Monday, June 30, 2014

One Song at a Time: "Oliver's Army"

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, circa 1979

The song: "Oliver's Army"
Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Released: 1979
Typical "Zomby" panel.
This is a pilot of sorts for a potential series. I guess whether it continues depends on what readers think of it and how much I enjoy writing it. Honestly, I feel guilty when too much time builds up between posts at D2R. To counteract this, I wanted to come up with something I could write quickly, without a great deal of research or preparation, so that I could have new content here every day or two. In the past, that function was ably filled by Zomby, since originally all I had to do to turn Ziggy into a zombie was cut and paste him into Microsoft Paint, select the default shade of light grey from the color palette, and then click on the title character. Bingo! Instant hilarity! Then, the site which provided the black-and-white Ziggy panels I needed started posted grainier, lower-quality scans of the cartoons. Suddenly, I had to manually, painstakingly "paint" Ziggy the proper shade of grey to make him undead. Bogus! Besides, I'd already cycled through most of the potential punchlines with Zomby and wound up doing variations on variations by the end. So what else could I do on the fly? Well, my iTunes library currently has about 17,372 songs in it, so maybe there's some potential material there. Here's the plan for Best Songs Ever: I'll pick one particular track from those 17,372 songs and write a paragraph about why I like it so much. This will be half music criticism and half autobiography, since I'll inevitably wind up writing about how these songs have integrated themselves into my life. Does that sound good? If so, let's continue.

The Armed Forces LP.
"Oliver's Army" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions is a song which must have come to my attention about twenty-five years ago, when I was a terminally-confused teenage weirdo who didn't know anything about anything but thought he knew a great deal about a great deal. Costello's then-recent Spike album, featuring the hit single "Veronica" (a collaboration with Paul McCartney) was a big crossover hit when it was released in 1989, the very year I entered high school, and that was probably the gateway for me into his discography. I'd seen him on MTV before that, but I hadn't really paid that much attention. Seeking more, I consulted the encyclopedic Rolling Stone Album Guide for some much-needed album guidance, and that led me to Armed Forces, a 1979 LP which Costello recorded with his sometimes-backing band, the Attractions. The Stone didn't steer me wrong, either: Armed Forces is an excellent concept album with a consistent warfare motif, often using militaristic imagery to describe romantic relationships. The songs on the album are propulsive and punchy, with sharp, sardonic lyrics and catchy, indelible melodies. One track that stuck out from my very first listen was "Oliver's Army," which was actually a big hit over in England, hitting #2 on the singles chart and going gold. Considering the prickly, political lyrics, that's kind of a mind-bender. The song, not remotely romantic in nature, addresses the issue of England sending its poor, disadvantaged young men (Costello has described them as "mere boys") to fight and die in a variety of foreign hot spots. The "Oliver" of the title is likely Oliver Cromwell, the one-time "Lord Protector" of England, who seized control of the country from reigning monarch King Charles I in a bloody takeover in the mid-1600s. Cromwell's so-called New Model Army, with which he waged civil war in his homeland, is considered the historical forerunner of the modern British military. The central thesis of Costello's song is that the British government is coldly sending citizens it considers expendable to do its dirty work abroad, a theme encapsulated by this shocking, unsparing couplet: "Only takes one itchy trigger/One more widow, one less white nigger." How did a song this bleak this become a big radio pop hit? Easy. It's a work of supreme, danceable pop craftsmanship, including a florid piano part which Costello admits was swiped directly from ABBA's "Dancing Queen." Listening to "Oliver's Army" on repeat today, I realized how heavily Costello's song shows the influence of Phil Spector's operatic "Wall of Sound" pop and R&B hits of the 1960s. Towards the end of "Oliver's Army," Costello even starts doing the woah oh oh ohs from seemingly every Ronnettes record. To be honest, when I was 14, I had no idea who Oliver Cromwell was, and I probably couldn't have located most of the places Costello names in the song (Johannesburg, Checkpoint Charlie, etc.) on a map. But any kid sitting through a tedious lesson on "how a bill becomes a law" can relate to this repeated line from the chorus: "And I would rather be anywhere else but here today!"

Okay, folks, that was the pilot. Let me know if you have any interest in seeing this kind of thing on a semi-regular basis.


  1. I would like to see this pilot go to series. You certainly picked a terrific song to start with.

    1. Thank you. I want to go all over the map, musically speaking. This also gives me an opportunity to be unabashedly positive, which is something we all need.