Elvis Costello has two great obsessions – music and football. Both loves owe a lot to his Irish roots. He has supported Liverpool – birthplace of his parents – since childhood, and has shown a similar devotion to the Republic of Ireland football team, because of his Irish heritage.
Paul McGrath is the one I love,” he says. “McGrath and Aldo [John Aldridge]. I loved that Ireland team. I loved the 1990 team. Ronnie Whelan, too. The Jack [Charlton]years were great. And how is it that Robbie Fowler or Steven Gerrard didn’t play for Ireland?” he says, referring to the two Liverpool legends. “If Jack Charlton was around now, he would have found the documents that would have said Ireland could have had them.”
What does he think of Roy Keane? “He’s what’s-his-name, isn’t he? He’s Roy Kent from Ted Lasso.”
He adds that his twin sons Dexter and Frank – with his wife, musician Diana Krall – are not interested in football but love the Emmy award-winning comedy about an American college football coach of that name hired to manage an English Premier League soccer team in London.
“The hard man character in it is a pro in the last days of his career and he is totally modelled on Roy Keane, in that he constantly looks at people like he’s going to kill them. He’s not Irish but in every other respect he is modelled on Roy, obviously.
“You’re asking me what I think of a player who played in the other kind of red” – that of Manchester United rather than the red of his beloved Liverpool – “and you are never going to get an answer out of me, but he did play in green. I loved him when he played in green.”
As for his own footballing prowess, he played in goal for his school. “I knew I would never go anywhere with it.”
Elvis’s youth is touched on in The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Tales), his new album with his band The Imposters. It is a collection of complex beautiful songs that “take us from the last days of a bewildered boyhood to that mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child”.
‘Penelope Halfpenny’ is based loosely on a teacher he had in primary school. “She was somebody whom I’m not sure really wanted to be a teacher and when you’re that age you notice if a teacher is not committed, and she would talk about other things in her own life. It was like glimpsing a grown-up world that we would one day enter.”
Video of the Day
In the illustrated booklet that comes with the album, a vignette accompanies every song. On ‘Farewell, OK’, the crack of spectacles on a nose is muffled by the sound of the band breaking into their set in a dancehall. Is that his famous spectacles being broken?
“It isn’t an actual experience, no. Though being cross-eyed in a dancehall is something I’ve experienced on a few occasions.”
His father Ross MacManus was a jazz trumpeter and a vocalist in the Joe Loss Orchestra. Not long returned from his National Service with the RAF in Egypt, he met Lillian Alda Ablett in the late 1940s at the counter of Bennett’s record shop where she worked in Liverpool. They moved to London where they married in 1952.
Two years later Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus was born on August 25, 1954, at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. His parents took him north to Birkenhead where he was baptised in Holy Cross church.
In London, the MacManus family lived a humble life, but one in which music was key. His mother worked in a record shop on Oxford Street, while Ross was out every night with Joe Loss.
“My first memories are of the basement flat that we lived in in Evermore Road in Olympia,” he says. “It was a boarding house. The Welsh landlady lived above us. She rented out her entire house. My mam had had to give up her job when I was born. My dad wasn’t on very much money. We didn’t get a TV until about 1958. There weren’t lots of records but the ones that we had got played a lot. So, they became very familiar to me.”
He recalls his mother telling him his favourite album, before he could speak, was Sinatra’s ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!’.
“I don’t really remember rock ‘n’ roll in our house,” he says, meaning that his father and mother’s record collection was a treasure trove of jazz and swing records.
“Recently, I was at my mother’s old apartment on the Wirral – because she passed in January of last year. She had a very severe stroke in 2018, and much to everyone’s astonishment, regained her words and her strength. It was a struggle over the last couple of years that’s for sure. She was 93.”
For his mum’s 90th birthday, Elvis and wife Diana (the pair married in 2003 at Elton John’s mansion in Surrey) brought her to see her team Liverpool FC play in a pre-season friendly against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.
They had dinner in the guest lounge before the game. The club’s MC had everyone join in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, which went beautifully until the final line, when he announced on the microphone: “Happy Birthday, Dear Stella”. Elvis, never stuck for a word, said: “There you are, Mam, we got you a new name for your birthday.”
After his mum’s death, he spent time tidying up her flat. “I spent that time making sure that the things I value are kept safe: this stack of 10-inch albums that we had… like Sinatra, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, [Squeeze’s] ‘Black Coffee in Bed’, a stack of Billy Eckstine singles.
“And not a rock ‘n’ roll record to be seen,” he laughs. “That is until they were records by me. My mother had a complete set of my singles from 1977 to 1989 because I gave them to her when they came out initially.”
As a child, he would often go with his dad to rehearsals and performances of the Joe Loss Orchestra.
“I was at the Hammersmith Palais as a seven-year-old on the balcony watching my dad and then I got to play it myself in 1979 and throughout the 1980s. I would go and see bands there. It was a bit weird going to see The Clash. It was like going to my dad’s office.”
When he was a young boy, he says, his parents’ relationship broke up.
“I was eight,” he says. “Maybe nine. I really noticed it, because my dad was around. He was in the Palais every night. When I was a kid, things that would be done socially between parents, my dad was never involved in.
“I realised when I went to see the screening of [Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary] Get Back in London two weeks ago that the previous time I’d been to the cinema in Leicester Square was with my father in 1970 to see Let It Be. That was the only time I ever went to the pictures with my father in my entire life.”
In 1970, he and his mother moved out of the family home in London to live in West Derby, Liverpool. There, the teenager, who had taken up the guitar three years earlier, told his school careers adviser that he wanted to be a songwriter, not a pop star.
“I was very pious,” he says. “I had that puritan teenage attitude about it. I’d known I was a writer since I was eight. I literally did know that’s what I was.”
In 1973, 19-year-old Costello moved to London to live with his father and the following year, he married his teenage sweetheart, Mary Burgoyne from Galway and they had a son, Matthew.
He got a job as a data-entry technician at the HQ of Elizabeth Arden for £30 a week. But he found time to write songs that he would hawk around record companies.
In 1977, he signed to Stiff Records. And it was his manager at the time, and Stiff co-founder, Jake Riviera who suggested he change his name to Elvis. His father suggested he take his paternal grandmother’s maiden name of Costello. His debut album My Aim is True came out in the summer of that year under his new name. His second album, This Year’s Model in 1978, featured ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Watching the Detectives’.
His single ‘Oliver’s Army’, inspired by a visit to Belfast, went to Number 2 in the British charts in 1979. There was an affair with American model – Liv Tyler’s mother – Bebe Buell between 1978 and 1979. His 1982 album, Imperial Bedroom was about a failed relationship – the collapse of his marriage to Mary. They divorced in 1984.
By this stage he was with Cait O’Riordan, bassist with The Pogues – they were together for 17 years. The melancholic piano-led torch songs on his 2003 album North seem to be Costello baring his soul about the dissolution of his relationship to Cait.
New album The Boy Named If has the happily married man singing about infidelity, guilt, lust and shame on songs like ‘Mistook Me for a Friend’ and ‘What If I Can’t Give You Anything but Love?’
“One of the strangest questions people ask a songwriter is: ‘Are these songs personal?’ It came from the inside of my head. How personal is that? Of course, they are personal. I think what they really mean is, are they true to your life? Are they confessional? They are not that,” he says.
Still, in 2011, when his father, who was suffering from Parkinson’s-related dementia, died, Costello went on to write one of his most confessional songs, 2013’s ‘The Puppet Has Cut His Strings’. It was literally about his father’s last breath.
His influence was immense. “A lot of my wilder records as a teenager were not things I bought myself but things my dad listened to for five minutes and then gave to me.”
“Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane and Mingus Ah Um [by Charlie Mingus]. He had good taste. He had curious taste. He was into The Incredible String Band. He had his ears open. All through the 1960s he was singing what was in the hit parade anyway because that’s what dance bands did in those days. They just did the hits of the day.
“So, my view of pop music was a little bit skew-y,” Elvis says, referring to the diverse mix of music his father got him into. “I didn’t just think of the people singing the songs. That’s why I wanted to be a songwriter. Because in my opinion, the songwriter seemed to be the major job.”
But there may be another reason why he became a songwriter, a twist of fate back in the late 19th century.
Elvis’s paternal grandfather Pat lost both parents and was placed in an orphanage where, luckily, his musical ability was recognised and nurtured. He passed on his musical talents to his son, Ross, who, in turn passed the love of music on to his son, Declan.
“I think about that all the time,” he says. “My paternal great-grandfather dug ditches. He probably thought he was going up in the world, that he got to shovel coal on the docks. Unfortunately, that was the end of him. He fell into the f**king hole and the coal fell on top of him and he was killed. So, his wife, my namesake Elizabeth Costello, brought up five kids.
“Then in 1906 my great-grandmother died of TB. Her eldest girl died of TB and she died of TB. It sounds like Dickens. Really tragic. How the hell she was caring for five kids on her own, I have no idea, but she did.
“Of course, there were no other relations. It was a miracle that they didn’t all die. Hence the three brothers were put in an orphanage and two of them picked up instruments, the older two, my uncle John and my grandpapa. He was in the army, I think, at 13. He was a boy soldier and a musician.
“He was taken from the orphanage to be trained at the Military School of Music in Kneller Hall and was seconded into the Royal Irish Regiment Second Battalion in 1914 and served as an orderly.”
Wasn’t your grandfather told by the British Army to stop being friendly with Irish people?
“That was when he returned, at the end of the war. It is ancient history stuff, but it does have something to do with me becoming a musician. He was wounded just before the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 and he ended up in a military hospital in South Wales.
“He was posted to Dublin and the regiment was disbanded during the Civil War. It was that strange period when the British army and the Irish army were in existence at the same time and that’s probably of course when that incident happened.
“My grandfather would give his nationality as English and Irish ultimately because strictly speaking he was a full-blooded Irish man. Both of his parents were born in Birkenhead. So, he had every reason to identify as Irish.”
There is a phrase ‘Liverpudlians are Irish people who can’t swim’, I say.
“It is not far off. All four of the Beatles had Irish heritage. Birkenhead is totally an Irish town. I was sat outside my dad’s house the other day where he used to live. The house isn’t there anymore because the Luftwaffe knocked it down. But, you know, it is 50 yards from the docks. Those streets were entirely Irish in those days. They were either orange or they were green. It is totally like that story. So, my dad completely identified with Ireland, much more than I ever could.”
Elvis has long kept an artistic connection with Ireland. In 1985, he started working with The Pogues. How does he look back on that period?
“Chaotic,” he says. “It was a very different time in life.”
He produced their abiding masterpiece Rum Sodomy & The Lash. “It was their greatest album. It is not my doing. It is Shaneo’s.”
Christy Moore played on Elvis’s 1989 album Spike. “Christy was great,” he says. “He did a beautiful folk-song version of a lyric of mine called ‘The Deportees Club’ [on Moore’s 1989 album Voyage] which I really love. There are a lot of my songs that I could hear him sing but he has never taken them on. He is just wonderful. The world is better with Christy in it. I’ve seen him do shows that would completely boggle the mind.”
And of course, Elvis also collaborated with another Irish great, the late Paddy Moloney.
“I was very sad that Paddy passed,” he says. “He had me come and write lyrics for a couple of things. In 1998 we wrote the anthem for The Irish in America: Long Journey Home series, which was sort of like writing a national anthem for Irish people in America.”
In 1991, he sang and co-wrote with Moloney, ‘The St Stephen’s Day Murders’. “I love that song, about poisoning your relations at Christmas,” he says. “That was great fun to do.”
On 1989’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, Elvis sang of hoping to live long enough to dance on the grave of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She died in 2013.
“That song was about an idea more than a person,” he says. “At that time I felt she sold people a false promise… to give you ownership in things you already owned. There is no politician that I have any regard for. I don’t trust any of them. I don’t look for that. I think we must look within ourselves to sort things out.”
I mention that at the Live Aid concert in Wembley Stadium in 1985 he played ‘All You Need Is Love’.
“You need that,” he replies, “but you can’t cower or rail under any slogan. Coming up with the slogan is only the first step. That is a rallying point. So many things are just a slogan. They’re not a thought and they’re not an action. That’s why things are so f**ked up. Because there is no follow through. There is just like the banner.
“Look at the people who have put the work in and have been working for something all their life. They really do the work. They keep going. They don’t just f**king make up a slogan and walk away.”
Time magazine called Costello “one of the most prolific and protean songwriters of his generation”.
A musical polymath, he has embraced a range of styles on his albums: country on 1981’s Almost Blue; arch Americana on 1985’s King of America; classical music on his 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters; desolate pop on Painted from Memory, his duets album with Burt Bacharach in 1998; R&B on his 2006 collaboration with Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse; bluegrass on 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
The Boy Named If is a continuation of that diversity, with its Vaudevillian pop songcraft courtesy of the 67-year-old man in the hat and the glasses. It is also his 32nd studio release.
What keeps him going? Does he feel he is carrying the torch that his father passed him?
“I think the general idea that travelling and music and to some degree, misadventure, were all possibilities was definitely illustrated by my father and not necessarily in a way that I admired when I was a self-righteous teenager, but later on, I went on and made my own mistakes.
“I don’t blame him or anyone else for the things I did and shouldn’t have done but in terms of where I’ve gone, particularly in the last 20 years, there is as much work done as in the first 20 of my career, if you count the releases . This is not a slacker.
“I was in the studio with Burt Bacharach a few months ago with a 30-piece orchestra. He is 93. And he is still going, ‘Elvis, bar six, you’re not singing the melody right.’ He is still putting me through it. Because he should.
“So,” Elvis says at the end of our interview, “instead of going to college, instead of going to university, I lived this life.”
‘The Boy Named If’ by Elvis Costello and The Imposters is out on Friday on EMI