Where To Start With... Elvis Costello
Back in 1973, a full six years before Declan Patrick McManus would release his debut album under the name Elvis Costello, his voice could already be heard in homes across the nation, although you perhaps wouldn't have realised it at the time. In one of the more unusual beginnings to a long and successful career, the young Costello could be heard singing backing vocals in a TV advertising jingle written and performed by his father, Ross McManus. The resulting advert for R. White's Lemonade ('I'm a Secret Lemonade Drinker') was, incredibly, still running on TV well into the 1990s.
As time went on to tell, this was not where his career peaked. After catching the ear of Stiff Records co-founder Jake Riviera with a demo tape in 1976, the younger McManus assumed the name of Elvis Costello and released his debut album for the label, My Aim is True, the following year. Finding some minor chart success with the album's fourth single 'Watching the Detectives', its follow-up – released under the name Elvis Costello and The Attractions, proved to be a commercial breakthrough, yielding several hits and establishing Costello as one of the Uk's most impressive songwriting talents.
In the decades since, Elvis Costello has become one of the world's most prolific and successful artists, recording over 30 studio albums both as a solo artist and a collaborator, working with everyone from Burt Bacharach to The Roots and displaying a stylistic elasticity that has seen him cover everything from spiky, post-punk rock, to country music and film scores. From Grammy wins to Oscar nominations, there isn't much Costello hasn't achieved in a career spanning some four and a half decades.
And he's still going. His most recent studio album, 2018's Look Now, saw him reach the 30 album milestone and, less than two years on, Costello returns this week with his 31st.
Hey Clockface makes its arrival in stores today and could be said to be an album recorded in three acts; the first came pre-lockdown with a handful of songs recorded at a studio in Finnish capital Helsinki, before moving on to Paris for a suite of tracks recorded with pianos, horns and cellos.
Then the pandemic kicked in, and the final few tracks on the new album were recorded, as Costello puts it, “via electrical wire”, with the likes of guitarist Bill Frisell and Wilco's Nels Cline adding their contributions as the album's finishing touches. You can find one of the album's new tracks below...
To celebrate the new album's arrival we went digging into Elvis Costello's extensive back catalogue to pick out five key tracks as a snapshot of his incredible career as a songwriter and performer. No easy task in this case, and many, many classics had to fall by the wayside, but here's what we've boiled it all down to....
Of the four songs on Costello's debut album to be released as singles, only the reggae-infused 'Watching the Detectives' made its way into the charts, peaking in the UK at No.14, but it's arguably the second of these singles, 'Alison', which has enjoyed the more lasting impact, becoming one of Costello's most well-known songs and remaining a staple of his live shows to this day, as you can see from the video below....
'Pump It Up'
One of undoubted standouts on Costello's second album This Year's Model – the first to be released as Elvis Costello and The Attractions – 'Pump It Up' is also one of the most immediately recognisable tunes in his back catalogue, underpinned by a sleazy, pulsating groove and infectious chorus hook that make it a highlight of any live set.
'(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding'
Aside from its stunning cover artwork, 1979's Armed Forces is arguably Costello's finest album with The Attractions and although we could have easily picked either of the superb opening salvo 'Accidents Will Happen' or the chart-storming 'Oliver's Army' from its flawless tracklist, in the end we went for the album's finale, a masterclass in straight-down-the-line, jangly guitar pop with a simple message and a great hook.
Arguably one of Costello's career-defining moments as a songwriter, the hauntingly affecting ballad 'Shipbuilding' was first included on his 1983 album Punch the Clock and was a collaboration between Costello and composer Clive Langer, featuring a stunning trumpet solo from jazz legend Chet Baker, and while it was never released as a single at the time, the song has been since covered by a range of artists including Suede, Tamsin Archer and Robert Wyatt.
'Wake Me Up'
Aside form the 30+ albums Costello has released either as a solo artist or as the frontman for one of his bands, he's also found time to work on many collaborative albums over the years that have seen him cover all manner of stylistic ground, but one of the best examples is his 2013 collaboration with hip-hop luminaries The Roots, which produced this little gem of a track. You can watch a live version performed in the studio below...
Hey Clockface is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.