Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” Lyrics Meaning

Apparently British imperialism, if you will, is not something that only distant non-European lands have had to contend with. For instance, the UK’s western neighbor, Ireland, had been fighting against British rule for centuries. 

Ultimately this culminated in the island being split into two separate countries – Northern Ireland and Ireland proper. The former, as you may already know, has remained a part of the United Kingdom up until now. However, not all Irish approve of British rule of the territory. This explains phenomena like the Irish Republic Army, who for the most part are classified as anti-British terrorist organization. 

But this is the world that we all have been born into, so we don’t really think much of it, not even a Briton like Elvis Costello who is from London and whose own granddad was Irish.

Well, Costello didn’t really take the situation that seriously, that is until he visited Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, in 1978. This was during an era of acute nationalist-based violence in the country, in which the British Army was also involved. 

And what he saw there served as the inspiration to “Oliver’s Army”. Without beating around the bush, let’s just say that despite himself being British, Elvis was not feeling the UK’s role in the grand scheme of things.

Song’s Title (“Oliver’s Army”)

The title of this song is actually an allusion to one Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was a 17th century figure who is more or less credited with the founding of the British Army. And equally important to the point as far as this piece is concerned was the fact that he led the successful British (re)conquest of Ireland during his lifetime. That is actually how the British armed forces are intended to be depicted in this song, as an invading, occupying force whose actions even have global consequences. 

Or as Elvis puts it, “Oliver’s army is here to stay”. That is to imply that the same ambition of the British army under de facto founder Oliver Cromwell, which was to conquer, remains to this day.

And while on the subject, Costello also uses the opportunity to criticize the British government. He criticizes them for targeting young, disenfranchised men to join their military ranks. This was a tactic they apparently used quite commonly back when this song was written. 

And it is the third verse especially that harps on such a topic. And as presented, govvie fools such youngsters by advertising that joining the army is more along the lines of a standard career as opposed to an occupation that can very much get you killed. 

So it’s like the faces in charge of the British government/army may change throughout the years, but their ultimate ambition, to maintain a formidable occupying force, remains the same.

Takeaway

And going back to his trip to Belfast, Elvis asserts that he would rather be anywhere but there on this particular day, i.e. while all of this long-standing drama is still in effect and very much visible. 

According to one of his explanations of this song, “Oliver’s Army” is not intended to be some type of a comprehensive piece. However, at the end of the day that is how it reads – a very comprehensive work. In other words, the same type of drama that was going on in Northern Ireland, as inferred in the bridge, was also transpiring in other parts of the world. 

And it’s not like the British are involved in every global instance of colonizer versus native. In fact whether Costello actually intended it to or not, this song is partially based on one of the most pervasive themes of modern history. And judging by his emotional reaction, it can be said that the vocalist is the type of person who’s more prone to be on the side of the natives.

Lyrics to Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army"

Music Video

The official music video of “Oliver’s Army” was shot in Hawaii, the United States. It was actually filmed at a strip club. Apparently that was the only location the band could find.

When was “Oliver’s Army” released?

Elvis Costello is a singer from London who, as of the writing of this post, has been in the game for over five decades. “Oliver’s Army”, which Radar Records released on 5 January 1979, is from his third studio album, “Armed Forces”. 

Technically this is a project by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, a band he has run with during certain parts of his career. 

Song’s Success

“Oliver’s Army” can be considered the biggest hit in Costello’s lengthy catalog. This is because it represents the highest he had ever reached on his native UK Singles Chart, where the song peaked at number two. And this is for a tune which initially Costello and co. didn’t perceive as a hit. It was actually a song that reportedly Elvis was ready to scrap during its recording.

This classic enjoyed a top-40 status in the following regions:

  • Australia
  • Ireland
  • Netherland
  • New Zealand

Who wrote “Oliver’s Army”

This song was written by Elvis Costello and produced by one of his countrymen, another tenured musician named Nick Lowe. Musically the piece is said to have been inspired by the works of ABBA and more specifically one of their own hits, “Dancing Queen” (1976).

Oliver's Army

More Facts about “Oliver’s Army”

Besides for the title alluding to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), another prominent British historical figure, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is namedropped in the lyrics of “Oliver’s Army”. Churchill was the Prime Minister of the UK during the all-important World War II era.

The first live performance of “Oliver’s Army” came in mid-1978. This was during an annual event known as the Roskilde Festival.

Sometimes dropping a signature song can prove to be akin to a curse as far as the associated act’s artistry is concerned. And Elvis Costello and the Attractions suffered greatly from this. And why? Simply because during live performances, the audience were only interested in hearing one song from the band – “Oliver’s Army”. This of course frustrated the band members greatly.

But that said, it has still remained a mainstay of Costello’s setlists throughout the years. That is until early 2022 ,when he decided to stop playing it altogether. This is due to the phrase “White n*g*er” being featured in the second verse, which received a lot of backlash. According to him, he’d rather stop performing the song all together than change or censor its original lyrics. Likewise, he has also encouraged radio stations to stop playing the song.

That said, it should be noted that it isn’t just in 2022 that the said phrase prove controversial. In fact practically from the time this song was dropped, that particular line has drawn its fair share of unwanted attention. 

And to note, “White n*g*ger” is actually a term Elvis learned from his grandfather. Actually his grandfather was a victim of it. How? Simply because it was/is a racist slur used by the English against the Irish.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Elvis shed light on the controversial racial slur. Below is what he said about it:

Racial slur in "Oliver's Army"

Famous Covers

Since the release of “Oliver’s Army” in the 1970s, a number of covers have popped up. One of these notable covers was by Blur in 1993. Other notable covers include those done by the following:

  • Cannon and Ball
  • OK Go
  • Frank Skinner

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