Declan Patrick MacManus was born in 1954 in London and his father, Ross MacManus was a musician and bandleader. Declan grew up in Twickenham and like his father had strong musical leanings. In 1971, he moved with his mother to Birkenhead, Cheshire, aged 17 to finish his schooling , and there formed a folk duo called Rusty, with Allan Mayes. After he moved back to London he started playing in a pub rock band called Flip City. It was at this time, Declan adopted the stage name D.P. Costello as a tribute to his father who performed under the name Day Costello. The young musician started to write his own music and as he made his way in the early years he took a variety of other jobs to support himself. He and his father featured in a television commercial for R. White's Lemonade ("I'm a Secret Lemonade Drinker") in 1973.
After Flip City broke up in the mid-70s, Costello was keen to pursue a solo career and signed to independent label Stiff Records on the basis of a demo tape. Originally, they wanted him to write songs for Dave Edmonds, but Edmonds was not interested, so they re-recorded the songs with Costello as the vocalist. Once they heard them they decided to stick with the songwriter after a name change to Elvis Costello. Elvis Costello's first single for Stiff was "Less Than Zero", released in 1977. Four months later, his début album, My Aim Is True (1977), was released to critical acclaim but moderate commercial success (No. 14 in the UK and, later, Top 40 in the US), The album was produced by Nick Lowe and the backing on the tracks was provided by uncredited, Clover a US band living in England. The original album credited ‘The Shamrocks.’ After the release of My Aim Is True he formed the Attractions as his backing band.
Stiff Records marked the puckarian, Elvis Costello wearing king sized Buddy Holly glasses and and his knees bent inwards together which made him stand out visually from other New Wave acts. As a publicity stunt Elvis Costello was arrested for busking outside a London convention of CBS Records executives, protesting no US record company had yet seen fit to release his records in the United States. A few months later he was signed to Columbia Records, CBS in the U.S. This Year's Model, was released in 1978.
Elvis Costello released "Watching the Detectives", in 1977 and it reached #15 in the UK singles chart. Costello was supported by Steve Nasom (aka Steve Nieve on keyboards and ukulele), Steve Goulding (drums) and Andrew Bodnar (bass) from The Rumour. The recording was produced by Nick Lowe and recorded in 1977.
In the same year, Elvis Costello and the Attractions completed a UK tour of the UK with other artists from Stiff Records. These included Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and Larry Wallis.
Elvis Costello soon gained a reputation as an angry young man. Post punk his lyrics often questioned commercialisation and other social issues not always consistent with his patrons. When he appeared on Saturday Night Live (1977) he had been forbidden from playing "Radio Radio" because it criticised commercialization of the airwaves. The band were scheduled to play, "Less Than Zero," however in hmage to Jimi Hendrix on the Lulu Show, they performed 'Radio Radio' and were subsequently banned from the show. The ensuing publicity ensured heavy sales of his debut album in America as his popularity exploded. The ban was lifted in 1989.
In 1978, Elvis Costello released his second album This Year's Model, with the Attractions. The line-up was Steve Nieve (keyboards and ukulele), Bruce Thomas (bass guitar) was a former member of Quiver, and Pete Thomas (drums) previously with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, and Elvis Costello on vocals. As with the previous album, the cover was designed by Barney Bubbles, and there were several unique pressings of limited editions sold with other novelties to drive sales and promote the New Wave sound. Accompanying music videos were now standard. The single. "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" reached No. 16 on the UK Singles Chart. This was followed by "Pump It Up" (#24) and Radio Radio (#29) in the same year.
The third album, Armed Forces (1979) featured the single "Oliver's Army" which reached Number 2 in the UK Singles Chart. Initial UK pressings included a three-song single, Live at Hollywood High, produced by Nick Lowe, with "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison," and "Watching the Detectives".
Now an established songwriter, the album reached Number 2 in the UK album chart and included some of their best works, including ‘Accidents will happen.’ This single gained wide television exposure due to an innovative animated music video, directed by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton.
Off stage Elvis could be feisty and during a drunken argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, he was critical of James Brown and Ray Charles, dismissing them as ‘niggers’. The reported conversation forced the English singer to apologise for his obnoxious remarks and out of character aberration at a New York City press conference a few days later. Costello was well aware of racism within the industry and had worked with Britain's Rock Against Racism campaign both before and after the incident. Later he recanted his remarks in "Riot Act," on the Get Happy!! album in 1980.
1979 was a busy year for Elvis Costello, away from the Attractions not only did he produce the debut album for the Specials , he also sang backing vocals for Twist on their album 'This Is Your Life'. Elvis and the Attractions also popped up in the movie, Americathon, playing "Crawling to the USA". .
Get Happy!! was released in 1980 and saw the band in a more upbeat mood. Gone was the angry, mean and moody to be replaced with a lighter happier sound. The album had 20 songs and is now considered to be the best recording of the new wave band in their prime years. It charted at Number 11 in the US and Number 2 in the UK. The album cover was designed by Barney Bubbles (F-Beat) The major single from the album was a dance track version of "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" which peaked at number 4 in the UK Singles Chart.
An ‘odd and sods’ album was released in 1980 and included mainly previously recorded material but there were some originals too. There were US and UK versions with more or less the same playlist but neither attracted much commercial attention. The band had peaked. Trust was released in 1981 and once again was produced by Nick Lowe and Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze and Martin Belmont from the Rumour guested on the song "From a Whisper to a Scream." None of the singles from the album entered the British Top 40.
Elvis was back in the studio as producer in 1981 and co-produced Squeeze's album. East Side Story (with Roger Bechirian). He also performed backing vocals on "Tempted". In the same year, Almost Blue, was recorded in Nashville and released, as a collection of favourite country songs but met with a mixed reception. The first pressings in the UK bore a sticker with the message: "WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause a radical reaction in narrow minded listeners." The band’s version of George Jones' "Good Year for the Roses" (written by Jerry Chesnut), reached number 6 in the UK charts.
Imperial Bedroom (1982) was produced by Geoff Emerick and became one of the most critically acclaimed albums from the band. Despite being ranked among the top ten "Albums of the Year" for 1982, it once again failed to produce any hit singles. The stand out track was ‘Almost Blue,’ and was inspired by American jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker, who later released his own version in 1987
In 1983, he released Punch the Clock, which featured a female backing vocal duo (Afrodiziak); a four-piece horn section (the TKO Horns); as well as the Attractions. Chet Baker played a trumpet solo on the protest song, ‘Shipbuilding,’ but the hit from the album was, "Everyday I Write the Book", which broke into the Top 40 in the U.S.
Elvis kept busy and sang backup vocals on a version of the Madness song "Tomorrow's Just Another Day" which was released as a B-side on the single of the same name. He also released "Pills and Soap" under the pseudonym The Imposter’
Close accord was not a feature of the band and for a couple of years bass player Bruce Thomas, and the group’s drummer, Pete Thomas had harboured bad feelings for each other. Once Bruce and Elvis were having issues, Elvis Costello announced his retirement and the break-up of the group. The band did record Goodbye Cruel World (1984) and it was poorly received, which was no surprise since the liner notes , penned by Costello, begin with the words "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album".