The Merseyside Roots of Elvis Costello

The Merseyside roots of Elvis Costello

(Below are extracts from an article which appears in full in Issue 2 of The Merseysider magazine.)

Elvis Costello appeared at the Liverpool Empire in May. He has of course appeared in the city many times, with concerts in recent years at the Philharmonic Hall and the Royal Court. So strong are the singer’s connections to Merseyside that each of these gigs might be said to represent a kind of homecoming. And if people sometimes exaggerate the length of time Elvis lived in Liverpool, that’s probably because the city – like the Wirral – has been an abiding influence throughout his life.

Pic of Elvis Costello on stage

(Photo credit: Chad Bakta)

Elvis has especially strong family links to Birkenhead. His grandparents, Pat and Mabel McManus, lived in Conway Street, where their son Ross (Elvis’s father) was born in 1927. The family was steeped in music: Pat was a trumpeter in ships’ orchestras on the transatlantic cruise liners that sailed from Liverpool, while Ross, as well as being a talented trumpet player himself, was to achieve national fame as a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra.

Elvis’s mother, Lilian Ablett, was like Ross a descendant of Irish emigrants and came from Liverpool’s Smithdown Road just across the river. The two were both working in and around London when they met, and it was through music that they came together. Ross was playing and singing with jazz bands, while Lilian helped to run jazz clubs and also sold records at Selfridges in Oxford Street. They married in 1952, and Elvis was born two years later, in Paddington, west London. He was though christened in Birkenhead: as Declan Patrick MacManus (the spelling of the family surname had slightly altered over the years) at Holy Cross Church…

Elvis has said that as a child ‘all my holidays were in Merseyside’, and he developed a strong affinity with the region: he was a passionate Liverpool supporter, for example, whose footballing hero was Roger Hunt. When his parents split up at the end of the Sixties his mother returned to Liverpool and took her son to live with her in West Derby. For Elvis, who was now sixteen, the move meant – as he later told an interviewer – ‘going home, really.’

Elvis lived in Liverpool from 1970 to 1973. He studied for his A levels at St Francis Xavier’s School and also gained his first solid experience as a performer. Earlier in 1970 he’d made his first solo (unpaid) appearance at a folk club in London, but during his time in Liverpool he began performing for money and also more regularly. He joined a band called Rusty, whose repertoire included songs by Van Morrison, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The group soon became a duo comprising Elvis and Allan Mayes, playing at such venues as the Temple Bar in Dale Street, the Lamplight in Wallasey, St George’s Hall and Liverpool University…

Pic of Elvis Costello with guitar

(Photo credit: James O’Mara)

Elvis’s songs often contain echoes of the Merseyside he knew as a child and a young man. Little Palaces, with its bleak picture of ‘chocolate town’ evokes the terraced houses of Birkenhead and the nearby Cadbury’s factory in Moreton. There’s a clip on YouTube of Elvis introducing the song with the words, ‘This concerns the town where my family ended up, and the things that have happened to it ever since. There’s a company there that makes chocolate’ In Shipbuilding, written in response to the Falklands War, declining shipyards (such as those of Birkenhead) are revived by the return of military conflict, but the workers see their sons go off to die on the very ships they have built. Most poignantly, Veronica is a tribute to his grandmother – Ross’s mother Mabel, whose middle names were Josephine Veronica. The song recalls her youth, ‘when the world was the street where she lived’ and her husband a ‘young man’ who ‘sailed on a ship in the sea’, carrying with him Veronica’s picture. The lyrics of Oliver’s Army (one of his most popular songs) have little obvious local relevance, other than a reference to ‘the boys from the Mersey’, but on the picture sleeve was a photo of the old Clockwork Orange Café on the Hoylake Road.

Other kinds of musical connection occur repeatedly. He performed the Searchers’ Don’t Throw Your Love Away on an album of Liverpool number ones (released to mark the city’s year as European capital of culture), and in 2010 he sang Penny Lane to Barack Obama at the White House, explaining that his mother came ‘about half a mile away’ from where the song is set…

Elvis lives in Canada now, with his third wife, the singer Diana Krall, and their two children – a long way from Merseyside, but the importance of the region in shaping the performer who many of us will be seeing at the Empire in May is indisputable.

The full version of this article is in Issue 2 of The Merseysider magazine. See our Home page for details of how to purchase the magazine.