Musical Monday: Elvis Costello

For the next few weeks I’m selecting tracks from artists I’ve seen in concert more than once – a select bunch!

Today’s the turn of Elvis Costello OBE (1954 – ) an English singer-songwriter who’s won multiple awards in his career, including Grammy Awards in 1999 and 2020, and has twice been nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Male Artist. In 2003, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Costello number 80 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Costello began his career as part of London’s pub rock scene in the early 1970s and later became associated with the first wave of the British punk and new wave movement that emerged in the mid-to-late 1970s.His critically acclaimed debut album My Aim Is True was released in 1977. Shortly after recording it, he formed the Attractions as his backing band. His second album This Year’s Model was released in 1978, and was ranked number 11 by Rolling Stone on its list of the best albums from 1967 to 1987. His third album Armed Forces was released in 1979, and features his highest-charting single, Oliver’s Army (number 2 in the UK).

Costello wrote Oliver’s Army as a comment on the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. He was inspired to write the song after seeing British soldiers patrolling the streets of Belfast. He stated,:

I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world.

The song was based on the premise that they always get a working class boy to do the killing. Costello’s family had roots in the Northern Ireland conflict; as his grandfather was an Ulster Catholic and, as a child, Costello’s father I lived in an area where bigotry was rife. 

The  “Oliver” in the title refers to English Parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), who personally led the English forces which subjugated Ireland in 1649. In addition to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the song references other “imperialist” conflicts. However, Costello later explained that the song was not intended to be a comprehensive political piece; it was pop music.


Costello and the Attractions toured and recorded together for the better part of a decade, though differences between them caused a split by 1986. Much of Costello’s work since has been as a solo artist, though reunions with members of the Attractions have been credited to the group over the years. Costello’s lyrics employ a wide vocabulary and frequent wordplay. His music has drawn on many diverse genres; one critic described him as a “pop encyclopaedia”, able to “reinvent the past in his own image”. Since 2002, his touring band (featuring a rotating cast of musicians) has been known as The Imposters.

Over the years, Costello has worked with numerous artists including Paul McCartney, Madness, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, T Bone Burnett, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Kid Rock, Lee Konitz, Brian Eno and Rubén Blades.

Costello, in print, often champions the works of others. He has written several pieces for the magazine Vanity Fair, including a summary of what a perfect weekend of music would be. He has contributed to two Grateful Dead tribute albums and covered Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter tunes “Ship of Fools”, “Friend of the Devil”, “It Must Have Been the Roses”, “Ripple” and “Tennessee Jed” in concert. His collaboration with Bacharach honoured Bacharach’s place in pop music history.

Costello has appeared in documentaries about singers Dusty Springfield, Brian Wilson, Wanda Jackson, Ron Sexsmith and Memphis, Tennessee-based Stax Records. He has interviewed one of his own influences, Joni Mitchell, and appeared on the release A Tribute to Joni Mitchell performing “Edith and the Kingpin”. He performed the title track of the Charles Mingus tribute collection, Weird Nightmare. He appeared on the Nick Lowe tribute album Labour of Love, performing the Lowe song “Egypt” and the Gram Parsons tribute album The Return of the Grievous Angel, performing the Parsons song “Sleepless Nights”. He was instrumental in bringing Sexsmith to a wider audience in 1995 by championing his debut album in Mojo magazine, even appearing on the cover with Sexsmith’s debut album.

In 2012, Costello was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires, to mark his 80th birthday. On being chosen, Costello, a life-long supporter of Liverpool FC, remarked:

I always dreamed that I might one day stand in the boots of Albert Stubbins [the Liverpool footballer who appeared in the original artwork].

15 Comments on “Musical Monday: Elvis Costello

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