- About Us
November 30, 2020
by Mike Sauter
Elvis Costello has had such a long and varied career, it’s interesting to remember where it all began for him.
In the mid 1970s, Elvis Costello—born Declan MacManus—was working as a computer operator at the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden in West London. He was described by The Guardian in 1977 as a “bespectacled 22-year-old computer operator from Hounslow who looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and Woody Allen.” He said that in his day job, he was “just an operator, sticking computer tapes on and taking print-outs off.” Looking after a 1970s mainframe computer gave him a lot of downtime to jot down song lyrics, so it was the perfect job for an aspiring songwriter.
In 1973 and 1974, Declan was a big fan and an occasional roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, the band which featured Nick Lowe as singer and bass player. The band is perhaps best-known for their 1974 track “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” written by Lowe and later covered by Costello. During this time, Costello and some other Brinsley Schwarz afficionados formed their own band which they dubbed Flip City.
The band recorded some demos, committing to tape both cover songs as well as originals. Most of the guys in the group weren’t as musically ambitious as Declan was, and he left the group in late 1975. In 1976, Elvis submitted some song demos to newly-founded label Stiff Records, and the label tried to interest Dave Edmunds in recording some of the songs.
When Edmunds declined, the label put Elvis in a recording studio to make better-sounding demos with Nick Lowe as producer and the American band Clover backing him. The San Francisco band, which included Sean Hopper (later of Huey Lewis & The News) and John McFee (later of The Doobie Brothers), was working in London at the time. Nick Lowe was the first artist signed to Stiff and was working with Edmunds as a member of Rockpile, so he was a natural choice to shape Elvis’ music into a form that could change Edmunds’ mind. However, after the music was recorded, the record label realized that these “demos” were good enough to release on their own.
In 1977, Stiff issued Elvis’ debut single “Less Than Zero” in the U.K. on March 25, although it failed to gain any traction. The label tried again with “Alison” on May 21 and again with “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” on July 7. None charted, but Costello was gaining fans and starting to pack London pubs (although he didn’t quit his computer operator day job until July 9).
His debut album My Aim is True came out on July 22, and the LP-buying public responded to him better, landing him at #14 on the U.K. album charts.
On July 26, Elvis attempted a little publicity stunt to draw some attention to his fledgling career. Stiff Records didn’t distribute their releases in the U.S., but the major label Columbia Records was holding their annual convention in London. Part business meetings and part drink-fueled party, the event drew all of the bigwigs from the label together in one place. Elvis turned up outside the convention hotel with a small amp slung from his shoulder and began playing. Syndicated U.S. rock writer Lisa Robinson was there and wrote, “Stiff Records’ Elvis Costello (who sounds like Bruce Springsteen and Graham Parker but has no U.S. recording deal yet) gave an impromptu performance outside the Hilton Hotel and was dragged away by police—but not before [Columbia Records president Walter] Yetnikoff had a chance to catch two numbers.”
In fact, Robinson was the one who buttonholed Yetnikoff, late for a meeting, and insisted that he listen to Costello. According to the label president, he was going to leave without listening and Robinson implored him, “You’re making a mistake. He has hits. You must sign him.” Yetnikoff responded, “Fine, I’ll tell my [artists & repertoire] man to sign him.” The incident, however offhandedly, led to Columbia distributing his album for U.S. release. Costello later told the media that “It’s not every day you get a few feet from the president of a multi-million dollar record company and sing Lip Service Is All You’ll Get From Me” (from the as-yet unrecorded song “Lip Service”).
One wonders if Elvis Costello’s name and appearance slowed down U.S. record labels from wanting to distribute his music stateside. The stage name was a big deal to some, especially after Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977—one review later that year called it an “ill-timed stage name.” In a feature that summer in The Guardian, the writer said that he “found it hard to address this serious, fast-talking and apparently humourless young man as Elvis.” One September newspaper review of My Aim Is True used an epithet offensive to those with mental disabilities in describing Costello’s stage name. Some writers lumped him in with other strange-sounding emerging punk artists like Richard Hell, Johnny Rotten, and the Dead Boys. Other music critics threw up the white flag. “Enough gags about this guy’s name,” implored one in the Arizona Republic. The former Declan MacManus said of his stage name in 1977, “It’s great, because there are only two of us and I’m so anti-sexy while Presley is such a sex star. It’s not a spoof—quite the opposite.” And his appearance spawned comments, if not as many on the name. “With his short hair, dumbo clothes, bookworm glasses,” wrote the Miami Times, Costello “may look like a real dinky wimpoid.”
By November, Elvis’ debut was already being described as the best-selling British import of the year in the U.S., and Columbia Records was finally getting out a domestic release of My Aim Is True. Columbia decided to release “Alison” as a single and made a special version with added strings and additional backing vocals. The label touted the new mix to radio outlets in trade magazine Billboard: “The Columbia ‘Alison’ is already selling at a premium price in Greenwich Village record shops. It’s a different mix from the album track and people gladly pay $1.25 for it.” Costello apparently wasn’t a fan of the single version as it only appeared on the 7-inch (and on a later complete singles box set). The song was not a hit in the U.S.—at least, not until Linda Ronstadt’s 1978 cover version.
That month, Costello also began his debut American tour along with his new backing band, The Attractions, and performed a couple of dozen shows across the U.S., frequently doing radio interviews or live concert broadcasts to maximize his visibility.
This blitz hit its memorable apex on Dec. 17, 1977 when they caught a break. The Sex Pistols pulled out as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and Costello was tapped to replace the notorious punkers. He and The Attractions began with a gritty version of “Watching the Detectives,” but the organ wasn’t plugged in. Almost a minute into the song, a stagehand ran out behind the band and plugged in the keyboard amp.
Some backstage antics by the show’s cast led Elvis and the band to feel like they were being treated like last-minute replacements. After drinking a good deal of vodka before their second song—planned to be “Less Than Zero”—they hatched a plan to change the song mid-performance. While live on national TV, Elvis cried out “Stop!” to his band barely 10 seconds into the number.
“I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here.” Turning back to the band, he called out “Radio Radio!” and gave a furious count-in. Fueled by vodka and adrenaline, they launch into a blistering version of “Radio Radio”—a song not yet released on either side of the Atlantic. Elvis later told Rolling Stone, “We came off the stage and they were very definitely pissed off at us. We just went back to the dressing room and laughed ourselves stupid, drank the rest of the vodka and left, pursued by people making dire threats.” Legend has it that SNL producer Lorne Michael spent a portion of the performance standing behind the camera making a rude gesture in Costello’s direction. The effort got him banned from Saturday Night Live for a little more than 16 years.
The incident capped off the roller-coaster of 1977 for Elvis Costello. He began the year uncertain whether he was destined as a recording artist or to be primarily a songwriter. He ended the year with his debut album out, a tour and a national TV appearance in the U.S., and his inaugural hit single. “Watching the Detectives,” his first single recorded with The Attractions, got him onto the British singles chart for the first time on November 5 and it eventually peaked at #15 on December 24. (He would not have a hit single in the U.S. until 1983 with “Everyday I Write the Book.”)