Part 16. Elvis Costello

As one of the more famous sons to emerge from the late 70s English pub rock scene, Elvis Costello's songwriting talent, passionate delivery and ability to pull a decent pint have enabled him to pursue an eclectic career, slipping with apparent east from new wave to country, from doo-wop to jazz and blues.

But there is more to this musical chameleon that meets the eye; an explanation which goes some way to explaining his shifts of style. The fact is that Elvis Costello is not one person but many, having been played by a number of different performers down the years.

Secret lemonade drinker

The original Costello was a 19-year-old secret lemonade drinker called Declan MacManus, son of the legendary and differently spelt Mick McManus, the all-in wrestler and inventor of the Pot Noodle.

McManus was keen for young Declan to follow him into the ring so that he could pick up the change that fell out of his pockets when he got thrown. Declan, however, was having none of it. He wanted to be a musician so he bought himself a guitar and learned to play it by propping it up in the corner of his room and staring at it until it gave up.

He also taught himself how to write music and in the process inadvertently invented a whole new form of notation in which all the sticks on the notes went down instead of up.

Getting a gig

However, getting himself a gig was to prove more difficult. There was a very healthy London pub rock scene at the time, but the acts outnumbered the venues by a factor of sixteen to one, meaning that artists had to fight pitched battles for spots on the bill. It wasn't uncommon to venture out of an evening and witness Ian Dury laying into The Stranglers or Eddie and the Hotrods purely for the privilege of performing Billericay Dickie to a couple of old fellas playing dominoes in the back room of the Dog and Duck.

Even in the more upmarket establishments, bands still had to compete for places, albeit in a more genteel manner - for example, via a few hands of whist or a word quiz. And even when they won, they were only permitted to stand quietly in a corner and not bother anyone.

Pot Noodle fortune

MacManus decided to circumvent the whole process and used his father's Pot Noodle fortune to buy his own pub, in which he was the main attraction. A record deal followed quickly afterwards and MacManus's alter ego, Elvis Costello, soon saw himself riding high in the charts.

Not that it was all plain sailing and Costello was still plagued by controversy. For example, in 1979 he angered TV executives when, during a recording of Saturday Night Live, Costello abruptly halted his performance and went off to record an episode of Mork and Mindy instead. It was this incident that signalled the beginning of MacManus's disillusion with the music industry. The following year he quit, dedicating the rest of his life to developing a new kind of potato waffle.


MacManus's retirement left record company executives with a problem. Costello was still a big name and they didn't want to lose one of their most lucrative artists. Then one bright spark suggested that Costello should regenerate into Patrick Troughton. It was an astonishing idea, but it worked.

Audiences were unsure at first but they soon warmed to the new Costello. Troughton continued to play the role for the next three years before he was replaced by Roger Moore. To date, eleven people have played Elvis Costello, including Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon.

The most recent incumbent in the role is the comic actor Jon Hedder, the youngest ever person to play the singer, and critics have remarked that he has brought a new lease of life to the franchise.

None of this is true, by the way.

Ricky Stratocaster has spent twenty years as a caterer for the music industry and is EMI's 'go to guy' for cheese.

Return to 'The History of Rock'

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