Oliver’s Army is Elvis Costello’s most successful single. Though its lyrics are quite dated, I think there is still an energy about it that keeps it sounding fresh.
The title of this song is a reference to the leader of the Parliamentary Army in the English Civil War against the Royalist Army of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, albeit the song has nothing to do with Cromwell really.
Elvis Costello wrote this song in 1978 as he was flying home to England from Belfast. He was disturbed by the sight of so many very young British soldiers walking around with machine guns. It was a time when unemployment figures were at an all-time high and the only option that many young men had in their quest for work was to join the army. Large numbers of squaddies were recruited straight from school, often from poor families and with poor exam results.
The line: with the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne refers to the rivers which run through, Liverpool, London and Newcastle, three of the English cities that were suffering severe economic depression during the seventies: hence they were ideal areas for the army to find new recruits.
The song mentions the end of the British Empire and it describes the life of soldiers in the trouble hot-spots of the world, mentioning Northern Ireland, South Africa, Palestine and Cyprus.
Despite the strong political content of this song, many people: myself included bought this record just because it had a great pop melody.
In 2008, Costello told Q Magazine "I don't think its success was because of the lyrics. I always liked the idea of a bright pop tune that you could be singing along to for ages before you realize what it is you're actually singing. Of course, the downside of that is some people only hear the tune and never listen to the words. After a while, I got frustrated at that.”
The song lyrics contain the words "white nigger:" a phrase that is almost never censored by radio stations. However, in 2013, BBC Radio 6 Music did play the record with the potentially offensive word removed despite having been played by BBC radio stations for over 30 years uncensored. It was an unpopular move with the public, given the intended anti-racist and anti-war theme of the single.
At the Glastonbury Festival in 2013, Elvis Costello performed the song with its original lyrics.
Oliver’s Army features on the album Armed Forces. It was released as a single in February 1979 and peaked at No.2 in the UK singles chart.