Elvis is in the building

He was a political agitator, tender romantic, tortured soul and probably one of the greatest singer-songwriters Britain has produced. Ahead of Elvis Costello’s live appearance in Norwich this evening, Keiron Pim looks back at his career.

He has been a spiky presence on the musical landscape for three decades and is showing no sign of fading away. Elvis Costello, who plays the UEA tonight with his band The Imposters, has carved out a place for himself in the history of pop music after nigh-on 30 years of musical individuality.

And the good news for the audience this evening is that he will be playing his greatest hits after a few years of changes in musical direction that have served to diminish his audience, if not necessarily his critical standing.

With songs such as Shipbuilding and Tramp the Dirt Down, Costello proved a thorn in the side of the Thatcherite 1980s, having broken into the mainstream with the New Wave post-punk acts in the late '70s.

His intelligent lyrics were often a scathing denunciation of the state of society in those years, and the acerbic quality to his character has often been in evidence throughout his career.

Alcohol and a turbulent personal life didn't help. He became infamous for his neurotic behaviour in the early years, with the press a regular subject of his tantrums, but that unpredictable nature lent an original quality to his music - which is what he will ultimately be remembered for.

"I've never called what I do 'rock'," he has said. "I don't care for the rock beat much. It's very slow. And a bit dull. At least in the late '70s, the beat was speeded up. It didn't swing a lot, but it was energetic. And it got away with the fact that it didn't swing.

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"I actually like music that swings. The old-time '50s rock'n'roll definitely had a lot of swing in it. When the roll went out of it, it lost a lot of its charm."

His defiant streak was there to be seen in his choice of name. He was born Declan Patrick MacManus but took the name Elvis Costello - first name as in Presley, the surname from his mother's maiden name - which constituted a rare cheek towards the King.

Born in Paddington, London, in 1954, he began his musical career in the early 1970s performing in folk clubs under the name DP Costello, while also working as a computer programmer. The job put such a strain on his eyes that he began wearing his distinctive thick-rimmed glasses.

There was a musical tradition in the family: his father was the singer and bandleader Ross MacManus, who sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra and provided the vocals for the 1970s R Whites "secret lemonade drinker" TV advertisement.

In 1976, Declan MacManus was leading country-rock group Flip City but had an eye on getting his own record contract, and so recorded demos of his original material. He even went to the lengths of touring around record companies' offices giving impromptu performances, but it wasn't until of one of his tapes reached Jake Riviera at the independent record label Stiff that Costello was signed as a solo artist.

It was at this point that MacManus changed his name and then released two singles that failed to chart in 1977 before the album My Aim is True climbed to number 14.

He played live that autumn on the Stiffs Live package tour, with label-mates including Nick Lowe, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, having got together his backing band The Attractions.

And it is much the same group that will be backing Costello tonight - drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, alongside newcomer Davey Farragher on bass.

Costello's most recent album, The Delivery Man, was hailed as a return to form on release in autumn 2004.

Previous years had seen him embrace opera and classically-styled songs, and collaborate with his new wife, the jazz pianist Diana Krall, on her first collection of original material, The Girl in the Other Room.

Some, but not all, his past songs will no doubt appear tonight, for as he said recently: "I don't think there's an obligation to play the entire history of your life every night. If you're going to play a song just out of sentiment, that's not a good enough reason.

"You should play a song because you really feel something for it."