Born into a musical family (his father, Ross McManus, sang with Joe Loss), McManus moved with his mother to Liverpool in 1971. It was there that he formed his first band, Flip City, which had a style very much in the pub rock vein. They lasted until 1975-1976, by which time McManus was living in London with a wife and child. McManus worked a number of dead-end jobs, during which time he continued to write songs, and began aggressivley looking for a solo recording contract, which led to an incident in which he was arrested while busking outside a conference of record executives. On the basis of a demo tape, he was signed to Stiff Records. His manager at Stiff, Jake Riviera suggested a name change (using Presley's first name and his mother's maiden name to form "Elvis Costello") and teamed him with a country/soft rock band named "Clover" (who would later back Huey Lewis as 'The News').
Costello's first album, My Aim Is True (1977) was a moderate commercial success (#14 in the UK and Top 40 in the US) with Costello appearing on the cover in his trademark glasses bearing a striking resemblance to Buddy Holly. Its release saw Costello marketed by Stiff a as a new wave artist or a punk, despite fact that the album featured the ballad "Alison" (one of his most enduring songs). The same year, Costello recruited his own band, The Attractions (Steve Nieve, born Steve Mason, piano; Bruce Thomas, bass guitar and Pete Thomas drums) and released his first major hit single, the cinematic "Watching The Detectives", recorded with Nieve.
Following a whirlwind tour with other Stiff artists (captured on the Live Stiffs album, notable for Costello's recording of the Burt Bacharach standard "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself") the band recorded This Year's Model (1978), a frenetic record filled with raucous energy and Costello's barbed lyrics. Stand-out tracks include the British hit "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea)" and "Lipstick Vogue", on which the rhythm section excel. A tour of the US and Canada also saw the limited release of "Live At The El Mocambo".
1979 would see the peak of Costello's commercial success with the release of the album Armed Forces (suitably subtitled "Emotional Fascism"). Inspired by the constant touring, the band were in fine form and Elvis had further honed his lyrical wit, tackling subjects both personal and political. Both the album and the single "Oliver's Army", with a piano hook borrowed from Abba's "Dancing Queen", went to #2 in the UK. His success in the US was severely dented, however when Costello called Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger" during an argument with Bonnie Bramlett in an Ohio bar (the comment being particularly odd, since Elvis worked extensively in Britain's "Rock Against Racism" campaign both before and after). A contrite Costello apologised at a press conference, claiming that he had been drunk, and had said it only to annoy Bramlett (at which he was successful, since Bramlett punched him in the face).
Possibly as another statement of his oft-stated debt to black music, Costello and the Attractions' next album, Get Happy was an inventive pastiche of new wave pop and soul music. It would be the first, and - along with King Of America - possibly most successful, of Costello's many experiments with genres beyond those with which he is normally associated (the single, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" was an old Sam and Dave song). The brevity of the songs (20 tracks in about 45 minutes) suited the band's new style (the Thomas' typically melodic rhythm section and Nieve's reasonable impersonation of Booker T) as well as the frantic and stressful conditions under which it was written and recorded, crammed between live dates and fuelled by excessive drinking. Lyrically, the songs are full of Costello's signature wordplay, to the point that he later felt he'd become something of a self-parody and toned it down on later releases.
1981's Trust had a more pop sound, but the overall result was clearly affected by the growing tensions within the band, particularly between Bruce and Pete Thomas. Despite its eclecticism ("Different Finger" had a distinct country feel) and pop hooks, Trust was not a major success and the first album since his debut to generate no hit singles. Following the failure of Trust, Costello took a break from songwriting and the band decamped to Nashville to record Almost Blue, an album of country ballads written by the likes of Merle Haggard ("Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down") and Gram Parsons ("How Much I Lied"). Receiving mixed reviews, some of which accused Costello of growing soft, the record was released with a sticker bearing the message:
- "WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners".
After that brief sidetrack, Imperial Bedroom (1982), was a return to the polished pop of Trust, only with more satisfying results. Featuring a superior set of songs - both musically and lyrically - and inventively produced by Geoff Emerick, it remains one of his best-regarded records but again failed to produce any hit singles.
1983 saw another sidetrack with the Pop-Soul of Punch the Clock, featuring female backing vocals courtesy of Afrodiziak and a four piece brass section, The TKO Horns, alongside The Attractions. Clive Langer, who co-produced with Alan Winstanley, provided Costello with a melody which eventually became "Shipbuilding", an oblique and articulate look at the political contradictions of the Falklands War, with the military build-up providing jobs for the struggling shipyards of Britain. (An affecting, emotive cover version of the song was a minor UK hit for former Soft Machine drummer and political activist, Robert Wyatt). Equally political was "Pills And Soap" -- a UK hit for Costello himself under the pseudonym of "The Imposter" -- an attack on the changes in British society brought on by Thatcherism, released to coincide with the run-up to the 1983 UK general election. (The electorate were seemingly not swayed.)
Tensions within the band were beginning to tell, and with Costello starting to feel burnt out he announced his retirement and the disbandment of the group shortly before they were to record Goodbye Cruel World(1984). Costello would later say of this record that they had "got it as wrong as you can in terms of the execution". With a number of poor songs, and with even the better ones damaged by muddy production, the record was slated on release, an opinion which even many of Costello's most ardent fans still share. The retirement, although short-lived, was accompanied by two compilations, Elvis Costello: The Man in the UK, Europe and Australia and The Best Of Elvis Costello in the USA.
In 1985, Costello teamed up with good friend T-Bone Burnett for a single called "The People's Limousine" under the moniker of The Coward Brothers. That year, Costello also produced Rum, Sodomy and the Lash for the punk/folk band the Pogues. By 1986, Costello was preparing to make his comeback. Working in the US with Burnett, a band containing a number of Elvis Presley's sidemen (including James Burton and Jerry Scheff) and minor input from the Attractions he produced King Of America, an acoustic guitar-driven album with a country sound, augmented by some of his best songs for some time.
In 1987, Costello, with a new contract with Warner Bros, began a long running songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. They wrote a number of songs together including Costello's "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" from Spike, "So Like Candy" and "Playboy to a Man" from Mighty Like A Rose and McCartney's "My Brave Face", "Don't Be Careless Love", "That Day Is Done" and "You Want Her Too" from Flowers in the Dirt, and "The Lovers That Never Were" and "Mistress and Maid" from Off The Ground. That same year, he appeared on the HBO special, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night that featured his long-time idol, Roy Orbison. For the special, Costello wrote the song "The Comedians" which would later appear on Orbison's final album, "Mystery Girl."
In 1993, Costello tested the waters of classical music with a critically acclaimed collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters. Costello would return to rock and roll the following year with a project that reunited him with The Attractions, Brutal Youth. An album of cover songs recorded 5 years previously was released in 1995, Kojak Variety, followed in 1996 by an album of songs he had originally written for other artists, All This Useless Beauty. This was the final album of his Warner Bros. contract.
He collaborated with Burt Bacharach on a song for a movie, "God Give Me Strength" and they subsequently wrote and recorded an album together, Painted From Memory, released under his new contract with Mercury Records. In 2001, Costello began teaching music at UCLA and wrote the music for a new ballet. He produced and appeared on an album of songs for opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter, For The Stars.
In 2002 he released a new album, When I Was Cruel, and toured with a new band, the Imposters (the Attractions with a different bass player, Davey Farragher, formerly of Cracker).
In March 2003, Elvis Costello & The Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In May, his engagement to Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall was announced. September saw the release of North, an album of piano-based ballads. In December, Costello and Krall married at the London estate of Elton John.