Ignored Obscured Restored
Today’s SotW is “Oliver’s Army,” by Elvis Costello.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the song, I need to warn you upfront that it contains the “N” word. But it doesn’t offend me – and I hope it doesn’t offend you – because the song isn’t about racism against black and brown people. (Though I admit the fact that Costello had an argument in 1979 with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett that included racial slurs seems to weaken my case.) Still, I maintain the track is an anti-war rant that criticizes how the British government took advantage of enlisting young men with few job prospects into its military back in the late ‘70s when the song was written and recorded. Costello was once quoted as saying “I was upset by the idea that armies always get a working-class boy to do the killing.”
Call careers information, have you got yourself an occupation
If you’re out of luck or out of work, we could send you to Johannesburg
Besides having such penetrating lyrics, it’s handed off to us like a stick of candy floss. You could be forgiven missing the heft of the pointed lyrics amid the pop genius of the music, especially the Abba like piano part (think “Dancing Queen”). The harmony soars on the last verse (“But there’s no danger…) and Costello gives the song a perfect ending when he imitates Ronnie Spector’s trademark Oh-oh-ohs.
But back to the lyrics. Who would have thought these lines, written in 1978, would have any relevance today?
Hong Kong is up for grabs
London is full of Arabs
We could be in Palestine
Overrun by a Chinese line
With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne
And back to that controversial lyric… It was originally inspired by the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, but how does that feel today?
Only takes one itchy trigger, one more widow, one less white nigger
Tom Waits once said “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” That’s “Oliver’s Army” in a nutshell!
Enjoy… until next week.