Oliver's Army

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"Oliver's Army"
Oliver's Army - Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1979).jpg
Single by Elvis Costello and The Attractions
from the album Armed Forces
B-side"My Funny Valentine"
Released2 February 1979
Format7" single
GenreNew wave
Songwriter(s)Elvis Costello
Producer(s)Nick Lowe
Elvis Costello and The Attractions singles chronology
"Radio Radio"
"Oliver's Army"
"Accidents Will Happen"

"Oliver's Army" is a song written by Elvis Costello, originally performed by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, and appearing on the album Armed Forces in 1979. It remains his most successful single in the United Kingdom, spending three weeks at number 2 in the UK Singles Chart.[1]


In the context of contemporary events referred to in the lyrics, "Oliver's Army" makes an historical reference to the New Model Army, established in 1645 by Oliver Cromwell and fellow Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. Prior to that time, armies in England had been mustered according to the responsibilities of British peerage, with the ranks of officers and men-at-arms filled with men of elevated social status, ranging from royalty to lesser landowners. Armies would be formed for a specific military campaign and then disbanded. In contrast, the New Model Army was a professional standing army with enlistees coming from all tiers of society, including the lower classes. Promotion and rank were reflective of capability and accomplishments rather than by peerage.

The concept of a paid professional army has continued to the present day in the British Armed Forces (hence, the title of the album where the song appears) as well as mercenary armies and private security forces, which might fulfill commercial as well as unofficial governmental interests. Contemporary recruitment has focused heavily on unemployed ("out of luck or out of work") youth of the working class ("the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne"), who might be enticed by the salary, by ideology ("puttin' the world to right"), as well as the false promise that "there's no danger. It's a professional career". In any case, the enlistee is likely to find themselves eventually wishing they could be "anywhere else but here today".[citation needed]

Of the song's meaning, Costello has stated: "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."[2]

The song refers to a number of "trouble spots" around the world where British Armed Forces or mercenaries have been employed, including Antrim Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which was known as the "Murder Mile" during the Troubles, South Africa, Palestine, and "Checkpoint Charlie".

The music video for "Oliver's Army" was aired on MTV's first US broadcast day, 1 August 1981 (1981-08-01).[3]

The song lyrics contain the phrase "white nigger", a racial slur which usually remains uncensored on radio stations. It refers to the perceived lack of value placed upon the lives of white army recruits from poor, working class backgrounds.[citation needed] In March 2013, the radio station BBC Radio 6 Music played the song with the phrase removed, despite BBC radio stations having played the song uncensored for over 30 years. This decision attracted public criticism, given the intended anti-racist and anti-war theme of the single.[4][5] Costello performed the song at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival, which was broadcast by the BBC, with the phrase uncensored.


Cover versions[edit]

The song has been covered by a large number of artists, including Raimundos, Spunge, Belle and Sebastian, Blur, Peter Mulvey, OK Go, O'Malley's March, Dirty Pretty Things, Bayside,[citation needed] and comedy duo Cannon and Ball.[6] Comedian Frank Skinner performed the song when he impersonated Costello on a celebrity edition of Stars in Their Eyes in 1999, the mention of 'nigger' replaced with 'figure'.[7]


  1. ^ "UK Top 40 Hit Database". Retrieved 25 August 2008.
  2. ^ Armed Forces (sleeve notes). Rhino Records. 2002.
  3. ^ Hoye, Jacob; Levin, David P.; Cohn, Stuart (2001). MTV Uncensored. Pocket Books. p. 45. ISBN 0-7434-2682-7.
  4. ^ "BBC Radio 4: Feedback". BBC. 15 March 2013. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  5. ^ "BBC criticised for censoring Elvis Costello lyrics". Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  6. ^ "Cannon and Ball - Music - Rock on Tommy Album". Comedykings.co.uk. Retrieved 9 May 2014.
  7. ^ "Meanwhile, back on earth". The Guardian. 4 September 1999. Retrieved 26 May 2014.

External links[edit]