Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello and the Attractions – 1979.

Elvis Costello’s 1979 hit Oliver’s Army is typical of a lot of the music of the late 1970s. Its quirky vocals and staccato piano neatly bridge the divide between 70s punk and mainstream pop.

the english elvis

Elvis Costello’s real name is Declan Patrick MacManus. Elvis’ musical creations are so diverse that one commentator once described him as;

A pop encyclopaedia who has been able to reinvent the past in his own image.

And there is no doubt, Elvis has reinvented himself a number of times as he’s indulged in various musical genres.

In the mid to late 70s Elvis, with his band, The Attractions, were a vital part of the Punk and New Wave scene in London. During this time Elvis gained some renown as a superb lyricist.

Elvis and The Attractions had a number of hit records including: Alison, Watching the Detectives, (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea, Everyday I Write the Book (1983) and, their most successful hit, Oliver’s Army.

elvis meets abba

Part of the success of Oliver’s Army is the bouncy piano which, Elvis admits, was inspired by Abba’s, Dancing Queen.

Commentators generally accept that the song refers to the army of Oliver Cromwell whose New Model Army was a precursor to the British Army of today.

Elvis once said;

I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing’. I don’t know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London.

Oliver’s Army refers to a number places around the world that were considered potential trouble spots in the late 70s including: Hong Kong, London, Palestine, China, and Johannesburg.

The song is blatantly anti-war and includes the lyric;

Only takes one itchy trigger

One more widow, one less white nigger

Elvis was warned that those words would prevent the song from charting in the US but he refused to change them. He said of the possibility of causing offence;

That was the aim. A grim heart in the middle of an Abba record.

oliver’s army fax

  • From the album Armed Forces, Oliver’s Army was released on 2 February 1979.
  • Oliver’s Army peaked at #2 on the UK singles chart spending four weeks sitting up there.
  • The music video for Oliver’s Army was aired on the launch day of MTV in the U.S. (1 August 1981).
  • In Q Magazine (March 2008) Elvis said, of Oliver’s Army;

I don’t think its success was because of the lyrics. I always liked the idea of a bright pop tune that you could be singing along to for ages before you realize what it is you’re actually singing. Of course, the downside of that is some people only hear the tune and never listen to the words. After a while I got frustrated at that.

oliver’s army – elvis costello and the attractions – 1979

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2 Responses to Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello and the Attractions – 1979.

  1. Miki says:

    Very interesting thanx . . . did you really hear this on the radio this week?!

  2. Greg.K. says:

    Hi Miki, Yes, I did hear it this week – haven’t heard it for ages. And, I must admit, it was only as I began to read up about it that I was reminded of Elvis’ other great songs like those mentioned above.

    My sister first introduced me to Elvis Costello. She, quite uncharacteristically, purchased this album. I think she listened to it a few times before my brother and I grabbed it!!


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