Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Elvis Costello
We’re taking a look at the sparkling career of the incredibly gifted singer-songwriter, Elvis Costello by revisiting the six songs which help to define him as an artist. One of the leading voices of his generation, Costello’s work as a middle-man between punk and the mainstream often belies his vast contribution to both sides of the tracks. With new album Hello Clockface arriving in October, there’s no better time to try and understand the great man.
If you’re to believe the news, then the generalised genre of ‘rock’ is dead in the water. The charts are stocked full of synthesised sounds and a new generation is finding new platforms for their expression more than ever. It’s a welcomed evolution in music which continues to devour the future as soon as it arrives—but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer up a little education in the past though.
As we aim to share a little insight into the rock icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The songs which offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend. We’re turning our attention towards Declan MacManus, AKA the fantastic Elvis Costello.
The singer has always had music in his soul, Elvis Costello may not share the same acclaim as some of the most notable acts that were born out of a mid-seventies creative surge that pulsed through Britain, but it’s undeniable that the singer-songwriter is rightly a national institution and a welcomed treasure.
Elvis Costello’s six definitive songs:
‘Less Than Zero’ – My Aim Is True (1977)
It was by pure chance that Elvis Costello changed his name from Declan MacManus to the iconic King of Pop’s moniker on the year that Elvis Presley died. While many were worried that Costello’s name change would encourage anger it actually gave him a boost in the public eye, as the sneering member of a new generation, it appeared he had usurped the King.
Many may point to ‘Less Than Zero’ and his name change as the beginning of Costello as an artist but he’d been plying his trade around London for years beforehand. Meticulously honing his craft for pennies, by the time he was readying the aforementioned debut single, Costello was already a hardened performer. It helped him take on the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
A dead-eyed attack on the Blackshirts of Britain added a hefty dose of credibility to Costello as he began to make his name. As well as being an astute and observant piece of protest music, the song is incredibly catchy. It showed that he was the clinical mind of punk, the shrewd and wily observer.
‘Radio Radio’ – This Year’s Model (1978)
Though Costello may have admitted to ‘Radio Soul’, the first iteration of ‘Radio Radio’ as being a “shameless imitation” one simply couldn’t leave out this song as a defining moment of Costello’s career.
Written in 1974, Costello once shared: “When I was sitting at home in England in 1975, in the thrall of Bruce Springsteen, he sort of made it feel like a big dream in America where a radio was playing and it was always the perfect song. And even though there’s sadness in the song, I wanted to believe that somewhere it was like that and it wasn’t like it was in the suburbs, where you couldn’t hear any music you liked half the time. So that was a wishful song.”
The song was an attack on the commercialisation of radio and media in general and offered Costello numerous sticky situations. One particular moment saw Costello banned from US TV show Saturday Night Live after he deliberately played the barbed track instead of a previously agreed song. It saw Costello banned for many years and confirmed his status in US folklore too.
In 2003, Costello said simply of the song, “you get into the business of making records and you realise what it’s really about is some guy going off with a big sack of money to give it to somebody with hookers and cocaine so that they play your record enough times that people get batted to death with it and that makes it a hit.”
‘Oliver’s Army’ – Armed Forces (1979)
What many people don’t seem to realise when approaching the curious figure of Elvis Costello is that for all the new wave found that crashed on his shores, the singer was a punk at heart. Not the safety pin through your nose nonsense but the real kind. Costello has kept political rhetoric and the societal climate as key factors in his music from the very first day.
One of his finest moment of protest song is the fantastic ‘Oliver’s Army’. A song so subversive and intelligent that most people were, and likely still are, unaware that it is even a protest song at all. The radio-ready juggernaut is about as close to bottling the essence of Elvis Costello as you’re ever likely to get. Razor-sharp and yet utterly danceable, it’s a wonderful combination.
Released on 1979 effort Armed Forces the song does have a habit of shocking you when Costello sings the N-word but the track’s intention is clear. It remains one of the most visceral pop songs Costello ever penned and is a must for any new fan.
‘Shipbuilding’ – Punch the Clock (1983)
Another protest song but with a brand new target as now Costello turns his attention to the Falklands War. With an effortless stroke of his pen, Costello draws the connecting line between the working class pride of the shipyard and the tragic journey many of them would make on those ships, heading with their sons to their possible deaths.
It’s easily one of Costello’s finest run of lyrics as he remains both visceral and gritty while keeping a deeply emotional heartbeat to the song. Costello himself has often noted it as a moment of pride looking back at his career. The music was written by Clive Langer and also recorded by Robert Wyatt yet not many consider his any real rival to Costello’s version.
Costello was in particular proud of the line “Diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls”, as it perfectly highlighted his ability to place poetry firmly in the middle of the Venn diagram of pop and punk.
‘I Want You’ – Blood and Chocolate (1986)
Another statement on Costello’s innate creativity is ‘I Want You’. Released in 1986 on the Blood & Chocolate album, Costello expertly offers up a piece of narrative noodling. One of his darkest and most brooding moments sees Costello take on the role of the obsessive, singing to his subject.
The lyrics describe a tormented romantic relationship as the narrator of the piece recounts the details of his partner’s infidelities while sinisterly and repeatedly declaring ‘I want you’ after each line. It’s a menacing prospect that is only heightened by the seemingly innocent lullaby introduction to the track.
In his album notes for the Girls Girls Girls compilation album, Costello wrote that “[t]he sound of this track was always going to be the aural equivalent of a blurred polaroid, so no apologies for the lack of fidelity. None are needed, it’s just a pornographic snapshot; lots of broken glass, a squashed box of chocolates and a little blood on the wall.”
‘When I Was Cruel No 2’ – When I Was Cruel (2002)
Elvis Costello has never stopped making music. The perennial performer has the very notes of his songs flowing through his veins. However, that hasn’t stopped media branding some of his songs as “comeback” moments. When I Was Cruel from 2002 was one of those records but the standout single was proof he had never really left.
Equipped with his new band the Imposters, Costello shows off a different facet to his music as he takes things down a notch and amps up the ambience. It showed off Costello’s aspirations to filter into all musical genres that appeal to him, unrestrained by the commercial properties of doing so.
It’s fair to say that within the rock sphere is where Costello is at his most comfortable, and objectively produces his best work, but you can’t deny his aptitude to push himself forward creatively. It’s the same drive that has pushed him towards different musical paths and propelled his career across the decades.