What if Buddy Holly hadn't died in a plane crash? What if he had taken the bus instead? Then, in the mid-60s, with an urge to try something new, teamed up with a post-electric Bob Dylan. What would that have sounded like?
The answer: Elvis Costello. Liverpool born Declan Patrick McManus started writing songs and playing guitar when he was fifteen. He came from a musical family. After seeing Nick Lowe perform, Costello decided to start his own group, Flip City. He still kept his day job as a computer operator at Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. Some demos arrived at Stiff Records but they wanted McManus as a single. And a "single" he became. Also, in an effort to create his own identity, he became Elvis (the origin of that name is pretty obvious) Costello (his grandmother's maiden name). Nick Lowe (small world) produced his early recordings.
Costello's first single, "Less Than Zero," was an all out attack on British right wing leader Oswald Mosley. The second was the more accessible ballad "Alison ("my aim is true")." July '77 was a great time for Elvis. First, he quit his day job and second, he organized his backing group, The Attractions - Steve Nieve (keyboards), Pete Thomas (drums) and Bruce Thomas (bass).
Late in his career Elvis Costello recorded with Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Perhaps it was due to his father being a bandleader. But there was a time when Costello was the cleverest, most interesting and compelling singer-songwriter around.
Only a few musicians are able to launch a second career. Costello managed that feat when he moved to TV as the host of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With . . . , a performance-and-interview show on the Sundance Channel. Launched in '08, the first guest was the program's executive producer, Elton John.
Often not doing something can draw more attention than actually going through with it. In the spring of '10, Costello canceled a pair of planned summer concerts in Israel, citing the region's ongoing political struggles as the reason. In a statement, he said he was unwilling to face the nearly unavoidable backlash associated with a performance in Israel. "It is after considerable contemplation that I have lately arrived at the decision that I must withdraw. There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent." Costello also cited the Palestinians' "many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation." So neither side was blameless.
Still on a political bend, Costello partnered with producer T Bone Burnett for '10's "National Ransom," an album with a theme centered around the recent financial collapse. Recorded in eleven days in Nashville and L.A., the set has contributions from Country guitarist Vince Gill and pianist Leon Russell. Russell wrote the music and Costello the lyrics for the Rock n' Roll tune "My Lovely Jezebel."
Elvis as a Rocker hit his peak in the late '70s and early '80s. "My Aim Is True" ("Alison" and the bopping "Watching The Detectives"), "This Year's Model" (his first album with the Attractions), "Armed Forces" ("Accidents Will Happen" and the humorously satirical "Oliver's Army") and "Get Happy!!" show Costello at his creative and performing peak. His songwriting has a freshness and unique spin to it. Costello's vocal style is casual as if sharing a piece of news with friends. Still, he ranges from intense passion and commitment to almost Woody Allen style comic whining.
Though he never got much credit for it Costello was also one of the first "New Wave" Rockers to successfully incorporate Reggae and other musical styles without sounding forced or condescending. Ultimately though, his songs are his calling card. Insightful and challenging, Costello's songs cover politics, social mores and relationships with wit, bite and satire. Those songs along with some great jangling guitar Rock are the reasons Costello and the Attractions are vital.
If there's one thing about Costello it's that he's eclectic. As a producer, T Bone Burnett has been widely acknowledged as a master of roots and nostalgic styles. But by accident or design, "National Ransom" sounds like two albums. One is a very pleasant trip through the past while the other, likewise a look back, is the true classic.
"National Ransom" has originals that sound like vintage Depression era tracks ("A Voice In The Dark"), jaunty Blues ("A Slow Drag With Josephine"), Trad. Jazz ("Stations Of The Cross"),'40s standards ("You Hung The Moon") and early '60s Bob Dylan ("Dr. Watson, I Presume"). As entertaining and engaging as these songs are, it's the other half of the album that really connects. With help from the Imposters, Russell and others, Costello confidently Rocks through the title track, "Five Small Words," "I Lost You," a song Costello co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale, and "My Lovely Jezebel." They handily accomplish what the nostalgic tunes attempt. And just feel good.