20 Amazing Elvis Costello Facts

20 Amazing Elvis Costello Facts

elvis costello 1989
(Photo by Alain BENAINOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

This week marks 30 years since Elvis Costello released Spike, his first album in a Warner Bros deal which included critically acclaimed albums such as Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty. To celebrate the anniversary, I Like Your Old Stuff has gone through the archives and compiled 20 bits of trivia relating to the revered musician born Declan MacManus… 

1.    An embarrassment of riches, 1989’s Spike featured internationally acclaimed musicians including Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Allen Toussaint, Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) and producer T-Bone Burnett. Peaking at five on the UK Album Chart, Elvis summarised the eclectic nature of the album in his 2016 autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink: “When I signed my contract, I'd described five different albums that I could make for the label and asked them to choose which they'd like first, so nobody could be disappointed. They said, “Do whatever you want”, so I suppose I made all five of them at once…”

2.    Elvis Costello was the only artist whose set at London’s Wembley Stadium Live Aid event in 1985 consisted of a solitary cover. He performed The Beatles’ 1967 number one hit “All You Need Is Love” to a televised audience close to 1.9 billion.

3.    Influenced by ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ 1979 single “Oliver’s Army” spent three weeks at number two in the UK. The title was a reference to 17th-century military leader Oliver Cromwell, who didn’t make it back into the UK top five until Morrissey namechecked him on “Irish Blood, English Heart” in 2004.

4.    Costello’s father Ross, a career musician, released a cover of The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road” in 1970 under the name Day Costello. Due to his prescription glasses and notable likeness to his son, the single later set off a bizarre rumour during Elvis’s ‘70s tenure with Stiff Records that he was actually a 30-something muso hack masquerading as a newcomer. 

5.    Costello got to know second wife Cait O’Riordan while producing her band The Pogues’ 1985 breakthrough album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. According to Costello, Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan was “utterly contemptuous” of his producer.

6.    For the 1986 Elvis Costello & The Attractions albums King Of America and Blood & Chocolate, one of the nom-de-plumes Costello utilised was Napoleon Dynamite. The name was later used as the title character in a cult 2004 indie movie, however the film’s writer/director Jared Hess claimed he wasn’t aware of Costello’s alter-ego and called it “an embarrassing coincidence”.

7.    In 1989 Costello was asked to perform at the Royal Albert Hall with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, who were his musician friend Nick Lowe’s parents-in-law at the time. During a performance of the Christian hymn “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, June threw to Costello to sing the next verse, but he admitted they’d already performed all the verses he knew. She told him just to make one up, which he did. “It felt good playing with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello tonight,” Johnny Cash said after the show. 

8.    Elvis Costello’s appearances in movies include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the Spice Girls film Spice World and Joe Strummer-starring Straight To Hell.

9.    In his autobiography, Costello suggests a young Julia Roberts asked to be in a 1989 music video, but an executive hadn’t passed on the request. Despite the accidental snub, Costello later worked on the 1999 Roberts film Notting Hill, covering Charles Aznavour’s song "She" for the soundtrack.

10.    In 1993 Elvis Costello wrote the album Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears for Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James in a single weekend, but gave it to her on the condition she either record all the songs or none of them. “I don’t know the man well enough to analyse his motivations, but I think there was a certain amount of ‘look how clever I am’ from him,” James said in 2008. “He was being very intellectual with The Brodsky Quartet at that point in his career, so it was ‘I’m doing string compositions and collaborating with serious musicians, but on the side I can knock off a whole pop album for Wendy James on a weekend’. The funny thing is, for many Costello aficionados they considered the songs on my album his best work since a major Attractions record…”

11.    When Costello was a small child, his mum worked at a Richmond Hill record store and was instrumental in importing hard-to-find vinyl from the US. She would often sell these highly sought-after records to the likes of young blues fans such as future Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. Costello and Jagger would later appear together in The Simpsons episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation”.

12.    When he was just 15, future Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr recorded a session for Elvis Costello’s manager Jake Riviera, who was looking to expand his stable of artists. Marr’s band White Dice’s audition was unsuccessful. 

13.    In the early ‘70s, Elvis’ father Ross recorded “Secret Lemonade Drinker”, a popular jingle for an R. White’s soft drink advert. The award-winning ad ran through the ‘70s and ‘80s and was even referenced by ‘90s Britpop band Mansun in their tune “Lemonade Secret Drinker”.

14.    In 1998 Elvis collaborated with No Doubt on the track “I Throw My Toys Around” for The Rugrats Movie soundtrack. It was written by Elvis and his then-wife Cait O’Riordan. 

15.    While Costello was recording his song “Shipbuilding” during his Punch The Clock album sessions in 1983, other artists in London’s Air Studios at the same time include Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney (joined by producer Quincy Jones), Duran Duran and Alice Cooper.

16.    A Paul McCartney co-write, Spike’s hit single “Veronica” went to 27 on the Australian ARIA Chart in 1989. It was Costello’s first top 30 success in Australia since “Oliver’s Army” a decade before in 1979.

17.    Before going full time with his music career in the late ‘70s, Costello worked at the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics factory as a computer technician. During late shifts, he would smuggle his guitar into the building and write songs while dressed in his white lab coat uniform.

18.    Filling in for an absent Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello & The Attractions performed on cult US TV show Saturday Night Live in 1977. The infamous performance of “Less Than Zero” saw Costello cut the take mid-song before bashing out the song “Radio, Radio” instead. Seen at the time as a monumental, anti-authoritarian act, Costello reprised the action for a skit with the Beastie Boys for the Saturday Night Live 25th anniversary performance.

19.    Despite often being attributed as the originator of the phrase ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’, Costello suggests in his autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink it was actually a Martin Mull saying his manager Jake Riviera frequently used.

20.     A number of the musicians who performed on the debut 1977 Elvis Costello album My Aim Is True were members of the US band Clover, who were also signed to Stiff Records. They would later morph into ‘80s hitmakers Huey Lewis & The News. It’s hip to be square!

Celebrate the 30th anniversary of Spike by listening to the album on Spotify here...

Related Posts