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5 Essential Songs That Showcase Elvis Costello's Rock 'n' Roll Influences

Power pop icon Elvis Costello has released hundreds of songs influenced by the past, but often with an eye to the future.
Elvis Costello will perform at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Friday, January 12.
Elvis Costello will perform at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Friday, January 12. Photo by Mark Seliger
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Elvis Costello and rock 'n' roll were born right around the same time. He came into this world as Declan MacManus in 1954, the same year the guy he took his stage name from, Elvis Presley, first stepped into a studio at Sun Records. Costello was a part of the first generation of rock stars who didn't know a world without rock 'n' roll.

However, by the time he released his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, his attitude toward his musical forefathers differed greatly from that of his peers. While his British countrymen, the Sex Pistols, were saying throw out all the music that came before, Costello, with his hat tip to the King and his spectacles reminiscent of Buddy Holly, was respectful of the musicians who blazed his trail. Over the next 46 years, Costello released hundreds of songs influenced by the past, but often with an eye to the future.

Ahead of his concert at the Fillmore Miami Beach on January 12, here's a look at five Elvis Costello tracks that give you a feel for the rock 'n' roll legend.

"Watching the Detectives"

The 1977 single was the first of Costello's to hit the charts, and with its reggae beat, "Watching the Detectives" stands out from the rest. Although the Jamaican-influenced rhythms probably made it sound quite different from the radio songs of the era (outside of the Clash), its cinematic song title and lyrics harken back to the big-band era of music when songs would tell a cohesive story. Costello's father was a singer in just that type of a big band, so perhaps "Watching the Detectives" serves as a reggae tribute to his pops.

"Alison"

Off his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, "Alison" manages the trick of sounding simultaneously heart-wrenchingly raw while also seeming like a tongue-in-cheek mockery of a cheesy love ballad. In his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello wrote the song's inspiration came from encountering a beautiful woman working at a supermarket: "She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honor. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away."

"Pump It Up"

Due to its popularity in NBA and NHL arenas as a way to hype up crowds, this is probably the most famous Costello song that people don't realize they know. Released in 1978, the three-minute powderkeg was influenced by Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," but it can't shake off the new-wave influences reminiscent of other late '70s power pop like "My Sharona" and "What I Like About You." The music video shows Costello doing a dance I always thought the Talking Heads' David Byrne invented: the spastic rock star not fully in control of his body's reaction to the music. But in 1978, Costello might have planted his flag there first.

"Veronica"

Though Costello is often named one of the best songwriters of his generation, he wasn't intimidated to work with one of the best songwriters of the previous and any generation, Paul McCartney. At first listen, the 1989 track "Veronica" sounds like a traditional love song, but it is a tribute to Costello's grandmother, who was suffering from dementia. At moments, it sounds very much of its time, like something Phil Collins would have put out. But there's also something Beatles-esque about it, probably owing to McCartney playing bass on the track.

"Walk Us Uptown"

While it's tempting to concentrate only on his first few albums, Costello has been a working musician for nearly 50 years now, always pushing his boundaries with interesting collaborators and sticking his toes in different genres. On his 2013 album, Wise Up Ghost, he conspired with hip-hop band the Roots to make something that sounded both fresh and vintage. The Roots' funk and jazz beats seemed to propel Costello forward, none more so than on this track.

Elvis Costello & the Imposters. 8 p.m., Friday, January 12, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets $49.50–$149.50 via livenation.com.
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