Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Blame It On CainMy Aim Is True
Pay It BackMy Aim Is True
AlisonMy Aim Is True
Radio RadioThis Year's Model (US)
Pump It UpThis Year's Model
Oliver's ArmyArmed Forces
(What's So Funny 'Bout)
Peace, Love and Understanding
Armed Forces (US)
I Can't Stand Up For Falling DownGet Happy!!
From A Whisper To A ScreamTrust
A Good Year For The RosesAlmost Blue
Elvis Costello – a career overview
God Give Me StrengthPainted From Memory
This Year's GirlThis Year's Model
The Delivery ManThe Delivery Man
Five Gears In ReverseGet Happy!!
Man Out Of TimeImperial Bedroom
God's ComicSpike
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesMy Aim Is True
Brilliant MistakeKing Of America
When I Was Cruel No.2When I Was Cruel

Elvis Costello playlist


Contributors: Rob Millis & Glenn Smith


Elvis Costello – The Attractions years

If there is one man who fell on his feet eventually it is one Declan McManus. After a few years of following Brinsley Schwarz up and down the country – and fronting the under-achiever pub rock act Flip City (whose check shirts and dungarees look was even more Brinsley Schwarz than Brinsley Schwarz) – McManus woodshedded his songwriting, broke up Flip City and set out trying to get a solo deal. Eventually he got one – via none other than Nick Lowe, his hero, long term friend and for a few years at least, record producer. His own devised stage name of D.P. Costello got tweaked into the far from subtle Elvis Costello, he was recast as the horn-rimmed glasses wearing uber-geek and he was off.

“The best album Brinsley Schwarz never made” is how at least one good friend of mine has referred to My Aim Is True over the years, and he has a point. The shuffle Pay It Back in particular has the air of Northwood’s finest about it, if with a little more urgency than that band would muster in the studio, and definitely in step with the times. Also, Lowe employed the visiting American band Clover to back Costello on this debut platter, a favourite – along with The Band – and big influence on Lowe’s nascent songwriting and just the act to give the record that genuinely stateside feel that both Costello and Lowe (neither men great ones for typically riffy homegrown rock) sought. Let’s have Blame It On Cain, Pay It Back and Alison from My Aim Is True and move on.

It was decided that Costello needed a band – with a signature sound – of his own to promote the LP and The Attractions were born. Steve Nieve, though lacking the pedigree of the rhythm section, was an inspired choice, his trained keyboard technique making him almost the Garth Hudson of UK new wave, whether on piano or on his trademark shrill Vox Continental organ that gave the band an instant classic pop sound. Bruce Thomas – who’d been in the pre-Sutherland Brothers era of Quiver – was chosen for bass duties and ex-Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers (a pub rock act right up there with the Brinsleys, Ace and Bees Make Honey and an early management gig for Jake Riviera) drummer Pete Thomas completed the combo, who toured the first album they hadn’t played on, and were featured on the Live Stiffs tour, Costello and Ian Dury developing a healthy rivalry to be top dog. Dury needn’t have worried – Riviera split from Stiff, formed Radar Records and took, among others, both Costello and Lowe with him.

The Attractions packed a punch live, and even on record Costello’s new material became higher energy music than the languid perfection of Clover. This Year’s Model followed, and across the UK and US versions featured three strong singles in Pump It Up, Radio Radio and I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea (I’ll have the first two for my Topper Ten), but the versatility of the band was showcased in Oliver’s Army from third LP Armed Forces. From this period, we’ll also have Costello and the Attractions’ rendition of Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, a non-LP selection in the UK that was actually one side of a joint 45 with Lowe himself (American Squirm being the title cut).

Lowe would remain in the production chair for the fourth and fifth releases, and very different they were too. Get Happy!! was influenced by the rhythms of soul R&B and like an album of that genre managed to knock up ten tracks per side, from which I have selected Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down (an old chestnut; it was a toss up between this and Costello’s own Secondary Modern). Trust, on the other hand, reduced the track count to more conventional levels and after some false recording starts was a much more melodic pop album. We’ll take From A Whisper To A Scream (with cameos from Glenn Tilbrook on vocals and the mighty Martin Belmont on guitar) as our last bit of rock and roll revelry before backing off a notch.

We’ll all remember the front room setting – and those unwittingly spooky kids – of the video from Good Year For The Roses (Clover’s John McFee augmented the Attractions on pedal steel) and timeless it us too, cover or not. In actual fact, country covers were the order of the day on Almost Blue, Costello’s first LP not produced by Nick Lowe.

And there I’ll leave it, less than a decade into a long career, because I’ve used my ten slots, and wouldn’t give any of them up. So rich is the choice of material that Costello himself has been known to feature a big roulette wheel on stage with song titles thereupon, to spin and thus decide the next song to play in concert, so I don’t feel remotely bad. The Attractions of course are long since disbanded (Bruce Thomas and Costello had a volatile relationship; Thomas’s book “The Big Wheel” is really worth a read but don’t let Costello catch you doing so) but both Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve continue to work with Costello to this day. Now, I know for a fact that somebody else is going to write a piece that covers the later years, so it also seems sporting to let them have the mighty Spike album in their tale, having selfishly cherry-picked not only the Attractions legacy but all the Clover, Lowe, Stiffs tour years stuff for mine.

Now, I am not a fan of football. This is a big deal in the UK. It singles me out for all manner of scrutiny and disdain by many, for further ridicule based around an assumed limp-wristed orientation by the game’s most uncouth and monosyllabic protagonists, and at least of a default inability to do manly things like carpentry and giving another chap a “thick ear”. But there – I cannot help it. The only matter arising from the game I have ever been remotely intrigued by is the semi-recent trend of “fantasy football” and I oft wondered if such a thing could be adapted to become Fantasy Rock & Roll Band, and who I’d pick for mine were such a light-hearted pastime deemed practicable.

But I don’t have to anymore thanks to Costello on his US television music show “Spectacle”. One week, Costello lined up himself and Steve Nieve with old friend Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, Allen Toussaint, Larry Campbell and Levon Helm. That’ll do, eh.

Author’s footnote: I have failed to mention Watching The Detectives in the above piece, so do so now to placate any folk given to easily rupturing their spleen or prone to attacks of the vapours. I didn’t have Bad Moon Rising in my CCR piece either, so there.

Rob Millis


Elvis Costello – a career overview

I had the pleasure of seeing Elvis Costello live in 2013 with his amazing Spectacular Spinning Songbook show. The stage was replete with a bar, a go go dancing cage and the enormous fairground spinning wheel of song, where a selection of songs culled from over 40 albums miraculously summed up his amazing career as a songwriter and performer. Like all the greats, there are several Elvis’s to think about: the skinny jerky punk, the faux soul shouter, Bacharach ballad man, country schmoozer, piano man, rock and roll guitarist and at all times, the witty clever lyricist. He has the right Northern pedigree, indeed so right that his Liverpudlian roots afforded him the opportunity to meet Nick Lowe at the Cavern, while they were hanging out playing folk music, just before it was car parked by the visionary Liverpool Council. And, like another Liverpool lad made good, Elvis came from a musical family, his dad being a vocalist with Joe Loss and his Band (featuring a very young Andy Summers).

Musically, he was born at the best of times; he is 14 in 1968 by which time he has absorbed the performance lessons of his hard-touring father, and learned the world of song writing through the songs of the sixties. He gets to hear Lennon & McCartney/Davies/Townshend/Bacharach & David et al as they are released, fresh with all the song writing surprises the songs of that era contained. Where would the Fabs go next? What would Ray Davies do on the next single? The first song he writes as a 14-year-old is called Winter, and in writing it he discovered the power of minor chords; with E Minor you could go down as many dark and moody paths as you wanted.

The early seventies didn’t suit him, but he used the time well, watching and waiting for the zeitgeist to shift; and sure enough along comes punk. Most reflections on punk focus on the energy and “the anyone can do this ethos”, which is completely valid. But equally important was the re-emergence of the three minute song with great melody and great lyrics. Glen Matlock and John Lydon lead the charge, albeit under layers of Steve Jones, but the bedsit boys all hear the call and Pete Shelley, Paul Weller and others start to pump out the next great generation of rock and roll song writing.

And here comes Elvis. Declan McManus finds a new manager who crafts a new name and a new identity for the songwriter wielding a Fender Jazzmaster. He draws on the Buddy Holly iconic imagery, invokes the old King long since dethroned through peanut butter led excess, and sets out as an angry skinny young man who can write. His first album title says it all, his aim is true. He writes about love and loss, the drudgery of the working life, the emergence of neo fascism and he spends quite a bit of time threatening to get people back; someone out there is going to get theirs. My Aim Is True contains a classic in Alison; Linda Ronstadt quickly recorded it and had a massive hit. This was the first recognition that Elvis was a seriously good songwriter.

What follows is an amazing career of relentless touring and constant recording. While he has had highly successful forays into covering other people’s work (his 1981 album of country covers Almost Blue being a highlight, check out his cover of Gram Parsons’ Your Toy) his career is marked by the stunning and dramatic evolution of his song writing. The first three albums are within the post punk framework, short, sharp, angry but melodic. He makes a break with that sound with the release of one of his truly great records, the Stax tribute album Get Happy!! (1980). From there he is free of the restrictions of form; he goes down whatever path he wants, producing an amazing range of songs across every genre of popular music. Mostly the records worked brilliantly; sometimes they were flops (if you want to hear his best clunkers try Goodbye Cruel World and The Juliet Letters …).

And so this is a list of some of his greatest songs. It does not include any of his brilliant covers as this appraisal of Elvis focuses on his songwriting over his work as a performer and interpreter.

God Give Me Strength is drawn from his 1998 (Painted From Memory) collaboration with Burt Bacharach and was used for the soundtrack of the film Grace Of My Heart. Kristen Vigard covered it in providing the voice for the main character in the film, but EC’s version is definitive. It has the sad Bacharach trumpet, an instrumental nod to his greatest moments in the sixties, but mainly it is power of the words, a love not so much lost as worn out, exhausted, too tired to imagine, too late to take the call. The melody is beautiful, the intent angry and wicked; he wants him, the other guy, to hurt.

This Year’s Girl (This Year’s Model 1978) sees newly famous, newly loved Elvis astonished at his sudden ability to be noticed and admired. Musically it has got all the trappings of his early sound, the swirling organ, pumping bass and some very gritty work on the Fender Jazzmaster. Short, sharp and harsh, it sees him looking at the bright new shiny world of disco synthesizers knowing that it’s not for him, but wanting it anyway.

Fallen comes from the melancholic album, North (2003). I’d never want to share my life with a songwriter for fear that when the bust up comes they are going to spill the grief in a very public way. Fallen, like the rest of the album, reflects on his break up with his long term partner – he was leaving her for Diana Krall. This is a beautiful piano piece with some of his finest lyrics; it evokes Cole Porter in its use of imagery, the cruelty of youth passing, the autumn of not only our years but our love.

In The Delivery Man (The Delivery Man 2004), Elvis shares McCartney’s love of painting pictures and telling stories. While not quite Molly, Desmond or Maxwell, The Delivery Man takes us into the world of Vivian and her daughter Ivy, and their delivery man, Abel. Is he able, can he deliver? In a certain light he looks like … Elvis. The guitar howls and the Imposters deliver on the right balance of mood and menace. This includes one of the great extended fadeouts of all time.

Five Gears In Reverse (Get Happy!! 1980). The whole album is a Stax rave up and this track best sums up the mood. Funky driving bass, Booker T organ riffs and four to the floor drumming. Lyrically, he’s laying it all out to the latest flame who is having trouble lighting his fire. Elvis is always at his best when he asks the question, in this case “if you don’t know by now…” Get happy or get out.

Man Out Of Time, on the album Imperial Bedroom (1982), ushered in a lush sound, full of piano flourishes by Steve Nieve, and the song exemplifies the pomp and circumstance of that amazing record. The man is out of time, he doesn’t fit anywhere, any how and “the high heel that he used to be has been ground down”. Elvis has had his regular battles with the booze and its consequences and here his lyrics perfectly capture the guilty pleasures of indulging in the sauce. Only Elvis can write of love scarpering and fawning, leading to the man drinking himself insensitive and hating himself in the morning.

Not sure where EC stands on the whole God question but only he could get away with God’s Comic (Spike 1989); this letter to God from a washed-up comic that then morphs into that God’s reflection on the whole sorry mess that has been created, Andrew Lloyd Webber and all. The chorus is rousingly and morbidly repetitive, the type you’d sing in an Irish pub, and it has a conscious nod to Lennon’s Scared from Walls and Bridges.

(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes (My Aim is True 1977). The Fabs loom large in all of EC’s work, as they should. Red Shoes lifts the chords from Please Please Me and sends the themes of unrequited love off into the world of the angry young man. Lennon knew he’d get some pleasure, Elvis is not so sure; he wants to be her friend but it isn’t happening, “she said drop dead and left with another guy”.

Country music has had a huge influence on Elvis’s writing and performance and King Of America (1986) was his first serious attempt to write an album of country laments. Produced by T Bone Burnett the record is a stunning success; his wordplay and imagery being a perfect fit with the themes of country music. Brilliant Mistake brings it all together; the Englishman looking in on what he loves about America, but knowing that it is not his to have and that he doesn’t fit. He sings of watching how love disappears like commonsense, perfume lingering, of being a fine idea at the time but now being a brilliant mistake. Hank Williams would have loved it.

When I Was Cruel No.2 (When I Was Cruel 2002). Dark, moody, threatening, No.2 shows he can take you down the dark alley and hold a knife to your throat whenever he wants. Who needs that skinny kid from 1978, this older Elvis is meaner, he spits out the invective, ghosts of past wives float by, while the old Jazzmaster churns out the noir riffs. Tattoos in 82, smart kids with records to plug; this is an astonishing killer blues from a man who knows where to bury the skeletons.

Glenn Smith


Elvis Costello official site

Elvis Costello Resource & Discography

Elvis Costello Fan Site

Elvis Costello biography (Apple Music)

Rob Millis has provided Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano and vocals for such names as Dave Kelly, Micky Moody, John Fiddler. Rob resides in the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, where (as we all know) the blues was first invented …

Glenn Smith lives in Sydney and teaches high school English, plays very bad guitar with his bass playing son and spends far too much time thinking about The Beatles….

TopperPost #268


  1. Andrew Shields
    May 4, 2014

    Great lists… Was a Costello fan up until King of America, but since then I am afraid his work largely leaves me cold. He seemed to lose the essence of what had made him so great before and went off on tangents which became increasingly portentous and self-regarding… For what its worth, I would have to have ‘Indoor Fireworks’ in ny top ten and probably ‘Watching The Detectives’…

    • Rob Millis
      May 5, 2014

      I agree Andrew, although I am sure there is stuff among his last few years worth a listen, if a little daunting to wade through it all to find it.

  2. Jerry Tenenbaum
    May 5, 2014

    In my view, he is ‘great’, but in a way that is different than what he was noted for in the first 10 years or so. It reminds me of Dylan, who clearly did his greatest work until about 1976 and then went in different directions. Dylan has had very good periods since 1976. No artist can maintain the supreme levels that Dylan reached or that Costello reached or that Springsteen reached etc. I’ve written in the past about my approach to artists who go many years past their greatest work. I try to look at each piece of work on its own and avoid comparison to what was. Does this song or album or novel or movie stand up on its own? Andrew, I think you are suggesting that you have done that and that this more recent work does not in your view stand up on its own merit. (But I’ll bet you could find a few exceptions if you listen to some of these more recent albums). For me, many of his recent songs are very good though they are not at that stellar level of Alison or many of the others. But how many ‘Visions of Johanna’ or “LARS’ can a man write? Only one!!

  3. Andrew Shields
    May 5, 2014

    Agree with your main point, Jerry, and it may simply be that Elvis’ later work simply does not speak to me in the same way as his earlier work did. There is a difference, here, though in that with many other artists such as Dylan or Steve Earle or Bruce Cockburn or Joni Mitchell, I have continued to admire their work through all kinds of stylistic changes. But with Elvis, I have to admit, that from ‘Spike” onwards I simply lost interest and the little I have heard since has done little to rekindle it… There seems to me to be something manufactured about his later work – and, to be honest, I would much rather listen to Graham Parker’s more recent work than Elvis’s. And hands up those of you who really did like “The Juliet Letters”?

    • Rob Millis
      May 5, 2014

      (leaves arms hanging downwards…)

  4. Ian Ashleigh
    May 5, 2014

    This has been a post that seems to have been trailed for quite a while and one I was awaiting with a certain anticipation. Guys, you didn’t disappoint. I would have no idea what to exclude but I really like Moods for Moderns (Armed Forces), and I’d also include Let Him Dangle and Veronica (both Spike) and Shipbuilding in my ten. Costello’s work with the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and with Richard Harvey on the soundtrack of GBH illustrates the breadth of his output. It may be have been an urban myth but I’m sure I remember a Beatles reunion mooted with Costello and his Jazzmaster in John Lennon’s shoes – Declan, Paul, George and Ringo?

  5. Andrew Shields
    May 5, 2014

    Ian – am shocked that I didn’t think of ‘Shipbuilding’, which is a great, great song… And Robert Wyatt’s version is one of my favourite records of all time… Lest I sounded too negative before, I would add that I think that ‘My Aim is True’, ‘Armed Forces’, ‘Imperial Bedroom’, ‘Blood and Chocolate’ and ‘King of America’ are classic albums…

  6. David Lewis
    May 5, 2014

    Like Andrew, I haven’t heard much after probably Veronica, though unlike Andrew, I have liked a bit more of it… Oliver’s Army, though, is in my view, one of the great songs of the 20th century, and would make it into my 20th century rock era topper ten.

  7. Keith Shackleton
    May 6, 2014

    OK, areas of accord: absolutely nothing from Goodbye Cruel World, Mighty Like A Rose or Kojak Variety – check. Man Out Of Time and What’s So Funny… awesome, totally in agreement. I’m not allowing myself the genre exercises of Get Happy!! (even though I Can’t Stand Up… is very fine) and Almost Blue (Imperial Bedroom’s Almost Blue is better than anything on Almost Blue) so here’s an almost-alternative-EC-ten put together without thinking too hard, because if I thought too hard I’d never get ten together.
    Less Than Zero, Watching the Detectives, Lipstick Vogue, Green Shirt, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, New Lace Sleeves, Man Out Of Time, I Want You, Baby Plays Around, 13 Steps Lead Down.
    But then there’s Big Sister’s Clothes and Kid About It, and the bonkers rendition of Miracle Man on Live at the El Mocambo, and the Angry Young Sod bootleg… decisions, decisions.

  8. John Chamberlain
    May 6, 2014

    I don’t know if he is still married to Diana Krall but her album “The girl in the other room” with many titles penned by them both was a leap forward and brought out another side of her voice.

  9. Jerry Tenenbaum
    May 6, 2014

    Diana Krall and Elvis Costello headlined the new Dubai (‘Blended’) 2 day music festival. Each performed a set and then they appeared together. The reviews were spectacular and Krall particularly was noted for her ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ by one reviewer. It is likely that they still share the same space together. The reviewer said they were living in New York but of course have Nanaimo and the UK as other backups. And there is family (children). May they live long and prosper.

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