“Life, for me, is about movement.” – Elvis Costello
Music was in his blood. Declan Patrick McManus, more commonly recognised as his stage name Elvis Costello, was born to Ross McManus, a jazz trumpeter who sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. But Costello’s approach to music would sit in stark contrast to his fathers. The formality of the big band was anathema to the politically conscious, outspoken and mildly threatening music of young Costello’s early career. With his striking resemblance to Buddy Holly, he became the poster boy of angry-nerd chic, a symbol of Thatcherite Britain’s dissatisfied youth.
But one of Elvis Costello’s many talents is that he was able to shapeshift from style to style with remarkable dexterity – even within the same record. Although his first hits were released around the time as the all-consuming punk and new wave moments, Costello was a distinct voice. He could move from tender ballads such as ‘Allison’ to angular stabs of ‘Welcome To The Working Week’ without a trace of hesitation.
Costello honed this chameleonic ability throughout his career, collaborating with everyone from Annie Lennon to The Brodsky quartet. In his 40 year career, he has released a stunning array of poignant, vital, and thrilling tracks.
Below, we’ve killed our darlings and chosen the ten songs that define Elvis Costello. Let’s take a look…
Elvis Costello’s 10 greatest songs:
‘Accidents Will Happen‘ – Armed Forces
From Costello’s third album, Armed Forces, this first track is the product of the young musician’s transformation from an obscure new wave artist to a worldwide star. According to Costello himself, the song was written in 1978 when he was “young and newly famous, and I didn’t have any sense of responsibility. Temptation came along, and I gave in to it more than I should have. That’s what this song is really about,” Costello explained.
Costello later revealed that the song was written after he fell in love with a taxi driver in Tuscon, and committed a regretful act of infidelity. However, more recently, he stated that the song has always been a little more complex than that, saying: “From my perspective, I had gone from being an outsider and not very social to being aware of people looking at me because I was on a record cover. There were girls taking an interest because I was somebody they’d heard of.
“There was all of that conundrum in the verse. I think in a weird way, there’s a kind of innocence in there or inexperience. I see that now. Of course, all of these things I didn’t see when I was writing it.”
‘This Year’s Girl’ – This Year’s Model
Arguably misunderstood, this pastiche of The Rolling Stones track ‘Stupid Girl’ got a lock of pushback when it was released in 1977. For many listeners, it felt misogynist and degrading. Still, Costello consistently refuted this, arguing that they were approaching the song from the wrong angle and that it was a criticism of the male gaze, saying that: “Everything in the song is about the way men see women and what they desire from them.”
Costello went on to add: “If there is a lie being told, then it is the one that a girl might be prepared to live or tell, in order to live up to some false ideal of attraction. That may contain disappointment and be critical, but it hardly constitutes hatred.”
‘Pump It Up’ – This Year’s Model
Inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, this next track is a tongue and cheek commentary on the lifestyle of the stereotypical rock ‘n’ roll musician. In an interview, Costello once said: “It was a satire. If you listen to the lyrics, it kind of goes against the grain of hedonism,” when discussing the track. He went on to add: “Well, just how much can you fuck, how many drugs can you do before you get so numb you can’t really feel anything?” ‘Pump It Up’ is one of Costello’s most recognisable tracks, and stays true to the founding principles of the new wave whilst containing signature flair.
In discussing the background of the music video for the track, Costello explained: “The director quickly found out that I could walk on the sides of my ankles. That was a trick that I’d learned not in vaudeville school but at the hands of a vaguely sadistic doctor. When it was determined that I had flat feet as a child, I was first told I would never make it in the army, then I was taught to pick up a ball of socks with my feet like a monkey and do that trick with my ankles in an attempt to strengthen my arches.”
‘I Almost Had A Weakness’ – The Juliet Letters
Recorded with the Brodsky quartet, this next track comes from Costello’s 1993 album The Juliet Letters. In that album, with the help of The Brodsky Quartet, Costello sets the imaginary letters of Shakespeare’s Juliet to angular and modal string music. It’s by far Costello’s most adventurous album, and this is just one of its many highlights.
It’s a pretty hard record to describe, being so different from anything else he’s done. But, in Elvis Costello’s own words, it is “a song sequence for string quartet and voice and it has a title. It’s a little bit different. It’s not a rock opera. It’s a new thing.”
In this song, and indeed the whole album, Costello seems to be evoking the spirit of his father, happy to lose himself in the rich textures that The Brodsky Quartet conjure out of thin air.
‘I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)’ – Get Happy!!
Recorded in 1980 for the album Get Happy!!, this next track was technically only sung by Elvis Costello. The original writers were Homer Banks and Allen Jones, but Costello did such a great rendition of it, that I feel it deserves a place on this list regardless.
Elvis Costello and The Attractions transformed the original track from a downtempo soul ballad into an uptempo Northern Soul-style dance track. It became a hit in the UK, and Ireland staying in the top ten for eight weeks. No small feat considering It’s got to be one of the shortest pop songs of the era, clocking in at just two minutes and fifteen seconds.
The song’s release was accompanied by a music video featuring Costello and The Attractions dancing in the Motown style. Costello later said: “We went to one of those proper dance studios with the mirror on the wall and the choreographer was trying to teach us basic Motown backing singer steps. I was drinking and said, ‘Well… the lead singer doesn’t usually do the moves,’ so I did a few steps and left it to the Attractions to do it all. The idea behind those early videos was to make comical little films. Once you started to think, ‘I’m remaking The Third Man or Citizen Kane‘, it lost a little of the charm.”
‘Alison’ – My Aim Is True
Released in 1977, ‘Alison’ is one of Costello’s earliest releases on the Stiff label. It failed to chart, but today it is one of his most beloved tracks. Speaking of the meaning behind the tender lyrics, Costello said: “I’ve always told people that I wrote the song ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further”.
That description perfectly captures the unique perspective of Costello’s songwriting. Often he would write songs that could easily be described as traditional love ballads; only they have been filtered through the nihilistic lens of a young man stuck in the mud of late capitalism. As a result, songs such as ‘Alison’ have the remarkable ability to be at once universal and incredibly era-specific.
‘Oliver’s Army’ – Punch The Clock
Even people who have never heard of Elvis Costello usually know this one. ‘Oliver’s Army’ was his highest-charting single and it spent three weeks at number two in the UK, as well as charting in a number of other countries. The track is another of Costello’s perceptive and politically charged numbers. It provides a scathing criticism of contemporary UK imperialism, drawing a parallel between Oliver Cromwell’s brutal conquest of Ireland and the UK government’s handling of “the troubles” in Costello’s own time.
Costello was inspired to write the song after he visited Northern Ireland. “I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working-class boy to do the killing’”.
‘Everyday I Write The Book’ – Punch The Clock
From 1983 album Punch The Clock, this track is a real testament to Costello’s skill as a songwriter. Describing how the song came about, Costello once said: “‘Everyday I Write the Book’ was a song I wrote in ten minutes almost as a challenge to myself. I thought, maybe I could write just a simple, almost formula song and make it mean something. I was quite happy with it and I tried to do it in a kind of lovers-rock type arrangement and I wasn’t happy with it and then ended up putting this other kind of rhythm to the song, which was written originally as a kind of Merseybeat knock off…I invested less emotionally in it than any other songs from that time yet it’s the one that everyone warmed to.”
A good chunk of the song’s charm stems from its lyrics. In them, Costello draws parallels between the writing of a book and the life of a relationship. Every line has some reference to literature and writing, and it’s so unashamedly romantic that you can’t help but feel swept up by the wordplay.
‘(I Dont Want To Go To) Chelsea’ – This Year’s Model
Written when Elvis Costello was still working as (of all things) a computer programmer, this snarling groove of a track comes from his second album This Year’s Model. On release, the song reached number 16 in the UK charts, and it is perhaps one of the most red-blooded tracks in the Costello canon. It evokes the slimy glamour of swinging London in the 1960s and seems to conjure up grainy footage of pallid high fashion models striking the pavement with elegant shoes. It’s Twiggy. It’s the Kinks. It’s bloody brilliant.
Costello said about writing the song: “Early one morning, I snuck my guitar into the office, as I knew I’d be working late into the night. Once everyone else had gone home and I was alone in the otherwise darkened building, with just the hum and chatter of the computer terminal and the far-off light of a coffee machine next to the stairwell where murderers lurked, I wrote ‘(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea’”.
‘Shipbuilding’ – Punch The Clock
The song David Bowie described as one of his favourites of all time, ‘Shipbuilding’, is one of the most significant musical contributions the UK has to offer. Everything about this track seems effortless. The song is as perfectly formed as the deep-sea pearls Costello references in the lyrics. What’s more, it features one of the best trumpet solos of all time, by one of the greatest trumpeters of all time; Chet Baker.
The song was written in 1982 in the wake of the Falklands War. When Costello sings: “It’s just a rumour that was spread around town/Somebody said that someone got filled in for saying that people get killed in/The results of their shipbuilding,” he reveals the fundamental irony behind the conflict.
For Costello, the war was an all-consuming cycle of destruction. It sent money into shipyards, only for the ships made there to be destroyed off the coast of Argentina. But more importantly, in ‘Shipbuilding’, it is the working men who are asked to craft these vessels who spell the death of their own sons, who go off to fight for some imaginary sense of sovereignty.