A little Elvis Costello history: He was born Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus on August 25, 1954, in Paddington, England. He comes from a musical family: his grandfather a traveling musician, his dad a big band leader, and his mom a record store manager. At 18, Declan left school and started to write the songs that would introduce him to the world four years later. Renamed by his manager (Costello is his great-grandmother’s maiden name, Elvis is just pure punk audacity), he was tagged the angry young man of the British new wave movement. He went along with it, playing the part with bigmouthed bravado (which landed him in some infamous squabbles). But behind the sneer and the Buddy Holly glasses was one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation.
To celebrate Costello’s 57th birthday today, we’ve gone into the archives and pulled out the stories, told in his own words, behind a few of his songs. Happy birthday, Elvis—thanks for a lifetime of great music!
“Watching the Detectives”
I wrote it when I heard the first Clash record. I sort of locked myself in the flat that we were living in and listened to their record over and over again through headphones. It was the new thing, and I wanted to know what this thing was about. Reggae was part of my teenage years, as party music. But this was the more radical, political reggae. By the end of it, I thought, with the arrogance of youth, “Well, I can do better than this.” So I just wrote the whole song. There was that reggae part of it going on and, also, I had grown up on all the American detective shows. All that music, some of it by Bernard Herrman, some of it by Neil Hefti. In the piano part, I had the idea of having these parts [sings jittery counterpoint lines]. That’s kind of like Herrman. We were trying to do these orchestral things but all we could afford was a piano. That’s the charm of the record, is that it has this incredibly tough rhythm section and then it’s got these things that came from other places. There’s a noir thing going through a lot of the songs in my catalog. This is just the first one.
“Man Out of Time”
Originally, it was a very uptempo, aggressive song. I had made this mistake several times. At the time of Imperial Bedroom, I came to terms with the fact that I was sacrificing the power of certain songs to this mad pursuit of tempo. Everything had to be delivered forcefully. I don’t know whether it was just a natural process or, literally, cumulative exhaustion of what were very intense years. “Man Out of Time” is the one time I said, “No, stop. Let’s play this at the right tempo.” And we went for this bigger, more open sound. I think it’s a really good record. A lot of songs are about the sort of disgust with your own self. There were a lot of things that I wasn’t very happy with during that time. I wanted songs to blow up the world. I had mad ambitions. Not mad as in “ambition to be famous.” I never wanted that. That just came as an accident of it all. But somehow you look at yourself and you’re not happy with what you see. I didn’t want to write a self-regarding song, so I cast it in the clothes of political intrigue and what was going on in the world at that time. There was a famous political scandal in England going on then. It all sort of got wrapped up in the song. Sometimes a song will have a personal meaning and a public meaning. “Man Out of Time” is one of those.
“Everyday I Write the Book”
I wrote it just for a joke. But that’s often the way to write a hit record (laughs). We had a group on the road with us that was trying to write these very self-conscious, pop-jangly kind of songs and that was their trip. So I thought I’d tease them by writing something that was like what they did, only sort of better than them. I wrote it in 10 minutes. It’s [producer] Clive Langer that took it more seriously and heard that it could be a contemporary pop record. We did this whole kind of modern R&B arrangement. That little interlocking guitar pattern and stop-time thing had a vague relationship to “Sexual Healing,” which was popular at the time. We were just copying that kind of feel. Ours doesn’t groove as hard. But it wasn’t written to be played like that. It was written to be played like “From Head to Toe” by the Escorts. I was always attracted to that sort of innocent Merseybeat sound. Songs like “Away From You” by Gerry & The Pacemakers. There’s a harmonic disposition in Liverpool, I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s definitely there. It’s not just the Beatles. It’s everybody else. There’s a sudden shift to the minor that’s unexpected. It’s like sped-up doo-wop or something. It’s something to do with being a port town.
“So Like Candy”
I wrote that one with Paul [McCartney]. We wrote sitting across the table from each other, with two guitars. I think when I worked with him I wanted to persuade him that as everybody else was stealing from the Beatles, he shouldn’t be afraid of referring to his own harmonic language. He did it with more authority than anybody else. That isn’t it to say that we wrote in imitation, with the tight pop ruthlessness of the old Lennon & McCartney songs. But I didn’t really see why he should be so resistant to the cadences that seem to be natural to him. You hear them a lot in some of the songs we wrote together. Linda would tease us and call us “The Plastic Macs” or “The Hogshead Beatles” (laughs). We would do these two-part harmony versions of our songs and it would sound like “Girl” or something. You hear it in “You Want Her Too” and “My Brave Face.” Those two, and “So Like Candy.” Paul would make fun of me and say, “C’mon now, this is not fair. You’re getting to sing all the tough lines (laughs). I want to sing the tough lines.”
I also thought Paul had written some great songs, both in the Beatles and in his solo career, where he’d be writing characters. “Eleanor Rigby” being the most famous, but “Another Day” is a great song. It’s just like a little sketch of somebody. So I thought, let’s do that with “So Like Candy.” Let’s write about this girl who’s disappeared out of this guy’s life.
“Mistress and Maid”
Another song with Paul. He just came in with a postcard of the Vermeer painting. It’s called “Mistress and Maid,” and it’s of a noblewoman and her maid giving her a letter. And Paul said, “What’s that mean?” And we thought it was probably supposed to mean that the maid is bringing a letter from her lover or taking a letter to her lover. That’s usually the story in those pictures. We didn’t end up writing that story, but we wrote another story and got back into that character song thing. One day I hope the demo versions of the songs we wrote will come out. They are the best versions by far, because they have the charm and immediacy. There’s a raw, unadorned version of “The Lovers That Never Were” that is one of the great vocal performances of Paul’s entire career. And that’s really saying something. It’s completely unbelievable. When he did it, I was standing next to him and I thought, “Jesus Christ, he’s singing this so great!”
“I Want To Vanish”
It’s a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song. But in reality, it was a literal song. And if you take it as a literal song, it’s very dark indeed. That’s where I was at in ’95.
It’s a tip of the hat to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. “Heart-Shaped Bruise” from The Delivery Man is also. So [in referring to songs by other writers], I’m doing the same thing now. It’s not just something I did when I was 25. I still do it. I’ll say, “I’m going to write a song in that style.” I remember playing “Indoor Fireworks” to Ricky Skaggs backstage when I played a show with him in the mid-’80s, thinking I’d get him maybe to cover it. I think it was a couple of the chords—and the mention of the “martinis”—and you could see his face just kind of glaze over (laughs). “What? You can’t have martinis in a country song.” But that’s the thing, you should be able to admit other things into the tradition, because the tradition isn’t mine. The point of the song is that you have a model and then you don’t want to make it a slavish copy. The thing you learn from listening to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant songs is that they weren’t afraid of putting unusual harmonies into songs in the country idiom.
From Performing Songwriter Issue 80 cover story by Bill DeMain