Elvis Costello first hit the UK chart towards the end of 1977 with the voyeuristic Watching The Detectives, but he’d been singing for a few years before that. If you are of a certain age, you may well have heard him on television in 1973 but unlikely to have recognised him.
His father Ronald ‘Ross’ McManus was born in Liverpool in 1927 and was a song writer and trumpeter with the Joe Loss orchestra which he joined in 1955. He wrote a song called Patsy Girl in 1964 which was credited to Ross McManus and the Joe Loss Blue Beats. It was released on HMV but failed to trouble the record buyers of the day. He released two further singles one being a cover of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You backed with a rather unusual version of If I Were a Rich Man. He also released one single in 1970 under the pseudonym Day Costello and was a cover of The Long and Winding Road.
His son, Declan, was born in 1954 and looked likely he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1973 commercial television stations screened an advert depicting a man in stripy pyjamas creeping downstairs to surreptitiously get a glass of lemonade from the fridge. The music it used was called The Secret Lemonade Drinker which was written and sung by Ross and featured a 19-year-old Elvis getting his break as a backing singer.
“I’ve been writing songs since I was 14,” remembered Elvis, “Although if I went back now and looked at them I’d find them pretty embarrassing. By the time I was 22 I’d had several false starts at getting bands together some of them are well documented and some were so fleeting that no-one knows about them.” To earn money Elvis had been working as a computer operator housed next door to a lipstick factory. Eventually things happened and I was the first artist signed to the new Stiff label in 1976. “Nick Lowe was the first artist on the label, but he wasn’t actually signed,” Elvis remembered, “and despite that I was the 11th release with the song Less Than Zero. I had stacks of material and then Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson (the bosses at Stiff) asked me to turn pro. I said ‘Only if I can earn as much money doing this as I do in my job as I have responsibilities’. I had a family and so they agreed to pay me the same.” His next single the following year was Alison whose chorus was based on the Detroit Spinners hit Ghetto Child. He has never revealed who it was about, in fact in the sleeve notes to his Girls Girls Girls compilation album, he wrote, ‘Much could be undone by saying more.’ Later the same year he released Red Shoes which did nothing, but finally Stiff’s 20th release, Watching the Detectives, gave him his first hit.
The track was credited solely to Elvis Costello although the B sides, Blame It On Caine and Mystery Dance were both credited to Elvis Costello & The Attractions, a name that a staff member at Stiff came up with even though they are not the same Attractions who backed him later. That line up was a group called the Clovers and featured keyboard player Steve Nieve (who did later become at Attraction!), Andrew Bodnar on bass and Steve Goulding on drums. The latter two were both in Graham Parker’s Rumour. The more classic line up of the Attractions saw the unrelated Bruce and Pete Thomas replacing Bodnar and Goulding on bass and drums respectively.
Watching The Detectives, which was produced by Nick Lowe, is a dark song about a lover who would rather watch television, but what inspired it? Elvis explained, “I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I’d been up for 36 hours and I was actually listening to the Clash’s first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote Watching the Detectives.” Rolling Stone magazine described the song as ‘a clever but furious burst of cynicism, but also an indisputably classic’.
The parent album, My Aim Is True, was made over the course of four six and a hour sessions with Elvis recording his parts in a room the size of a telephone booth and cost £1000. The single reached number 15 in the UK chart and was the first of, so far, 36 hit singles. In 2006 Elvis appeared on Later With Jools Holland and performed Watching the Detectives with a big band arrangement, which he admitted was “A desecration to people who love the tenseness of the original recording and the musical allusions in the original arrangements, relate very much to the realisation of this song as an orchestral piece using the film music feeling and the swing rhythms of 50s detective shows.”
The song has been covered a couple of times to good effect by Duran Duran in 1995 on their Thank You album and by Toto in 2002 on their Through the Looking Glass album.