Friday, January 20, 2017

"Oliver's Army" / Elvis Costello


This song just popped into my head around noonish today, Eastern Standard Time.  Seems as good a song to post as anything.


I was a huge Costello fan in 1979, when this song came out on EC's third album, Armed Forces. Well, I still am a huge Costello fan, but I was particularly keen in those years; I couldn't wait for this album to arrive. This track is still the biggest hit single Elvis ever had in the UK, though of course he wasn't primarily a singles artist. But you can see why it hit a nerve in Britain that year, in the dawn of the Thatcher years.

I originally assumed "Oliver" referred to Oliver Cromwell. In the Catholic schools young Declan/Elvis attended, Cromwell -- the harsh Puritan general who wrested power from the Catholic-favoring Stuart monarchy -- must have been painted as a villain.

However, I've later heard that Elvis also meant for Oliver to refer to Oliver Lyttelton, a Churchill crony who helped well-connected men avoid conscription in World War II because of their "usefulness to trade," thus throwing the burden of fighting onto poor unskilled men -- "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne," all disadvantaged areas at the time.

Either way, it's an anti-war, anti-racism, anti-oppression anthem, inspired, Elvis says, by a visit to Belfast, where he saw in horror raw young boys patrolling the war-torn streets with automatic rifles on their shoulders.  "They always get a working-class boy to do the killing," as Elvis has put it. There's that startling line, "One more widow, one less white nigger" (a "white nigger" was a common term used by Belfast Prods to describe Belfast Catholics) and the couplet "But it's no laughing party / When you've been on the murder mile," Murder Mile being a slang term for a particular violent section of Falls Road in Belfast.

Of course, the song doesn't stop with Belfast.  That would be too particular. No, he wants us to see a bigger pattern, where this sort of thing also happens in Berlin, Korea, Hong Kong, Palestine, South Africa.  Mercenaries, gunfights, and retribution everywhere, while the politicians ordering the killing sit in their luxury office towers miles away, dictating memos and going out to steak lunches. Or, like Elvis and the Attractions in the video, on a tropical beach, being serving umbrella cocktails.

The genius stroke of it all?  Pairing these angry, cynical, allusion-crammed lyrics with a supremely catchy, jaunty radio-ready tune --a real ear-worm -- underlaid with Steve Nieve's sparkling keyboards, drenched in ABBA-like pop chords and arpeggios. You can't help singing along to a song like this -- and maybe shouting the lyrics a little more fiercely when you realize what it's all about. Speaking truth to power.

Today that refrain is haunting me: "And I would rather be anywhere else / Than here / Today."

Sigh.

5 comments:

Tuesday said...

Wish we'd played this last night at our poster making party. Thanks for adding to my Songs for Holy Resistance playlist!

NickS said...

That refrain is apt for this weekend, and thank you for unpacking some of the details of the song. I'd always wondered, for example, what "murder mile" referred to.

I remember my grandfather saying, apropos of the "pumpkin papers," that the 50s were like a science fiction b-movie in some ways. The current moment feels a little too much like bad cyberpunk science fiction. . .

Janne A said...

Is this Costello's "Only a pawn in their game"? To me , these two songs connects in some way. Maybe far fetched, I dunno...

Holly A Hughes said...

Good comparison, Janne. I'm not much of Dylanist, so I didn't think of that song, but Costello's such a music historian, he may well have been thinking of it, consciously or not. Or maybe it's not a song connection -- it's a fact of life connection. Two smart social critics noticing the same sad phenomenon...

Luis Aguirre said...

Thanks HH, I admit that, although I love this song, I hadn't a clue about what Elvis was talking about until now. It must have been tha ABBA arrangements that hooked me, but I must admit that I hadn't made that connection either, so from now on I'll be listening to a whole new song.