23: Oliver’s Army…Elvis Costello

Watching an episode of ‘The Crown’ recently I was reminded of the Falklands war. At the time I was unemployed and living in a house which had heating one room only. Having survived a cold damp winter and facing an uncertain future I considered the possibility of the war escalating and national conscription happening. I don’t know what would have happened if that has transpired but my thoughts at the time were certainly ambivalent. I didn’t really want to join the army but at least if I did something would be happening in my worthless life.

And this was the conundrum Elvis Costello was addressing in my last polytechnic disco song.

It seems incredible now but by 1979 Costello was set to rule the world. After the glossy power pop misogyny, he had changed direction for the third time in 3 LPs for his most commercially successful album Armed Forces and was now high in the charts with Oliver’s Army. A mediation on the recruiting of working class lads from ‘the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne’ to give their lives in pointless wars, the song was apparently inspired by Costello considering the situation in Northern Ireland. Other people had tried, Paul McCartney had released ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ which was trite and jolly, Lennon later retaliated with his own song which was so awful I can’t even face checking the title of it. U2 would have a bash at it a couple of years later with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. There was basically a war in northern Ireland which didn’t really impact on us on the mainland but for Costello and the ex Beatles Liverpool as near as you could get to ‘the troubles’ without getting your feet wet.

Costello’s so artful with his wordplay I hadn’t really picked up on this at the time. I thought his reference to the ‘Murder Mile’ referred to a street where I lived with my family in the mid 60’s but equally applies to Belfast or any road which is quite long with a significant death rate. It didn’t stop me form thinking I had a special bond with Costello at the time.

Today I can’t ignore his use of the ‘n word’. I would never believe Costello is racist its use relates to the casual attitude towards soldier’s death. It also links the term used by the English towards the Irish with the song title which refers to Oliver Cromwell (just in case you thought it was about TV chef Jamie) There was no twitter storm, it got played on radio all the time, we didn’t feel the need to picket the polytechnic disco but those were different times, he probably wouldn’t try that lyrical device today.

What does amaze me is how a song of this depth so effortlessly get into the charts and the radio and the disco. It’s immediate strength of course is the music. From the first bars as keyboard player Steve Naive channels Rachmaninoff via Abba its peerless pop.

And you can dance to it

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2 Responses to 23: Oliver’s Army…Elvis Costello

  1. Taylor Styes says:

    This is my favorite song off my favorite album by Elvis Costello. It’s desperately fierce about poor people giving up their lives for pointless ruling hierarchies, and in the end, the message is clear: nothing is provided except empty promises and death. This is angry pop at its finest.

    Liked by 1 person

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