The Freaky Trigger Top 100 Tracks Of All Time: No. 57 ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS – “Oliver’s Army”
I semi-remember just two lines from the NME’s (Charlie Shaar Murray’s?) review of “Armed Forces” (secret unused title “Emotional Fascism”). One was that one of the other songs resembled ELP “jamming in the bottom of an oil drum”! The other — more germane to this post, as well as being true — is that “with the boys from the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne” is a brilliantly compressed evocation of a nation’s sense of itself (if “a nation” = England obv), the disparate togetherness of an army abroad. The other thing I recall from the time is this: watching EC&tAs play this on top of the pops, and someone sitting near me — who was iirc an organ scholar — saying in sudden surprise (as he watched Steve Nieve play the triple-stabbed piano chords of the bridge passage into the second verse), “Oh! He can actually play!”
Craft — the mastered techniques of ordinary pop, word AND music, from a sprawling and unusually broad clutch of decades — is Costello’s thing: his focused strength and his limitation. And at this moment (early 79) — when punk was revalorising the 3-minute single, and “getting into the charts” was considered (by everyone except the bleedn Clash) a radical act, a reignition of a latent power — the compacting into one another of a song built round an Abba riff and a lyric exploring the states of a soldier’s mind, — this was an announcement of thrilling potential. LOOK WHAT WE’RE OPENING UP! Where we’re going is just so RICH, pop but deep, pretty but dark, direct but clever, we can sing about ANYTHING NOW etc etc.
I don’t want to take away from that feeling — it’s my own youth and idealism and excitement, and I’m not going to repudiate it — but I do want to look at how it became a problem, how openness went closed. Costello today is imprisoned by his gifts, and I think all of why is on show already here, in this his biggest hit.
OK what I like about the words are, yes, the compression, the perspective shifts — I don’t know exactly when this device became part of rockand/or expressivity, but of course the Pistols had just pushed it to a kind of dizzying limit, every line of every Pistols song a different idea in a different mind — and the resultant ambiguity of cryptic image-collage and POV in OA achieves sympathy as well as critical distance. Only push a bit further in, and I think the crit begins to blur: the Mersey/Thames/Tyne couplet, in full, is as follows: “We could be in Palestine/Overrun by the Chinese Line/With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne.” Actually google and lyric-sites have “Chinese Lion”, but that doesn’t make much sense either, in terms of geopolitical precision, or cliches about world affairs we know and love [any better ideas or explanations, put em in comments]. I’m not sure that’s such a weakness in this song — it’s just a line that’s never quite parsed — but the punning, rhyming crossword-puzzle density would turn into a shtick, a habit, a way of staying away from the centre of some of (a lot of?) his later material.
The song was written after Costello — real name Declan McManus — visited Belfast, and experienced for himself what it was like to be in a militarised zone, the British Army — descendent of the professionalised forces, loyal to Parliament, fashioned in the English Civil War by Oliver Cromwell (a blood-soaked figure justly loathed in Ireland, whose rep in England is on the whole far more complicatedly positive, precisely bcz the political revolution he set in motion, the ending of the divine right of kings, the establishment despite er hiccups of modern democracy, also established Britain as the hub of an Empire) — wielding guns which pointed, as he suddenly saw it, at himself and those like him: “All it takes is one itchy trigger/One more widow,/one less white n!gger…”
Verses one and three are about the romance of the military — wanting to join up (“My mind goes sleepwalking/While I’m puttin’ the world to rights”), and the sheer vivid energy of possibility, of escape into exotic glamour, of swift-sketched peoples and cultures shimmering and clashing: Kipling said that Empire was great for the British because it encouraged them to escape from their ingrained fubsy parochialism, to encounter the teeming variety and imagination of all humanity. Verse two, the reality from an outsider perspective, recalls the then-famous takedown joke of a Army Ad Campaign of the era: “Join the Army, Travel the World, Meet Exciting, Interesting People — AND KILL THEM!”
And verse four — well, I don’t really get verse four. It mentions Churchill and Johannesburg, and closes the song down in a somewhat formless hint at more knowledge than it delivers: it may be an attempted portrait of how the would-be squaddies are kidding themselves, about how it works when they join up: out of luck, out of work, join up, hey presto you’re side-by-side with the Historical Greats of empire, a tourist in other culture’s energies. I don’t know. What I do know is the perfectly balanced fusion of polar opposite pulls in the chorus: “I would rather be anywhere else than here today” — this is Costello the working-class Irishman, seeing himself as a restless native and thus potential target on Murder Mile, hating it and wanting out; and the unwanted teenager in the Recruitment Office, dreaming of warrior nobility in the world’s dazzling troublespots, and wanting out. I wonder if verse four is there as a wised-up counter to the extraordinary — and I think daring — chorus link: to reassure the punkier, more insecure punters — viz me then — that we’re not being led into WRONG THOUGHT by this linkage, that we DO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS, and so on and all…
This is getting a bit long, but bear with me two and a bit more paragraphs. The second embedded flaw — which at the time seemed such an enticing portal — is Costello’s commitment to “clever pop”. The problem being — tho this wasn’t clear at the time, indeed I think he was bending the stick in the correct direction — that his rehabilitation of despised craft technique, whether from Cole Porter or Stax or Nashville or Abba, was underneath it, a kind of a revised stands-the-test-of-time announcement, that here were a bunch of ways of approaching the song which deserved to enter the pantheon of deeper intelligence; that complacent rock culture could be opened up. And yes, along with this opening up, we get to rescue pop from being shunted over into the “mere brash ephemeral stupidity” column, where pre-punk rock had shunted it. All of which seems like a great idea — except (over the long haul) it undermines that other thing chart pop provides which considered art is much less good at, that idiot flash of energy and insight (the two inseparably yoked) that you get from a line or a hook or a bodymove: Johnny Rotten’s scornful laugh, Mel and Kim’s hair, Adam Ant’s [select and insert from list too long to include]…
[Threes near-subliminal examples of such flashes in this song: the odd way he pronounces "Arabs"; the way the chorus goes "Oliver's Army is...."/Oliver's army are..." -- another perfect economical statement of an army as both a group and a unity, as disparate unity; and of course Steve Nieve's triple-stab piano]
Oliver’s Army — maybe Armed Forces as a whole, it’s a long time since I listened — is an impacted sketch of ambivalence, of the lure of bad things, ugly emotions and desires, and “I would rather be anywhere else than here today” is the posterchild motto of this, memorably and chart-toppingly both-ways-looking as we reach for escape from the mundane into, well, something maybe much worse (worse for others, if not for us). This was his highpoint — the ebullient, slightly overpumped and convivial fullness of sound, singalong anthemic pubrock punctuated with these startling flashes of otherwhere, seizing the attention of coach-potato poets and organ scholars– and gradually Costello went with his best skills, and why shouldn’t he, except it was a step away from something also. Heroic workrate, enviable facility in wide range to styles, persistent fascination with complex states of mind and nasty states of life assembled themselves into a large, detailed lego-palace labyrinth of work which exactly muffles exactly this kind of WTF this-here-now surprise inreach, into ourselves (artist-audience) when wide open and maybe unalert, ourselves when undefensive and undefended.