Oliver's Army

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For the army formed by Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, see New Model Army.
"Oliver's Army"
Single by Elvis Costello and The Attractions
from the album Armed Forces
B-side "My Funny Valentine"
Released 2 February 1979
Format 7" single
Recorded 1978
Genre New wave, power pop, protest music
Length 2:58
Label Radar
Writer(s) Elvis Costello
Producer(s) Nick Lowe
Certification Gold (BPI – UK), 1 March 1979 (1979-03-01)[1]
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, spending three weeks at number 2 in the UK Singles chart.[2]


Some music critics, such as Simon Frith[3] and others,[4] have suggested that the title refers to Oliver Cromwell whose New Model Army was a forerunner to the modern British Army. A reference in the lyrics to "a word in Mister Churchill's ear" suggests, however, that the Oliver in question is Oliver Lyttelton, Churchill's President of the Board of Trade in the early stages of the Second World War. The Protected Occupations Act meant that any man not compelled to join the forces due to critically required trade skills was dubbed to be part of "Oliver's Army".[citation needed]

Of the song's meaning, Costello himself 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."[5]

As well as the Troubles the song alludes to several other "trouble spots" around the world including South Africa, Palestine, Cyprus and "Checkpoint Charlie". It has been suggested that the events in Belfast prompted Costello to write this "anti-occupation anthem".[6]

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

The song lyrics contain the phrase "white nigger", a racial slur which usually remains uncensored on radio stations. In March 2013, the radio station BBC Radio 6 Music played the song with the word removed despite BBC radio stations having played the song uncensored for over 30 years. Their move attracted public criticism given the intended anti-racist and anti-war theme of the single.[7][8] 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, and comedy duo Cannon and Ball.[9][10] 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'.[11]


External links[edit]