40. Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello (born Declan McManus) is a singer/songwriter and guitarist who first achieved notoriety in the late 1970s. Originally identified as part of the New Wave music movement, the prolific Costello released a series of acclaimed albums through the 1970s and 1980s. Over the course of his long career, Elvis Costello transformed himself from angry social commentator to an elder statesman of his craft. He is still active in music, and regarded as a great songwriter of his generation. Elvis Costello, and his primary band, the Attractions, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2003.


Elvis Costello (b. 1954), singer, songwriter, guitar, piano

The Official Elvis Costello Website
The Elvis Costello Wiki Page

The Attractions:

Steve Nieve (b. 1958), keyboards
Bruce Thomas (b. 1948), bass
Pete Thomas (b. 1954), drums

Radio, Radio

On December 17, 1977, Elvis Costello performed on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching the episode with friends while away at school in Davis, but the date doesn’t quite make sense. Maybe I stayed on campus for basketball, and watched with other friends that stuck around.

What an unforgettable impact he made that night! First he plays “Watching The Detectives” with its reggae inflected beat and lyrics like “it only took my little fingers to blow you away.” After the song, he stared menacingly into the camera, with eyes that suggested he’d break a glass and slit your throat if you weren’t paying attention. Later in the evening, he comes back to perform “Less Than Zero” at the request of the show producers and his record label. A few seconds into the song, he stops the band, says there’s no reason to play that song, and leaps into “Radio, Radio”. Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels was livid, and spent the entire performance off stage flipping off Costello. It was twelve years before he was allowed to return to the show.

Elvis Costello’s Notorious “Radio, Radio” Performance

The defiant nature of rock and roll at its finest. Elvis Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True, was released in the U.S. shortly after the performance. Only a modest commercial success, it found a place in many college dorm room collections.

I forgot about Elvis Costello for many years. I graduated from engineering school, went home to the Bay Area and started a career as an aerospace engineer. Among the handful of U.C. Davis graduates working at my firm, Greg Vaughan excelled as a communication systems engineer. Though never close friends, Greg and I shared common interests, including music. I thought of him when writing this profile. Sometime in the mid-eighties, he once said to me, “Elvis Costello, now there’s an artist.”

The remark left a lasting impression. At the time, I did not think of Elvis Costello as special. I remembered this exchange and contacted Greg last week, after being out of touch for eighteen years. I explained my music project, why I had contacted him, and asked if he had any thoughts about Elvis Costello. Greg was kind enough to respond:

Greg Vaughan’s Thoughts About Elvis Costello

“I think of Elvis Costello in terms of lines, not songs. My favorite line? “It’s not open to discussion anymore” from “Baby Plays Around”. Not just the words, but the way they’re delivered and the way they set up the remainder of the song. I’ve used that line on many an occasion.”

“It’s not open to discussion anymore,
She’s out again tonight.
And I’m alone once more,
She’s all I have worth waiting for,
But baby plays around.

And so it seems,
I’ve always been the last to know.
To hold on to that girl, I had to let her go.
I wish to God, I didn’t love her so,
‘Cause baby plays around.

I try to be strong, hold on to my pride,
She doesn’t even know it’s wrong.
How much I hurt inside,
And heaven knows I’ve tried,
But baby plays around, just a play thing,
It’s hard to reconcile, the facts I’m facing.

It’s not open to discussion anymore,
She walks those shiny streets.
I walk the worn out floor,
She’s all I have worth living for,
Baby plays, baby plays around.”

— Cait O’Riordan, Elvis Costello

A nice live version of “Baby Plays Around” starts about seven minutes into this clip:

“Other examples of favorite lyrics include “‘Til I step on the brakes to get out of his clutches” (from “New Amsterdam”) and “She’s got eyes like saucers, oh you think she’s a dish” (from “Big Sister’s Clothes”).

I’ve seen Elvis a few times. The best was a 1986 show at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. He had a big spinner on stage with all of the Attractions songs on it. He would invite an audience member up onto the stage. They would spin the wheel and whatever song it landed on, the band played it. While they played it, the audience member sat on a sofa on stage, sipped champagne and listened. This just a few years after spitting on the audience.

(Elvis revisited the spinning wheel of songs concept, which we enjoyed in Portland in April, 2012.)

Most recently I saw him at a university hall. He was pretty much solo. I loved that. He’s all about the vocals, much like the Beatles in that regard. He sat on the edge of the stage and played “Alison” without amplification. It was great. Two or three years ago I saw him at New Orleans Jazz Fest. He brought out David Hidalgo, the guitarist from Los Lobos. Lately he’s better when playing with someone else.”

— Greg Vaughan

My Thoughts

Elvis Costello has never been a personal favorite. His music has never been in my “regular rotation”. When I referred to the All Music Guide for their opinion, I was surprised by the high rankings awarded to his early albums. Six of the first seven albums receive a ☆, indicating an “essential recording”.

My Aim Is True
This Year’s Model
Armed Forces
Get Happy!!
Imperial Bedroom

Costello experienced limited commercial success. “Everyday I Write The Book” from 1983 is his one top 40 hit song. I bought the 45 RPM single back then, my only Costello purchase until purchasing a greatest hits CD compilation years later. His career spans an era when popular music was becoming specialized and dominated by corporate interests that valued style over substance.

His music continues to grow on me, especially the quieter songs. He has a beautiful and expressive voice. It’s been twenty five years since I compared musical notes with Greg Vaughan. Quieter music appeals more as one ages, but a well rounded collection of Costello’s music must include the angry and propulsive rockers from his youth. These are outstanding late period examples of rock and roll.

It’s no surprise that Greg has excelled in his chosen field. He is a brilliant fellow, blessed with uncommon energy and humility. One of the first guys I knew that fell in love with playing his guitar, he was kind and patient with me, despite my shortcomings as an engineer. It’s no surprise that when I asked for a little help, he responded promptly and enthusiastically.

Let’s finish with the grand old man of music, hosting the David Letterman Show and introducing himself as the musical guest.

Elvis Costello Song Notes:

1. “Watching The Detectives (Live)” and “No Dancing (Live)” can be found on the deluxe editions of This Year’s Model and My Aim Is True, respectively.

2. “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror (Live)” is found on The Unplugged Collection, Volume One.

Elvis Costello Songs:

(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭✭

Alison, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭
Watching The Detectives, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭
Radio, Radio, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭
Almost Blue, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭
Baby Plays Around, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭
(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea, Elvis Costello ✭✭✭
God Give Me Strength, Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach ✭✭✭

Ascension Day, Allen Toussaint & Elvis Costello ✭✭
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Pump It Up, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Almost Blue, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Shipbuilding, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Everyday I Write The Book, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Ship Of Fools, Elvis Costello ✭✭
New Amsterdam, Elvis Costello ✭✭
I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Riot Act, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Beyond Belief, Elvis Costello ✭✭
American Without Tears, Elvis Costello ✭✭
No Dancing (Live), Elvis Costello ✭✭
Girls Talk, Elvis Costello ✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Elvis Costello ✭✭
No Action, Elvis Costello ✭✭
Watching The Detectives (Live), Elvis Costello ✭✭
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror (Live), Elvis Costello ✭✭
Brilliant Mistake, The Costello Show ✭✭
Cinco Minutos Con Vos, Elvis Costello & The Roots ✭✭

Chemistry Class, Elvis Costello
Accidents Will Happen, Elvis Costello
Mystery Dance, Elvis Costello
Clubland, Elvis Costello
Walk Us Uptown, Elvis Costello & The Roots
London’s Brilliant Parade, Elvis Costello

Related Songs:

Ship Of Fools, Grateful Dead ✭✭✭

My Funny Valentine, Chet Baker ✭✭✭✭

(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love And Understanding, Nick Lowe ✭✭

Carpetbaggers, Jenny Lewis ✭✭

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