder and an amplifier for their potential superstar, who still lived out in the suburbs. He was aware of the change in musical direction that was taking place in the capital, but had little chance to view the proceedings up close. Costello had neither the freedom nor the money to wander up to London every night to check out the so-called opposition. With a wife and child and a full-time job to demand his attention, he checked out the burgeoning punk-rock scene through the pages of NME, Sounds and Melody Maker .     As 1976 wound its way into 1977, the album that would be My Aim Is True was being pieced together in Pathway Studios, Islington, the same studios that gave birth to the early demo recordings that had earned Costello his lifeline at Stiff. Nick Lowe was assigned as producer for the sessions. Recorded on holidays and `sick' days off from his computer job, Costello rewrote many of the songs that had appeared on earlier demo tapes and live Flip City/DP Costello performances. Some he scrapped completely, others he held over for inclusion on later albums, such as This Year's Model 's `Hand In Hand', which was specifically written for (and rejected by) Nick Lowe, who at the time was experiencing mixed record-company fortunes with his band, Rockpile. In the main, My Aim Is True was written in two weeks.     The exhilaration of working on his debut album counterbalanced the frustrations of his increasingly irrelevant day job. At Pathway, the sessions went by in a flash, with Costello's acoustic-based songs given an ad hoc country-rock feel by American band Clover (who were jokingly renamed The Shamrocks for contractual reasons). Lowe and Costello's ambition was to create a collection of songs that were not only of their time, but which were also rooted in classic songwriting values. Having been thoroughly seasoned by the wait for his stab at success, Costello wholeheartedly embraced the directness, tension, and simplicity of his current material.     While the songs were being arranged, shaped and crafted by Costello and Lowe, the image of Costello was slowly being altered by Robinson and manager-in-waiting, Riviera. Up until the release of his first single for Stiff, `Less Than Zero', Costello (still more widely known as Declan MacManus) was your average ordinary-looking computer operator geek -- rake-thin, bespectacled, with a high forehead. His live performances until then, according to Graham Parker in Mojo , had 'neither aggression nor energy. I'd go and see Ian Dury and the Kilburns and Costello with Flip City ... They didn't have what I was putting out, which was, I'm going to show you fuckers that you don't sit cross-legged on the floor! A year later everyone was on stage giving it stick. Costello was knees bent and screaming ...'     The change in approach was brought about by a confluence of circumstances, of which punk rock was the primary motivating force. While the words to the songs Costello was writing were streets ahead of his contemporaries, what he had in eloquence he lacked in visual appeal. The style of the day was punk rock -- three chords, a guitar, and the boot. The job in hand at Stiff was subtly to alter Costello from what he really was -- a singer/songwriter -- and transform him into an alternative version. The sensibilities and sympathies within his songwriting that would bubble to the top in later years were, for the moment, submerged in sputum. For now, Costello would have to endure a style change.     Slowly, the core Stiff philosophy of songwriting values wrapped up in bags full of style was being applied to Costello. `We're not the same -- you're not the same' was the tag line of the independent record label who wanted `the kids' to identify with their underlying work ethic. Declan and Patrick were two Christian names decidedly Irish and therefore unswinging, so in a swift stroke of iconoclasm, Riviera bestowed the first name of Elvis on his charge. Naturally, die-hard Presley fans were infuriated, citing the name change as yet another reason to despise punk rock, but it was chosen by Jake Riviera solely as a another witty Stiff marketing scam. The company was famed for its non-sequitur media adverts -- `You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it float' and `Contains no hit single whatsoever' were two of the label's more direct marketing absurdities. Some critics questioned the name change, and Costello reckoned Riviera's choice of name to be irrational, but he went with the flow. His father joked in the NME that Costello had already used the name himself for a while, possibly influenced by the album Ross McManus Sings Elvis Presley's Greatest Hits !     If anything, 1977 in London was the time to be risky, at least to attempt to be outrageous. With The Sex Pistols and The Clash as their louder and somewhat more socially anarchic peers, Costello and company realised that if he didn't sharpen his stance, his social and sexual politics and his stagecraft then he would be swallowed up by the style gurus and spat out with the rest of the hopefuls. Having the songs was only half the battle -- if you didn't fit even the loosest portrait of the identikit skinny punk rocker, then the front cover of the NME was not for you. The concept, then, was for Elvis Costello to look dangerously close to the nervous edge, a singer/songwriter born out of the bedsit years, blinkered by bitterness. Sweet as a nut, the plan worked.     In April 1977, Elvis Costello's debut single, `Less Than Zero', was released. A statement of definite and distinctive intent, it focused on Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader of the 1930s. Not exactly the stuff pop dreams are made of -- the single, almost inevitably, failed to chart. `They [the fascists] are really sick people,' Costello averred in Rolling Stone , having written the song after seeing a reflective BBC appearance by Mosley. `If there wasn't a danger that some people of limited intelligence would take them seriously, they'd be sad and you could feel sorry for them. But you can't.'     Reviews across the board were positive. NME -- like most English magazines then and now, very much a champion of Costello's -- misprinted the song's title as `Half Past Zero'. The reviewer got it right, though, when he described the song as a `great record' while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that it had a `snowball's chance in hell' of cracking the Top Twenty.     The single's release was a suck-it-and-see venture on Stiff's part. A month later, a second single was released. `Alison' is a breathtakingly tender but candid ballad on a topic that the writer was to return to with alarming frequency -- love and betrayal. It too failed to chart, but a line from the song provided his imminent debut album with its title.     On 27 May, Elvis Costello (the Stiff signing, as opposed to Declan Patrick MacManus) made his live debut at The Nashville, in London's North End Road. Now known as The Three Kings, The Nashville in 1977 was a large pub venue that started out as a country & western haunt, but which soon became inextricably linked with the emergence of London punk. The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers made notable early appearances there, as did pre-Clash Joe Strummer with The 101ers, pub/punk-rock crossovers Eddie and the Hot Rods, and Dave Edmunds' Rockpile. By this time My Aim Is True was ready to go, but its release was complicated by a distribution problem between Stiff and Island Records that threatened to undermine the steady buzz generated by the two singles and the rare live performances.     Costello on stage had made the transformation from suburban bibliophile and computer operator to a Buddy Holly lookalike from Generation X. The gauche awkwardness of the superficial image belied the surgical precision of the words he snarled through his spittle-flecked lips. He made no effort to hide the invective that lay behind the lyrics, which were a triumph over pop's preference for meaningless phrases and inane soundbites. It came as no surprise to industry onlookers and assembled media pundits that a mere six weeks later Costello resigned from his day job.     And so the search was on for a band to back him at gigs. While the American musicians who accompanied him on the album sessions were fine for that purpose (Clover, whose lead singer was Huey Lewis, were the initially uncredited musicians who in turn delicately and assertively underpinned Costello's songs), they lacked a certain dynamic tenacity that was sorely needed on stage.     Enter The Attractions, a seasoned trio of musicians culled from the ranks of dear departed pub rock and the more refined environs of the Royal College of Music. When the auditioning began for the backing band, Pete Thomas, former drummer with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, was already slotted into position. Following the break-up of pub rock, Thomas had been much in demand as a session drummer, and had received a call from ex-Dr Feelgood man Wilko Johnson while he was in America working with cult folk and country artist John Stewart, best known as writer of The Monkees' hit `Daydream Believer'. Johnson brought Thomas back to England to form a trio but the rehearsals didn't work out, and the Riviera connection kicked in. The remaining positions of bassist and keyboard player still had to be filled, with Costello using Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar from Graham Parker's Rumour as the sounding-board musicians for the auditions.     One of the songs used to try out the prospective candidates was the reggae-influenced `Watching The Detectives'. Despite a steady stream of willing participants, two musicians in particular stood out from the crowd -- bassist Bruce Thomas, who had previously worked with Al Stewart and Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, and keyboard player Steve Nason, who was quickly landed with the rhyming but misspelt `Nieve' as his band surname, in recognition of his languid innocence.     Bruce Thomas's credentials were arguably the most impressive. Becoming disillusioned with the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver format, he applied to Stiff for the job after seeing an advert seeking musicians. He was initially turned down by Costello, but the decision was quickly reversed through word-of-mouth recommendations (including that of his namesake, Pete), and Bruce joined the club after rehearsals.     Steve Nason was studying composition at the Royal College of Music, and so was ostensibly an unlikely bedfellow, but curiously they clicked straight away -- not so much, noted Costello in The Face , because of their innate musicianly sympathy but because of their styles. `Steve was very fond of the reggae style ... Bruce is a very melodic bass player and Pete is a very rhythmic drummer. That meant we could almost get away with being a trio, because an awful lot of the time I didn't play -- and also a lot of what I did play, particularly early on, was just like white noise! I had no idea. I wasn't very experienced at all. Rather than making a bad job of trying to play well, I was quite happy to exploit the simple things I could do.'     Five days after he quit Elizabeth Arden, on 14 July, Elvis Costello and The Attractions played their first gig together as support to Wayne (later to be Jayne) County at The Garden, Penzance, Cornwall, having rehearsed in a village hall next to an army base. Proving that directness and simplicity outshines virtuosity within the confines of a three-minute pop song, the band were gearing up for the release of My Aim Is True , which was now less than two weeks away. A third single was released prior to the album -- `(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes' -- but it also failed to chart.     The relationship between Costello and The Attractions seemed always to be founded on dynamics and tension. They played tough and lived hard, and while over the years they have attempted to reconcile their differences it hasn't always been possible: `That lot had a very strange relationship,' stated Nick Lowe in Rolling Stone . His words confirmed many people's suspicions. `It was very abrasive. There was never any real warmth between them. But you don't have to be in love with the bass player to make great records. They certainly respected each other. But they were never really pals.'     Not that Costello and Stiff weren't trying their respective best. On 26 July, prompted by a bona fide and shameless ambition to secure an American record deal -- though it could also have been seen as an inept marketing scam -- Elvis performed outside London's Hilton Hotel, where CBS Records was holding its yearly international conference. Costello and The Attractions were playing a gig that night in Dingwalls, and wanted to let some of the Stateside company suits in on the fact. Graham Parker roadies walked around with sandwich boards advertising the gig. Costello played through the battery-powered amplifier that he had received as part of his advance. During `Welcome To The Working Week' a crowd gathered, including several CBS bigwigs and a tourist who requested a Neil Diamond song.     `All these guys were actually standing there and applauding,' Costello told Trouser Press , `but the Hilton didn't see the humour in the situation and called the police. The police didn't see the humour in the situation and arrested me. It wasn't a big deal ... just a crazy stunt.' Even so, the cheeky tactic proved to be a decisive factor in Costello being signed by CBS/Columbia before the end of the year. CBS President Walter Yetnikoff had liked the attitude as much as the songs.     The Dingwalls gig coincided with the release of My Aim Is True , an event in Costello's life that must surely have been worth the frustrating wait. The twenty-two year old -- whose life up until then revolved around punching in computer data, being as good a husband and father as time would allow, music, and harbouring resentment in the form of a possibly-apocryphal black book -- was dipping his toes into waters he would never draw back from. As for the famed black book -- well, suffice to say that Costello took rejection harshly and harboured an unhealthy fascination with a form of revenge that seemed to focus on whether or not a record company A&R man returned his call.     The imminent release of My Aim Is True proved to him what idiots these people were (difficult to argue with that), but it also highlighted the fact that Costello bore grudges -- in general with intensity, and specifically with a laser-like tracking beam of pure hatred. True, no one had wanted to know him eighteen months previously, but most people can live with the humiliation of rejection. Costello lived with it, but allowed himself to wallow in thoughts of retaliation. In a couple of paragraphs published in NME , the extent of Costello's then apoplectic retribution is revealed. `[He] took the eight-page-long guest list for the night and mercilessly scythed off half the names, including ... Richard Williams who, as A&R man for Island Records, personally turned down [his] demo tape ... Also, Elvis personally vets all guest lists making sure that anyone whose name was down but who didn't turn up the last time his name was included is struck off the list for ever more.'     Clearly, here was a man not to be dismissed lightly. For more reasons than the blindingly obvious ones. Copyright (c) 1998 Tony Clayton-Lea. All rights reserved.