Costello’s first single, ‘Less Than Zero,’ was released in April 1977 and later included on his phenomenal Lowe-produced debut My Aim Is True. Soon Top 20 in England, Aim (Number 32 U.S.) made Costello a major British cult star and attracted critical kudos Stateside. The now-classic album, which included one of popular music’s best-ever heartbreak songs in ‘Alison,’ as well as the haunting ‘Watching the Detectives,’ and the melodically addictive ‘(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’ was recorded with the Northern California band Clover a group that would form the basis of Huey Lewis and the News and made in six sessions for less than $2,000. Costello then assembled the Attractions keyboardist Steve ‘Nieve’ Nason, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Bruce Thomas and hit the road. The band’s December 17, 1977, appearance on Saturday Night Live as a last-minute fill-in for the Sex Pistols introduced Costello to American audiences and solidified his punk reputation. He was supposed to play ‘Less Than Zero,’ but after beginning the song, he abruptly cut it off and had the Attractions launch into the more pointed ‘Radio Radio’ instead.
Trust (Number 28, 1981), with its more piano-based sound, was a turning point for Costello. He revealed an uncharacteristically polite and reserved stage manner during his American tour, as if hard experience had mellowed the performer, who was still in his mid-Twenties. His touring partners were Squeeze, a critically acclaimed pop band whose 1981 LP East Side Story Costello co-produced. Later that same year Costello released Almost Blue (Number 50), an album of country & western covers recorded in Nashville with famed producer Billy Sherrill that got mixed reviews. (A C&W aficionado, Costello later re-covered a version of his ‘Stranger in the House’ with George Jones, while Costello’s songs were covered by Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt.) He came back with Imperial Bedroom (Number 30, 1982), which earned raves. Full of haunted ballads, the album garnered comparisons to such pre-rock bards as Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. With 1983’s Punch the Clock (Number 24), Costello continued to move beyond the punk minimalism of his early work, serving up soulful, accessible pop (‘Everyday I Write the Book,’ a Top 40 U.S hit and ‘Everyday I Write the Book with Daryl Hall) and serious balladry (the politically astute ‘Shipbuilding’). While less consistent, 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World (Number 35) also found him diversifying in this vein.
In 1986, Costello temporarily traded in the Attractions for a pickup band he called the Confederates former Elvis Presley musicians guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and bassist Jerry Scheff who appeared with him on all but one cut on the lushly melodic King of America (Number 39). Later that same year, Costello reenlisted the Attractions for the more raucous Blood and Chocolate (Number 84). The tour to promote both albums alternated between sets featuring the Attractions, the Confederates, and Costello performing solo, acoustically. In addition, Costello designed the Spinning Songbook, a device through which audience members could ‘choose,’ by luck of the draw, songs from his vast repertoire.
In 1987 Costello co-wrote a batch of songs with Paul McCartney, several of which materialized two years later on Spike (Number 32, 1989). The album which also included support from Roger McGuinn, Chrissie Hynde, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band produced a Top 20 hit in the McCartney-Costello collaboration ‘Veronica’ (Number 19, 1989) and went gold. Some critics found Spike inconsistent, though, preferring the subsequent compilation Girls Girls Girls, on which Costello chronicled his career thus far with his own favorite material.
Much like Spike, 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose (Number 55) was made without the Attractions, and was perceived as lacking focus. In 1993, Costello found a new sense of direction in perhaps his most ambitious project yet: The Juliet Letters . Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Rykodisc began releasing Costello’s early albums on CD, with extra tracks consisting of live and previously unreleased recordings.
He teamed up with old pals Thomas and Nieve for a new album, When I Was Cruel, released in 2002 on Island Records, and the following year released a set of pop ballads, North. His prolific output continued 2004, as he collaborated with his new wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, on her album The Girl in the Other Room, and released two discs of his own: Il Sogno, an orchestral work based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a more straight-ahead roots-rock album, The Delivery Man. The latter featured his new group the Imposters the Attractions with a different bass player, Davey Faragher, formerly of Cracker.
In 2005, Costello was commissioned to write a chamber opera for the Danish Royal Opera. The next year, he released a live album with a jazz orchestra and collaborated with New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint on an R&B album inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.