Jul 07

The Freaky Trigger Top 100 Tracks Of All Time: No. 57 ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS – “Oliver’s Army”

FT//74 comments • 5,923 views

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.


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  1. 61

    (will resppnd to koganbot’s questions some time this week i hope — was away at weekend and am now a bit swamped)

  2. 62
    Mark M on 31 Jul 2007 #

    Strictly by-the-by, but I always assumed that Silly Games was recorded in London?

  3. 63
    Marcello Carlin on 31 Jul 2007 #

    Was it? Hmm. I still think the above applies; strangely enough I was wondering whether it actually did apply in view of EC’s noted prolificity (the 500 bonus tracks per redux CD reissue) but yes it’s valid since it’s the equivalent of endlessly jotting down ideas but not fusing them into a coherent whole (or lots of springy little paragraphs which when put together don’t necessarily make him Benjamin or Perec).

  4. 64

    ok i said: “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”

    and frank said: “Seems arbitrary to say “considered art” rather than “considered pop” or “considered craft.” Also, don’t see any reason to think that Johnny’s scornful laugh and Mel and Kim’s hair weren’t “considered,” or why you’d think that flashes of energy and insight (what’s “idiot” doing modifying that phrase?) aren’t there due to someone constructing song or situation so as to put them there.”

    i. “Considered art” is larger than and contains “considered pop” and “considered craft” — it would have been more arbitrary to say either of the latter two. (I accept this somewhat depends on usage of word “art”)
    ii. As I said nefore, I think Frank’s “Don’t see any reason flashes of energy and insight … aren’t there due to someone constructing song or situation so as to put them there” is just a really strange thing to say. Of course they CAN be — hence i said “much less good at and” not eg “no good at” (jeez!) — but the point is, i’m drawing attention to the situations where they AREN”T, as that’s the area that’s germane to my worry. Hence when Frank pushes back against this possibility, i have to assume that — despite his parenthesis and its italics — he secretly doesn’t really believe what he’s ceding, that flashes and insight can sometimes arise without pre-construction. Hence pushback against pushback (bcz I don’t understand what it is he’s worried I’m omitting to discuss)

  5. 65

    anyway, that response aside, the point isn’t that i think chartpop is by definition less considered, it’s that being “considered” is less of a relied-on value, to produce the desired effect (= sales, i guess); a hook is a stupid noise to grab yr head, or a move or a look or something possibly invented on the move, and responded to immediately — yes! that’s it! print it now!

    some of my reason for implying eg that chart pop is better at this than paintings or movies or novels or operas — not that the latter can’t do it, just that chart pop is better — is formal and structural and contextual: two hours vs three minutes; a palladian gallery invoking the entire history of culture vs the dansette in yr bedroom or the car radio; density and weight vs lightnness and fleetness

    “why is not thinking it matters more conducive to flashes?” — i think what i’m getting at is that (i feel) costello, and the “serious considered artist”, is more likely to censor himself, or rewrite and rework, or generally select-and-discard after the fact, with regard to HOW THE AGES WILL SEE ME, than going untidily with “awesome! wtf! print it now!”… and that this regard to the view of the ages and the angels pushes you away from intuitive motile work which you aren’t sure you understand yet, towards stuff which (with a day’s rest) makes sense to you; or fits in with yr idea of who you ought to be and want to be

    (evidently there’s a more complex dynamic at work — hence we got talkin abt professional improvisers, where a lifetimes’ experience “producing the surprise” is brought into play)

    (“who you ought to be and want to be”: one of the things i guess i like about chart-pop is that this is a complex negotiation, very much up for grabs: m.mclaren wanted to be j.rotten’s svengali and/or fagin, and rotten’s laugh is the richer and more “idiot pop flashy” for the ambiguity of rotten’s control over who he is in this context

    (so “considered art” wd here also imply a greater measure of artistic autonomy — and argue that this is not necessarily a good thing, in regard to “pop flash”…: the complexity of the potential nexus of passions within a boy-band, say, pulled several ways between manager and stylist and songwiorters and producer and label, may supply a heightened tension of context in which “pop flash” is the inspired coping mechanism, to satisfy the contradictory demands)

    if it’s true that rock before say 1979 delivered pop flash better than rock after 1979, then the delcaration by the clash that they had “complete control” is the point where artistic autonomy pushed the artists into too comfy a territory (they had control of the context of appreciation and thus rendered themselves lame?)

  6. 66

    so i’m contrasting a zone of endeavour where the artist is saying “history will judge me”, and a zone where the artist (or quasi-collective cluster of quasi-artists) are saying “fuck history! NOW’S THE TIME!”

    and while any given art practice presumably contains ppl in both camps, i guess i’m arguing that a business where yr paycheck depends on grabbing many ears THIS WEEK is more likely to fall towards the latter…

  7. 67

    ok i just realised what it is i’m doing that’s confusing the issue here! not all pop in the charts is what i’m calling “chart pop” — ie “considered pop” can chart (and resemble and be taken and be intended to be taken for chart pop), but still, the way it’s made stops it being what i’m calling “chart pop”

    does this distinction hold? in other words, can you be thinking “history be my judge” AND “fuck history” at the same time?

    i’m not sure you can AT THE SAME TIME — but i think the same person can be ruled be contrary passions at DIFFERENT TIMES (even when working on the SAME SONG)

    so where does that leave us eh?

  8. 68

    another buried distinction i’m making is between different kinds of recording medium: writing (including stave-writing) on one side, and phonography-phonography on the other (ie which catch INSTANTS, or anyway short spans of motion)

  9. 69
    The Intl on 30 Mar 2009 #

    This is a lot of f$#kin’ crap for a stupid pop song. Good thing you’re not writin’ about Long Tall Sally.

  10. 70

    the internet isn’t big enough for what we’d write about long tall sally

  11. 71
    the pinefox on 10 Jan 2011 #

    I always used to think it at least possible that this lyric said

    “with the boys from the Mersey and the temps from the Tyne”

  12. 72
    the pinefox on 4 Apr 2011 #

    I have discovered an alternative version.


  13. 73
    Billy on 11 Jun 2016 #

    I assumed that the Churchill reference was what someone said to the poor squaddie in verse 1+2 to show what a futile place he was in. He’s made his bed and the reality of army life isn’t what he wanted. IIRC enlisted soldiers back in the day had to stay for some time (7 years?). Only way he could get out is with the help of someone, ‘Yeah, I’ll have a word with Mr Churchill….’.

    As he’d been dead 14 years by then he’s screwed, not that there’d be any chance to appeal to someone like Churchill even if was around to hear his appeal.

    Wikipedia suggests that the Oliver is Oliver Lyttleton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Lyttelton,_1st_Viscount_Chandos, Not entirely convinced by that but he was Secretary of State for the Colonies. Britain’s imperial adventures are implicitly referenced in the song, so maybe there’s something in it.

  14. 74
    Phil on 14 Jun 2016 #

    That line in the OA Wikipedia entry is just daft – if the phrase ‘Oliver’s Army’ was in fact used in reference to Oliver Lyttleton*, it was used about men who weren’t in uniform. It doesn’t work at all. I think the OP has it right – it’s the Royal Navy but the British Army, because the Army (perhaps uniquely among ancient British institutions**) traces its lineage back to the Commonwealth period.

    *”Citation needed” – and I’ve certainly never heard the phrase used anywhere else than here to… er, than in this song.
    **You could make a case for the monarchy, but that would be rude.

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