Elvis Costello was on top of the world in the 1970s. Some may even argue that he still is. At 66 years old, Costello still has what it takes to be one of the world’s greatest punk rockers. But as you all know, Costello doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to, well, really anything.
After skyrocketing to fame with his hit single, Less Than Zero, Costello has been the center of some of the biggest controversies in music. From creating his original punk rock sound and getting banned from SNL, to THAT horrendous Ray Charles incident, and partnering with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello sure has had one wild ride.
Costello, whose birth name is Declan McManus, was born in London in 1955. He grew up going to Catholic school in the city, but after his parents’ divorce, the musician moved with his mother to Liverpool. His father, Ross McManus, a big-band singer and solo cabaret performer, decided to stay behind in London.
By the time Costello graduated high school, it was 1973, and England was in the middle of a job crisis. With over one million people unemployed, Costello says that he was lucky to get a job. “I had no ambition to go into further education,” the musician told Rolling Stone magazine in 1982. “I just went out and got the first job I could get.”
Without any qualifications, Costello’s options were pretty thin. Luckily, he found a job as a computer operator, which just so happened to be relatively well paid. By now, Costello already had dreams of being a professional musician like his father. A few years before, McManus hit it big in Australia with his cover of the Beatles’ track, The Long and Winding Road.
It was also around that time that Costello began playing in folk clubs around Liverpool. “I was writing my own songs— dreadful songs— performing them more or less religiously,” the musician continued. “I didn’t think the songs were worth recording, but the only way you get better is to play what you write.”
After work, Costello beelined to the pub, where he played with his band. They did a few rock n’ roll covers, as well as some of their own material, but Costello knew they weren’t really going anywhere. It was during that time that the musician met Nick Lowe, who was still with Brinsley Schwarz.
“He was in a real proper group that recorded records! That was the first time I’d ever spoken to anybody that was in a group,” Costello laughed. After chatting one night at a pub, the two became good friends. In fact, Lowe wrote Costello’s 1979 hit, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.
Costello knows that he was at an advantage because his father worked with Joe Loss—the founder and leader of one of the most successful acts of the big band era in the 1940s. The Joe Loss Orchestra covered the “hits of the day,” which meant that McManus could get his hands on whatever record he wanted. “I was fortunate,” Costello said in 1982.
“He got the records and just passed them on to me.” Costello was into whatever was playing on the radio: the Who, the Kinks, and Motown. “I was in the Beatles fan club when I was 11,” Costello continued. “I used to buy the magazines. The one kind of music that I didn’t like was rock ‘n’ roll, as a distinct [classic] form.”
Costello says that his music taste changed when he made a move to Liverpool. By then, everyone except Costello was into psychedelic rock. Even his father grew his hair long and began listening to the Grateful Dead. He would pass records on to Costello, who would sell them at the record exchange and buy Marvin Gaye records.
“I used to hide my Otis Redding records when friends came around. I didn’t want to be out of step,” the singer confessed. “To the age of 16, it’s really crucial that you’re in, and I tried hard to like the Grateful Dead or Spirit.”
After returning to London in 1974, Costello says that he “saw the light.” The city was filled with pub rock groups—the exact music that Costello had been hiding from his friends. He realized there was nothing wrong with his taste in music.
After forming a little band in London, Costello worked as a computer operator. “It was a total bluff, really, I knew nothing about it, but I knew enough of the jargon,” the musician confessed. But it was the ideal job. While the computer loaded, Costello could read and write songs.
Costello and his band played a pub mix of rock n’ roll, R&B, and even some country tunes. One night, Pete Thomas, who back then was in a successful band called Chilly Willy, came to see them. “He was a celebrity to us – and he walked out after about thirty seconds,” Costello told Rolling Stone magazine.
“I think he came to see our worst-ever gig. But with no offense to the guys, we weren’t very good.” Feeling trapped in mediocrity, Costello went out on his own again. But going solo is a lot harder than he thought it would be.
For starters, he didn’t have an original style. “I have no idea who it was I might have been imitating, whether consciously or unconsciously,” Costello revealed in 1982. “I suppose I should have had a band behind them, but playing alone did build up an edge.” Costello trudged on, trying to improve his guitar playing, as well as his lyrics, without the comfort of a band to fall back on.
The musician recorded a few record demos and sent them out to record companies around the country. The only one that responded was Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson’s new Stiff label. They liked his sound.
The independent label was working hard to bridge the gap between the pub rock scene and punk, and Costello’s sound was exactly what they were looking for. Costello’s sound was different. He looked towards Randy Newman and other ragtime musicians for inspiration—not other punk bands.
Why? Because he was working. Costello didn’t have the money to go uptown to see what the Clash and the Pistols were doing uptown. “I just read about them in Melody Maker and NME the same as anyone else. Joe Public,” the musician continued.
“All these bands were playing in the middle of the night. I don’t know who went to the bloody gigs,” Costello said in 1982. “I can only guess they were rich people with cars and lots of drugs.” But when their albums began to come out, Costello liked what he heard, but not at first.
Joe Strummer, the lead singer of the Clash, described their sound as a “sea lion barking over a load of pneumatic drills,” which, Costello says, describes their sound perfectly. When Costello listened to the album on headphones, he completely changed his stance. He listened to the album on repeat for 36 hours straight.
Costello’s first single, Less than Zero, was released in March 1977. Costello wrote the track after he saw an interview with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement in the ’30s. Mosely seemed unapologetic and attempted to deny his racist past.
“His attitude was that time could make it all right! It was a very English way of accepting things that used to really irritate me, really annoy me,” the musician explained in 1982. “The complacency, the moral complacency there, that they would just accept this vicious old man [and] not string him up on the spot!”
As for his name, Declan McManus began going by Elvis Costello, but according to the musician, this was not his idea. His manager, Jake Riviera, actually decided on the name. It was a marketing plan to separate Costello from everyone else. “He said, ‘We’ll call you Elvis.’”
“I thought he was completely out of his mind,” the musician revealed. But Riviera was right—Costello could live up to his name. After the release of his debut album, My Aim Is True in 1977, Costello became a major figure in the new wave of British music.
A few months later, Costello signed with Columbia Records, introducing his debut album to American audiences. Then came his snarky appearance on SNL, which ended up with him getting banned from the show until 1989.
Costello and his newly recruited band, the Attractions, were invited to perform Watching the Detectives and Less Than Zero. Costello, however, was unhappy about his label telling him which songs he could and could not play on TV. So, a few bars into Less Than Zero, Costello decided to take matters into his own hands.
He leaned into the microphone and said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here,” as he launched into another song, Radio, Radio. SNL producer Lorne Michaels was furious. He didn’t like how Costello didn’t warn him beforehand and decided to ban the musician and his band from the sketch comedy show.
“I didn’t really have anything against the show. I was more pissed off at being told what to play by the record company than I was NBC, truthfully,” Costello confessed. The musician later claimed that he got the idea from Jimi Hendrix, who also switched up his playlist in 1969.
As Costello’s career took off, his personal life began to crumble. In 1974, a few years before he became famous, Costello married his high school sweetheart, Mary Burgoyne. The two had a son named Matthew. Little is known about either one. But what do know is that Costello was a serial cheater.
He broke Burgoyne’s heart with a string of casual affairs after becoming famous, including one with Playmate Bebe Buell. These days, people know Buell as Liv Tyler’s mother, but in the ’70s, she was a Playmate who had romantic affairs with just about every major rock musician.
Besides Steven Tyler, Buell was known to have “romantic liaisons” with Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and Rod Stewart. However, nothing was as intense as her affair with Costello. The relationship lasted from 1978 until 1979, but the two rekindled their romance in 1982 before breaking it off for good in 1985.
Buell says that Costello was the love of her life and believes that she was the inspiration behind several of Costello’s lyrics. She even says that his hit song Blood and Chocolate came from her habit of demanding chocolate when she was had her period. Costello, however, has never publicly acknowledged Buell.
“It’s scary what Elvis does. He writes these lyrics because he knows I will see them, but he also knows that if I try to express this to people, they will think I am nuts,” Buell wrote in her 2001 memoir, Rebel Heart. “He wants people to think I’m crazy; it delights him.”
“But deep down, he knows the truth.” Costello once addressed the Playmate on the reissue of his album Armed Forces. However, he did not mention Buell’s name. “She turned up with eight pieces of luggage like a mail-order bride and moved in,” the musician began.
“She’d later claim to have inspired most of the songs on this record–all of which were already written when we met.” Costello accused Buell of being tragically delusional. He also admitted that he was with other women besides her, including a female taxi driver who drove him to the Mexican border.
The musician claimed that he had this bad habit of cheating so he could mess up his life and then “write stupid little songs about it.” By late 1978, Costello and his wife officially separated, and the musician didn’t find love again until 1985.
While producing an album for the London Irish group the Pogues, Costello began dating the group’s bassist, Cait O’Riordan. The two tied the knot in 1986, but their relationship soon turned sour. By her own admission, O’Riordan was a depressed alcoholic who was looking for someone to replace her father.
“I’m surprised anyone would have put up with the way I behaved for that long,” she said of her relationship with Costello in 2008. “That’s as much as I can say about it.” The two stayed married for nearly 17 years before finally deciding to go their separate ways.
The pair divorced in 2002. So, why did Costello stay in such a toxic relationship for so long? Well, according to the singer, he thought it was punishment for how he treated his first wife. By the end of their relationship, everyone had caught on to how miserable Costello was.
In fact, Fox News once called O’Riordan “Costello’s Yoko Ono, a Grim Reaper in person with seemingly no sense of humor.” After the divorce, it seems that both Costello and O’Riordan were able to pick themselves up from the ground—a telltale sign that they were not a good match.
O’Riordan was admitted to a hospital in 2003, where she was diagnosed with depression and forced her to deal with her illness. As for Costello, he moved on with piano-vocalist Diana Krall. The two became engaged in May 2003 and tied the knot in December of that same year.
The two met at the 2002 Grammy Awards through their mutual friend, Elton John—who also hosted their wedding at his mansion in England. “We were performing together on an old stage, and Elvis had on very new, very modern, and pointy shoes,” Krall told RN Afternoons.
After that performance, with the support of Elton John, the two have been inseparable. Krall gave birth to their twin sons in 2006. And although their music styles couldn’t be more different, it seems that Costello finally met his match with Krall.
“I think it’s such an incredible thing to be in our house,” the pianist told USA Today. “I have the jazz musician’s curse of being hypersensitive to everything. Elvis can sit with the kids running around, in a totally cuckoo space, and focus.”
Costello may be on good terms with the public today, but that wasn’t always the case. While drinking at a bar in Columbus, Ohio, during his 1979 tour of the U.S., Costello made horrible, derogatory comments about Ray Charles, James Brown, the “stupidity of Black music,” and America in general.
Bonnie Bramlett punched him in the face, People magazine wrote about the incident, and Costello was forced to speak about the scandal at a press conference in New York. He tried to explain himself, but his apology and explanation fell flat—and, well, rightfully so.
“It’s become a terrible thing, hanging over my head,” Costello told Rolling Strong magazine in 1982. “It’s horrible to work hard for a long time and find that what you’re best known for is something as idiotic as this.” So, what exactly happened that night?
And what was Costello thinking when he made those nasty comments? It all began after Costello headed to a bar with Bramlett and members of the Still Band after a show. A few drinks in, Costello says that they started “joshing” around. But as everyone got more drunk, gentle gibes turned into a nasty argument.
Costello’s excuse was that he was so drunk that his contempt for everyone else around him became exaggerated. “I don’t think I had a real opinion,” Costello said in 1982. “What it was about was that I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them, that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else.”
Well, Costello and his band paid the price for the stupidity of his actions—and rightfully so. The minute their story was published, all of Costello’s records were taken off the air; he received constant threats and had to be followed around by bodyguards for the remainder of his U.S. tour.
Costello also said that the press tour in New York was a complete and utter fail because of the person he was becoming. “I was, I think, rapidly becoming not a very nice person,” the musician confessed to Rolling Stone magazine. “I was losing track of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and my own control.”
The feelings of hatred and guilt that fueled his music were now taking over his life. He was constantly frustrated, drinking way too much, and lacked personal control. In other words, in 1979, Elvis Costello was self-imploding.
A few months after the incident, Costello returned to the studio to record his fourth studio album, Get Happy!! The album was heavily influenced by R&B and soul music, which was a dramatic break from his first three albums.
Get Happy!! peaked at number 11 on the U.S. charts and was ranked as the number 11 album on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 best albums of the ’80s. Luckily for Costello and the Attractions, their career was back on track. Costello released hit after hit, but his success hit another wall in 1984.
Tensions within the band, most notably between Costello and his bassist, Bruce Thomas, were beginning to show. Costello then announced his retirement (which was short-lived), and the group broke up right before they recorded Goodbye Cruel World.
The album was poorly received by fans and critics alike. The following year, Costello appeared at the Live Aid concert in England, where he sang an “old northern English folk song”: All You Need Is Love. After releasing a single under the moniker The Coward Brothers and producing an album for the Pogues, Costello officially came out of retirement, and for a very good reason too.
In 1987, Paul McCartney’s manager suggested that he partner up with Costello. This was huge for Costello. Like everyone else around the world, he grew up listening to the Beatles. Now he was sitting next to McCartney himself, writing a number of songs that would appear on both of their next albums.
In fact, the two wrote Costello’s biggest hit in the U.S. and McCartney’s last Top 40 hit. Some people say that Costello was the best thing to happen to McCartney since John Lennon. So, how did it work so well between the two?
Like Lennon, Costello had a knack for writing lyrics. McCartney could write too, but after Lennon he didn’t have anyone to critique his work, forcing him to write better. Well, until Costello came along. He wasn’t intimidated by McCartney and had no problem telling him that his lyrics needed some work.
“I figured, in a way, he was being John. And for me, that was good and bad,” McCartney told Rolling Stone magazine in 2017. “He was a great person to write with, a great foil to bounce off, but here’s me, trying to avoid doing something too Beatle-y!”
The two biggest singles that came out of the duo’s songwriting sessions were Veronica and My Brave Face. Costello says that the two wrote Veronica during their initial meeting. His grandmother was losing her memory to Alzheimer’s and Costello had a hard time writing about it on his won. The single peaked at number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100—Costello’s highest Top 40 hit in the U.S.
All in all, the two wrote some 15 songs together, many of which ended up on McCartney’s 1989 album, Flowers in the Dirt. The album received great reviews, with one critic calling it the “return from the fabbest of the Fab Four.”
After his partnership with McCartney came to an end, Costello released a series of albums, appeared in TV shows like Treme and 30 Rock, and released an autobiography called Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. In 2018, Costello had a health scare after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
His doctors found a small but aggressive tumor, but, luckily for the musician, they were able to remove it with surgery. Even though he’s made a full recovery, reports of a cancer scare made a lasting mark on his fans. Costello, however, says that the reports were “over-exaggerated.”
That being said, Costello was happy with the amount of support he received from his fans at that time. “I had people come up to me in the street when I was in Liverpool recently, and they’re emotional.”
“It was very, very, you know, affecting to realize that people who you’d never met cared,” Costello explained in 2018. “And of course, you get one or two people going, ‘I never liked him anyway, I hope he dies.'” Luckily for fans, Costello is not only alive and well, but he’s still releasing new music.
In October 2020, Costello released his 31st studio album, Hey Clockface. He also released a massive reissue of his 1979 hit album, Armed Forces. Costello booked a U.S. tour for the summer of 2020, which was pushed back to 2021.
But who knows if the tour will have to be pushed back again, given the current situation in the world. At 66 years old, Costello is eager to get back on stage. “I know when I do come back on stage, it’s going to feel great,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in December 2020. “Imagine what kind of party we’re going to have!”