Declan Patrick MacManus was 22 when he arrived at Stiff Records. It was 1976 and Jake Riviera had picked up on the singer songwriter’s demo tapes which he had been sending out from various dead-end jobs in Liverpool where he had moved to from London as a young boy. MacManus knew from a very young age that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps into music – Ross MacManus had been a singer in the ‘light’ band, The Joe Loss Orchestra.
The first thing Stiff did for MacManus was to change his name. They went for the most outrageous tag they could think of for a breaking artist – Elvis – and combined it with his mother’s maiden name, Costello. “Everybody had pseudonyms then,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006. “It didn't seem unusual.”
“I had this idea that I was a songwriter rather than a performer… When I saw that Nick Lowe was on a label and it was only two stops on the tube from where I worked, I took off sick one day and took my tape in. They were mostly the songs on the first album. Later I got a call. They thought some of them were good…”
On signing, Stiff put Costello in the studio with Nick Lowe and a debut 7”, March’s 1977’s Less Than Zero (BUY 11) resulted. Elvis’ very image defined the look of early Stiff releases – stark, black and white, clear references to the past but twisting them into a two-fingered salute… A fundamental part of the first Stiff package tour, he was initially categorised as punk rock, but only because several other early signings like The Damed were punk, and because the term ‘new wave’ had yet to be coined.
Three more singles followed that year, all produced by Lowe, starting with Alison through to Costello’s - and the label Stiff’s - breakthrough hit, Watching The Detectives (BUY 20). It sparked a career that would last ad infinitum, taking in collaborations with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach along the way, but it was also his last record for Stiff. He jumped ship in 1978 along with Jake Riviera when his mentor left to form Radar Records, although he did briefly return to the label to produce The Pogues, marrying their bassist Cait O’Riordan.