Elvis Costello exploded onto the late 1970s new wave scene as a brash singer/songwriter who reinvigorated the literate, lyrical traditions of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison and paired them with the raw energy and ferocity that were principal ethics of punk.
Early in his career, Costello listed "revenge and guilt" as his primary motivations, but what really counted was the construction of his songs, which set his densely layered wordplay in an ever-expanding repertoire of styles. Since Costello's melodic instincts were as sure as his gifts as a lyricist, his musical experiments generally drew praise, enhancing his reputation as a quintessential critics' favorite. (Rock singer David Lee Roth once remarked that critics liked the bespectacled, nerdy Costello because they all looked liked him.) Granted, some members of the pop intelligentsia never forgave Costello for moving beyond the brazen minimalist urgency of his early seminal albums; but it's just this progress that has allowed the singer to remain a relevant, respected artist.
Born Declan Patrick MacManus, on August 25, 1954, in Paddington, London, Elvis Costello's father was a successful big-band singer and trumpet player. While attending Catholic school in working-class London, MacManus tried playing violin and several other instruments before discovering the guitar at 15, at which point he was already interested in songwriting. Soon after, he moved to Liverpool to live with his mother, who had divorced his father. In the early Seventies, he and his high school sweetheart married and had a son, settling in London. There, he continued to write, record demos, and perform (sometimes under the name D.C. Costello, his mother's maiden name), while supporting his family as a computer operator. In 1975 he quit his job, became a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, and became friendly with their bass player, Nick Lowe. Stiff Records signed him in 1976 on the advice of staff producer Lowe; one of the label's owners, Jake Riviera, became his manager and rechristened him Elvis Costello.
Costello's first single, "Less Than Zero," was released in April 1977 and later included on his phenomenal Lowe-produced debut My Aim Is True. Soon Top 20 in England, Aim (Number 32 U.S.) made Costello a major British cult star and attracted critical kudos Stateside. The now-classic album, which included one of popular music's best-ever heartbreak songs in "Alison," as well as the haunting "Watching the Detectives," and the melodically addictive "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was recorded with the Northern California band Clover — a group that would form the basis of Huey Lewis and the News — and made in six sessions for less than $2,000. Costello then assembled the Attractions — keyboardist Steve "Nieve" Nason, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Bruce Thomas — and hit the road. The band's December 17, 1977, appearance on Saturday Night Live as a last-minute fill-in for the Sex Pistols introduced Costello to American audiences and solidified his punk reputation. He was supposed to play "Less Than Zero," but after beginning the song, he abruptly cut it off and had the Attractions launch into the more pointed "Radio Radio" instead.
Bolstered by the new band on This Year's Model (Number 30, 1978), Costello rocked harder while maintaining his distinctively wounded, clipped vocal delivery. Meanwhile, he nurtured his angry-young-man image with an aversion to the press and punk-friendly habits like onstage rudeness and brief sets. His next release, the Top 10 Armed Forces (originally titled Emotional Fascism), repeatedly equated love affairs with military maneuvers ("Oliver's Army"). By then Costello's style encompassed lush, Beatlesque arrangements and more diverse influences. While he toured the U.S. to promote Armed Forces in 1979, Costello's onstage contrariness and dark moods — sometimes induced by drinking — reached alarming proportions. In Columbus, Ohio, that March, a minor but much-publicized conflict with American singers Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills occurred in a hotel bar after an inebriated Costello reportedly disparaged Ray Charles with a racial epithet. Besides tainting his work with the Rock Against Racism organization, the drunken outburst brought the wrath of the previously supportive press. (Costello subsequently issued a formal apology.) His production of mixed-race ska band the Specials' 1979 debut, and Costello's own soul-infused 1980 album Get Happy!!, seemed to be a direct response to the accusations of racism, and both were critical successes.
Trust (Number 28, 1981), with its more piano-based sound, was a turning point for Costello. He revealed an uncharacteristically polite and reserved stage manner during his American tour, as if hard experience had mellowed the performer, who was still in his mid-Twenties. His touring partners were Squeeze, a critically acclaimed pop band whose 1981 LP East Side Story Costello co-produced. Later that same year Costello released Almost Blue (Number 50), an album of country & western covers recorded in Nashville with famed producer Billy Sherrill that got mixed reviews. (A C&W aficionado, Costello later re-covered a version of his "Stranger in the House" with George Jones, while Costello's songs were covered by Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt.) He came back with Imperial Bedroom (Number 30, 1982), which earned raves. Full of haunted ballads, the album garnered comparisons to such pre-rock bards as Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. With 1983's Punch the Clock (Number 24), Costello continued to move beyond the punk minimalism of his early work, serving up soulful, accessible pop ("Everyday I Write the Book," a Top 40 U.S hit and "Everyday I Write the Book with Daryl Hall) and serious balladry (the politically astute "Shipbuilding"). While less consistent, 1984's Goodbye Cruel World (Number 35) also found him diversifying in this vein.
Costello's personal life was also undergoing changes. Estranged from his wife, he struck up a relationship with the Pogues' bassist Caitlin O'Riordan while the Irish band toured with him in the fall of 1984. (He produced the Pogues' 1985 album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.) Costello divorced his wife in 1985 and married O'Riordan in 1986. Also in 1986, Costello temporarily traded in the Attractions for a pickup band he called the Confederates — former Elvis Presley musicians guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and bassist Jerry Scheff — who appeared with him on all but one cut on the lushly melodic King of America (Number 39). Later that same year, Costello reenlisted the Attractions for the more raucous Blood and Chocolate (Number 84). The tour to promote both albums alternated between sets featuring the Attractions, the Confederates, and Costello performing solo, acoustically. In addition, Costello designed the Spinning Songbook, a device through which audience members could "choose," by luck of the draw, songs from his vast repertoire.
In 1987 Costello co-wrote a batch of songs with Paul McCartney, several of which materialized two years later on Spike (Number 32, 1989). The album — which also included support from Roger McGuinn, Chrissie Hynde, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — produced a Top 20 hit in the McCartney-Costello collaboration "Veronica" (Number 19, 1989) and went gold. Some critics found Spike inconsistent, though, preferring the subsequent compilation Girls Girls Girls, on which Costello chronicled his career thus far with his own favorite material.
Much like Spike, 1991's Mighty Like a Rose (Number 55) was made without the Attractions, and was perceived as lacking focus. In 1993, Costello found a new sense of direction in perhaps his most ambitious project yet: The Juliet Letters (Number 125), a song cycle he wrote and performed with the string players in England's Brodsky Quartet, inspired by an article about letters sent to Shakespeare's character Juliet Capulet, received by a Veronese academic. The album and subsequent tour drew wild praise from some, while baffling others. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Rykodisc began releasing Costello's early albums on CD, with extra tracks consisting of live and previously unreleased recordings.
In 1994 Costello reunited with the Attractions for Brutal Youth (which also featured Nick Lowe); the rocking results garnered almost unanimous acclaim, and the album climbed to Number 34. That summer, Costello began touring with the Attractions, marking a reconciliation between him and bassist Bruce Thomas, whose published memoirs had enraged the singer. In 1995 Costello was back on his own (with some help from Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and a handful of studio musicians) with Kojak Variety (Number 102), a cover album featuring songs by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Bob Dylan, among others.
The following year Costello covered himself on All This Useless Beauty (Number 53), which highlighted several original Costello songs that had been recorded by other artists. Also in 1996 Costello surprised critics and fans by collaborating with Sixties pop-song composer Burt Bacharach for the soundtrack to the film Grace of My Heart. Their co-written effort, "God Give Me Strength," was featured in the movie, nominated for a Grammy, and paved the way for the duo to write enough songs to record their own album together, Painted From Memory (1998). A track from that disc, "I Still Have That Other Girl," won the pair a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. Costello and Bacharach became so well known as artistic partners that they appeared together in a cameo as themselves in the comedy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me in 1999. Costello lightened up enough to appear as himself in the Spice Girls movie Spice World (1997) and the Eighties nostalgia flick 200 Cigarettes (1999).
Costello's interest in classical and other music forms continued to blossom in the late Nineties and 2000s: he played on classical saxophonist John Harle's 1997 album Terror & Magnificence and in 2000 produced songs for Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. In 2001 he got a residency to teach music at the University of California in Los Angeles.
He teamed up with old pals Thomas and Nieve for a new album, When I Was Cruel, released in 2002 on Island Records, and the following year released a set of pop ballads, North. His prolific output continued 2004, as he collaborated with his new wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, on her album The Girl in the Other Room, and released two discs of his own: Il Sogno, an orchestral work based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a more straight-ahead roots-rock album, The Delivery Man. The latter featured his new group the Imposters — the Attractions with a different bass player, Davey Faragher, formerly of Cracker.
In 2005, Costello was commissioned to write a chamber opera for the Danish Royal Opera. The next year, he released a live album with a jazz orchestra and collaborated with New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint on an R&B album inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In late 2007, he reunited with Clover, the backing band on My Aim is True, for a benefit show at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. It was their first live performance.
In 2008 Costello began taping episodes for a forthcoming talk and music show entitled Spectacle: Elvis Costello with...! for the Sundance Channel featuring diverse music guests such as Smokey Robinson, Rufus Wainwright, Kristofferson, Herbie Hancock, and Jenny Lewis. And in 2009 Costello teamed with the Starbucks coffee chain's Hear Music label and released a set of original Americana and country songs, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, produced in Nashville by T-Bone Burnett.
In the early part of the 2000s Rhino Records began an ambitious overhaul of Costello's catalog up to 1996, reissuing all of his albums with each set containing extensive liner notes written by Costello and an extra disc of rare tracks. When that campaign ended in 2006, Universal Music Enterprises bought Costello's catalog up to King of America, and began its own series, marking the fourth time Costello's early Columbia albums have been reissued on CD.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.