Jul 07

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

FT//74 comments • 5,943 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. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 20 Jul 2007 #

    I thought this was a popular entry until I saw the byline! (yes, even though it would be several years early).

    I always thought there was a third view in the chorus, the career soldier with no skills except going and meeting new people and killing them. “I could talk all night” is his perspective. This is the 99 Problems of its day.

    I’d also heard that it was the first number one with the word n!gger in it?

  2. 2
    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #

    It wasn’t a number one Andrew!

    Yr right that the fourth verse is screwy Mark – I always thought this was Costello slipping into his dreamworld nightmare of incipient British fascism (“Less Than Zero”, “Night Rally”) mixing what had happened and what is happening and what might happen.

  3. 3

    yes yr right andrew in the chorus as a whole — but is that third element fused into that one line i’m picking out? maybe if yr character is saying “here i am in palestine i wish i wasn’t”, but i don’t think that character has an arc of development within this song, he’s forever stuck in the first flash of the allure

    (that’s actually the problem with introducing churchill, come to think of it — not only a historical figure with a journey-arc from one pole to another, but also a figure who stands across a time of historical change… )

  4. 4
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    I have heard it suggested that it’s on about the boys from the Mersey etc becoming mercenaries after their tour of duty in Her Majesty’s services. It doesn’t help much but it’s a reading which explains a couple of bits.

  5. 5

    yes i can tease out “mercenaries abroad” AND “incipient fascism at home”, but where does churchill come in?

  6. 6
    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Churchill was war minister during the high inter-war empire wasn’t he? So Jo’burg and SE Asia and Palestine wd have all been sites of action under his mandate – I’m not sure he’s here in his role as national leader.

  7. 7

    yes but that exerbates the problem EC is having with history as something that isn’t all in one place at one time — he’s stating “things never change for pore old tommy atkins”, but the fact that we can’t instantly get to the correct iconic image-flash he wants to use “churchill” as, shows that things DO change

    actually this is all-history-in-one-lace-and-time kind of at the root of his aesthetic paralysis also: a breaktrhough to bring all these techniques into the here-and-now, in one place, except then he has nothing to he can use as a marker for his own progress? (this is a bit what happened to costello’s never-admitted idol-mentor bryan ferry, also: if all the tasteful styles of all pop time can come under one performance head, then how to allogorise-express MOTION rather than STASIS)

  8. 8
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    “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”

    …is this absence of The Flash a function of incorporative Clever Pop (considered art)? The cleverness and referentiality, there from the beginning, doesn’t necessarily rob EC’s early work of that energy or insight. At least, I’m not convinced it does.

    It strikes me that the rather deadening effect may be as much a function of A Pop Career. Or a bit of both.

  9. 9
    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Yes Adam Ant’s journey into desperate flash-less klutzery is just as pronounced really!

  10. 10

    off the top of my head: cleverness and self-ref can be “flashes” just like anything else, esp.in times when they’re in short supply, what they can’t be (just like anything else) is reliable portals to the “pop flash” — cf any number of sad acts on the cabaret circuit, recycling THEIR hook (= a grabby fuzzbox burp that everyone loved in 1985, which by the fourth time they used it or tried to recreate it had exhuatsed everyone’s patience)

    “cleverness” — partly bcz it requires investment of time and commitment in the listener? — does come to stand in for “quality” tho… in fact in a sense IS quality, but quality that “stands the test of time” after pop flash no longer arrives; and hence becomes the marker of the committed listener convincing him/herself that “pop flash” is a lesser god/good?

  11. 11

    viz “clevereness” SEEMS more open cz the room it leads you into feels BIG — but there is no way out of it except thru the door you came in,. and it’s very hard for clever ppl to go back out thru that door

  12. 12

    i mean, hard for clever ppl to CONVINCE themselves to go out thru that door — it’s perfectly easy to go thru it

  13. 13
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Put it this way – Steps could never have covered “Oliver’s Army” but their cover of the first of the two records which kept it at number two actually betters the original, incorporating the original’s “grabby fuzzbox burp” (or, as I tend to call it, “punctum”) of a single clap of thunder before the final chorus.

    In any case, it’s all down, as with all decent things EC has ever done, to Nick Lowe’s production.

  14. 14
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    The cabaret circuit and the concert hall circuit are both roads out of pop. It’s an extraordinary popstar who’s allowed to stay in pop and not take one route or the other (or the continuum in-between, obv, or checking out of pop/life completely). Seems to me you’re about as likely to get a bit of flash or a surprising swerve out of one as out of the other.

    Are there any reliable portals to the “pop flash”?

    Also should we be examining our tendency to assume that the pop flash is the greater go(o)d than consideration and “class”?

  15. 15
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    (I mean as a way out of the passive-aggressive “this makes people under-rate the stuff we love” underdog move as discussed elsewhere.)

  16. 16
    jeff w on 20 Jul 2007 #

    haha being someone who generally pays scant attention to pop lyrics, I had always assumed it was (heard it as) “FIRES from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne”.

    Which I know makes no sense but – it sounded good.

  17. 17
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Current most reliable portal: 3:44-3:48 of “Umbrella.” As EC has said many times about other records – “You couldn’t write that down.” And there’s the rub.

  18. 18

    there are no reliable portals to pop flash

    i think there are folks who have found it easier to move in and out of pop over time, for whatever reason — it would be exhausting to be “in’ it all the time

    i slightly categorise such ppl as either a bit simple (d.bowie); or uninterested in and somewhat untouched by written discussion of what they or anyone else is doing in pop (j.brown) — but this may well be my own prejudice/raitionalisation, that being “lettered” acts as a block to acessing this kind of quality

    as for “examining our tendency”, TS: surprise vs stability, you need both of them, and they are opposites

  19. 19

    what tim and i mean — i think — by reliable portal is that if someone else, or many people, attempted to replicate “3:44-3:48 of Umbrella”, it would prove unreliable; even though the original always retained its power to transport

  20. 20
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    (You could argue that Costello’s “cleverness” only really differs from Bowie’s in the respects that:

    (a) EC was more likely to generate wordiness
    (b) DB would change his hat & trousers more often
    (c) DB chose his collaborators more for what they could do; EC chose them for what they had done.)

  21. 21

    craft technique and “pop flash” enrich one another, they are yin and yang — and actually of course you get both in “non-pop” contexts, in novels or films or symphonies, delivered by “writerly” means

    rock’s over-emphasis on anti-technique expressivity (or technique that was under-examined routinised habit which annoyed older-skool technicians,m like the guitar solo) was a problem and a dreariness of habit, which costello (and others) lit into well and usefully

    marcello is right about nick lowe i suspect — tho lowe-as-yin needs his yangs to be any good, and isn’t great at finding em

  22. 22
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    (this is a response to mark’s previous post but the yin/yang of his xpost is duly taken into consideration)

    Yes but that would lead into consideration of the nature of repetition, cf. DB’s “I cannot reproduce what I have just played, though there may be a great similarity,” and the necessity, if any, for re-creation; however, consider Dexy’s attempting to replicate foot-stomping handclapping Geno Ram Jam ’67 and failing miserably but accidentally creating something new in the process (pace BW it all comes back to process, doesn’t it?).

    As I’ve said elsewhere I doubt whether Bowie has ever really understood pop without his own portals (Visconti, Eno) to explain it to/for him. But do improvisers get exhausted by being involved in improv all the time? Is the prosaic schemata of “Umbrella” any less valid than its 100% improvised forefather “Orchard Road” and if so, why?

    Really this all comes back to the central MC Punctum diktat that what listener gets out of music necessarily > what musician puts into it. So the portal for pop flash must always be open though its direction and angle of entry cannot be termed reliable since it will for life-justifying/prolonging reasons always be different every time.

    “Class” depends on whether you pronounce it the Gary Davies way.

  23. 23

    totally agree abt bodged replication = can create something new, tho it can also just be bad lame repetition — however the metaphysics of surprise totally mean that a portal dismissed as unreliable and lame can suddenly turn out to be a portal once more (in fact, this is what EC was proving in ref his rehabiliated techniques, considered no-go dullardry by many of his peers)

    improv’s “pop flash” problem is a context-of-expected-nay-required-surprise, isn’t it?

    this is maybe just another way to state the “central MC Punctum diktat” but ABY door you go thru, there is the possibility you will encounter someone on the other side who will be more to you than just another person in another room

    haha DB = derek bailey in yr second para, presumably

  24. 24

    hee! randoms are goin to have merry fun decrypting this discussion!

  25. 25
    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #


  26. 26
    byebyepride on 20 Jul 2007 #

    if all the tasteful styles of all pop time can come under one performance head, then how to allogorise-express MOTION rather than STASIS

    This is — kinda — close to Adorno’s attack on Heidegger (and possibly on Heidegger as the culmination of Western modernity’s slip into the Heraclitean flux, i.e. it also works for Whitehead, Bergson, and ultimately all the scientific / empiricist worldviews which Nietzsche skewers in the second Untimely Meditation): absolute flux is absolute stasis. Adorno’s answer = well-known, i.e. back to Hegel. But he’s being a bit unfair on Heidegger (HD is definitely Adorno’s blind-spot, they’re too close and too distant at the same time) if we assume that Derrida (absolute difference would be absolute identity) is just following Heidegger (usually a fair assumption).

  27. 27
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    (mark’s merry fun xpost)

    Oh, absolutely… ;-)

    As well you know, I built my Church so that there would be doors for me to open, or be opened by the other reader who would turn out to be more to me than just another reader…

    (Of course the real MC Punctum mission, musically speaking, is to prove beyond question that pop and improv are the same, interdependent Moebius strip but again you knew that already; however, DB quoting “New Year’s Day” on the Limescale album is the greater surprise than, say, Scott W using Evan P on his records – since the latter is what you’d “expect” – because nobody, maybe not even Derek, was expecting that)

    With regard to the first paragraph, any portal can be made to work again, as Elvis Perkins (ha!) has just proven to me with that selfsame EC one, but I’m going to give that, and him, more thought on the blog next week…

  28. 28

    (oh noes i am not going to get anything done on DALEK today am i?) (anything direct i mean — THIS IS ALL DALEK NOR ARE WE OUT OF IT)

    ok i think the word “tasteful” splits what i wz saying from “absolute flux” — ie adorno’s crit wd seem better aimed at derek bailey than bryan ferry! if improv sets itself up as “your one-stop shop for reliable surprise” then it cuts itself off from what meltzer-kogan wd call the “free lunch” (ie watching the lulu show but getting full-on hendrix: if you went to company week and got full-on hendrix, the context would de-amplify the effect?) (if just b4 you go thru the door, a friend sez to you, thru this door you will meet someone who will change yr life, this may actually put you in a mood to cause it not to happen)

  29. 29
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    In my case I didn’t even know for some time that that particular door was there, but that’s drifting off topic…

    We went to Company Week ’91 and even though we knew Zorn was going to be there we weren’t expecting Buckethead, or indeed DB to do Hendrix in his Eric Morecambe flat cap and raincoat at the end (also, apropos BW’s comments, Laura and I were the ones who shouted “Turn it up!” and “Hardcore!” on the Saturday and you can hear us doing so on the apposite CD). Not sure (John and Yoko meet Tchicai and Stevens at Cambridge) it works the other way in that context; in the Lulu/TOTP context, however, it is vital, which is why the last TOTP producer was stupid to let it go all Cool Police since the point was to come across “Death Disco” or whatever in the context of Des and Cilla and Randy Vanwarmer – the natural, unthinking selection of whatever was climbing the charts that week equalised it out and was therefore a much better way of getting through than, say, Wyatting, viz. putting on Merzbow or Brotzmann on the pub jukebox so you can SCOFF at the TREMBLING INFERIOR PLEB PATRONS – ergo I was expecting the Flying Lizards but not “expecting” them and was thus doubly delighted.

  30. 30

    tim, from yr recent many forays into skronk-at-the-klinker, do you have an opinion on this? (ie the “problem” of obligatory surprise? and i guess improv’s “craft technique” for delviering it?)

    my feeling i ph34r has been, well, i don’t NEED TO ATTEND any more — i got all i ever will get, i’m not going to get goosed again, really

    but that may be my mistake and foolishness

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