Elvis Costello has come a long way, from the country-rock flavoured songcraft of My Aim Is True, via the spume-flecked new-wave R&B of This Year’s Model, whence he has grown into one of our most sophisticated, inventive and prolific songwriters, a man at home in any genre from blues to bluegrass to ballet.
This month, with his hefty new memoir hitting the shelves with a loud crash, he reviews his long career in a 15-page cover interview in MOJO magazine. It’s fascinating stuff, as Costello and his collaborators paint the man in full – the stage performer compared by T Bone Burnett with The Incredible Hulk; the classical composer praised by the Brodsky Quartet’s Paul Cassidy (“his ear is as good as it gets”) and the songwriter who spears his faults and infidelities with painful candour.
All these aspects are reflected in the following 21-vid salute to the man born Declan MacManus and variously dubbed The Imposter, Little Hands Of Concrete and Napoleon Dynamite, but mostly, simply Elvis Costello.
Swipe and enjoy!
1. Watching The Detectives, 1978
Effortlessly cool, Costello and his Attractions breeze through their brooding reggae-noir in Koln, Germany.
2. You Belong To Me, 1978
Smashing out This Year’s Model’s Rolling Stones swaggerer, with a recklessness the hipsters of Passaic, New Jersey are doubtless still talking about.
3. Accidents Will Happen, 1979
Costello recently confessed that after every Top Of The Pops performance he duly sank down the charts. His suitably bug-eyed mime gives a clue as to why he didn’t quite fit smoothly into Britain’s teatime tradition.
4. Watch Your Step, 1981
Costello follows a unfamiliarly cosy chat with veteran interviewer Tom Snyder – taking in everything from computer operation to songwriting influences – with a great version of Trust’s stealth-soul threat.
5. Good Year For The Roses, 1981
Jerry Chesnut's country classic lends itself nicely to the domestic set up, but there’s a sickness at the heart of this strange promo. The strange kids are well Royal Tenenbaums.
6. Pills And Soap, 1983
Released under the pseudonym of 'The Imposter', the single was an open attack on the changes brought to Britain by Thatcherism and this stark performance takes no prisoners.
7. All You Need Is Love, 1985
Performing at Live Aid as an estimated 1.5 billion people tuned in to the transatlantic charity bash, Elvis Costello picks the perfect tune for the occasion. Busy Bodies just wouldn’t have cut it.
This melancholy song barely scraped the top 40 when it was released in 1982 during the Falklands War. But its conflicted, humanistic anti-war message, here brilliantly reprised in the ’90s, has stood the test of time.
9. Almost Blue, 1987
The inimitable Chet Baker takes Costello's mournful standard to deeper levels with this emotional reading from one of his final shows. Best Costello cover ever?
10. So Like Candy, 1991
Costello performs the song he co-wrote with Paul McCartney (“Paul was very ruthless with me,” Costello tells MOJO this month) with the great G.E. Smith on guitar and T-Bone Wolk on bass. The Beatliest he’s ever been.
11. The Birds Will Still Be Singing
A heart-wrenching song from The Juliet Letters, the 1993 album Costello made with top string group The Brodsky Quartet. “It was a kamizake situation,” the Brodskys’ Paul Cassidy tells MOJO magazine in our Costello cover story this month.
12. If I Had A Hammer
Costello’s dad Ross MacManus, giving it some welly as the Joe Loss band get with it on the folk revival favourite. With commentary by a proud son from the BBC’s Mystery Dance documentary.
13. God Give Me Strength, 1998
A stretch for Costello, both emotionally and vocally – but the song wrings an extraordinary performance from him. The highlight of his album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory.
14. Radio Radio, 1999
Elvis sabotages The Beastie Boys at the Saturday Night Live 25th Anniversary Show, harking back to his inaugural performance on SNL when he abandoned new US single Less Than Zero to burst into Radio Radio. The original stunt (watch it here) got the Attractions banned from the show for over a decade.
15. I Want To Vanish
A tender, bare-boned performance of his most soul-scouring song, so bereft his own mother reportedly couldn’t listen to it.
16. Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, 2003
Costello and The Imposters essay the self-loathing Spike album standout as part of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction – in the curious company of The Clash, The Police, AC/DC and The Righteous Brothers.
17. Bedlam, 2006
This "new telling of the nativity story" with reference to ongoing conflict in the Middle East is one of Costello’s recurring picaresques and a current Costello/Imposters live favourite. Here it is immortalised at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
18. April 5th, 2008
Adding to his extensive list of collaborators (Six Degrees Of Elvis Costello, anyone?), here’s a song co-written and co-performed with Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and Kris Kristofferson. It’s the most recently-written tune on his new, memoir-related compilation, Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album.
19. Interview With Sting, 2009
In an episode of his muso-friendly HBO series, Spectacle, Costello and Sting discuss the entwined origins of their songs Alison and Roxanne, and play them, eyeball to eyeball.
20. Stations Of The Cross, 2010
A deliciously funky performance of the National Ransom song, with an unusual combo of The Roots and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s John McLaughlin, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Check out the groovy tuba player.
21. I Want You, 2013
The Roots join Costello for a gritty-jazzy live studio recording of Blood & Chocolate’s howl of lovelorn anguish.