Elvis Costello – Oliver’s Army

14th March 2023 · 1970s, 1979, Music

Elvis Costello’s initial run of singles was as strong as anything in pop history. This is arguably the best of them – the opening single from his third album Armed Forces.

Less Than Zero, Watching The Detectives and Alison from My Aim Is True. In my view, anyway. Pump It Up, I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea and Radio Radio from This Year’s Model (but only the US album release).

Then this, the opening single from what would be his best album yet, Armed Forces – soon to be followed by the equally great Accidents Will Happen.

Oliver’s Army still sounds as good as it did back in 1979, with that catchy piano melody (and those Abba-like trills), a chorus that sticks in your head for ever, and those lyrics – a powerful critique of British imperialism – replete with the wordplay we became accustomed to from Costello.

Including – trigger warning – a word that rhymes with one half of that phrase; used in an anti-racist/anti-war song in the context of Northern Ireland (“Only takes one itchy trigger / One more widow, one less white n*****”) , where the phrase was used against Catholics by the occupying British forces.

Times change, though, and although radio stations had generally played the song uncensored for more than 40 years, in January 2022 Costello asked them no longer to play it, and announced that he would no longer perform it in concert.

Costello – whose father grew up in Belfast – wrote the song on a plane back from his first visit to the city, his imagination (and fury) fired by the sight of soldiers on the streets.

“These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world,” he said later. “The song was based on the premise that they always get a working class boy to do the killing.'”