Oliver's Army

For the army formed by Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, see New Model Army.
"Oliver's Army"
Single by Elvis Costello and The Attractions
from the album Armed Forces
B-side "My Funny Valentine"
Released 2 February 1979
Format 7" single
Recorded 1978
Genre New wave, pop rock, protest music
Length 2:58
Label Radar
Writer(s) Elvis Costello
Producer(s) Nick Lowe
Certification Gold (BPI – UK), 1 March 1979 (1979-03-01)[1]
Elvis Costello and The Attractions singles chronology
"Radio Radio"
"Oliver's Army"
"Accidents Will Happen"

"Oliver's Army" is a song written by Elvis Costello, originally performed by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, and appearing on the album Armed Forces in 1979. It remains his most successful single, spending three weeks at number 2 in the UK Singles chart.[2]


Some music critics, such as Simon Frith[3] and others,[4] have suggested that the title refers to Oliver Cromwell whose New Model Army was a forerunner to the modern British Army. A reference in the lyrics to "a word in Mister Churchill's ear" suggests, however, that the Oliver in question is Oliver Lyttelton, Churchill's President of the Board of Trade in the early stages of the Second World War. The Protected Occupations Act meant that any man not compelled to join the forces due to critically required trade skills was dubbed to be part of "Oliver's Army".

Of the song's meaning, Costello himself has stated: "I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise 'they always get a working class boy to do the killing'. I don't know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London."[5]

As well as the Troubles the song alludes to several other "trouble spots" around the world including South Africa, "Palestine", Cyprus and "Checkpoint Charlie". It has been suggested that the events in Belfast prompted Costello to write this "anti-occupation anthem".[6]

The music video for "Oliver's Army" was aired on MTV's first US broadcast day, 1 August 1981.

The song lyrics contain the phrase "white nigger", a racial slur which usually remains uncensored on radio stations. In March 2013, the radio station BBC Radio 6 Music played the song with the word removed despite BBC radio stations having played the song uncensored for over 30 years. Their move attracted public criticism given the intended anti-racist and anti-war theme of the single.[7][8] Costello performed the song at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival, which was broadcast by the BBC, with the phrase uncensored.

Cover versions

The song has been covered by a large number of artists, including Raimundos, [spunge], Belle and Sebastian, Blur, Peter Mulvey, OK Go, O'Malley's March, Dirty Pretty Things, Bayside, and comedy duo Cannon and Ball.[9][10] Comedian Frank Skinner performed the song when he impersonated Costello on a celebrity edition of Stars in Their Eyes in 1999, the mention of 'nigger' replaced with 'figure'.[11]


  1. "BPI Certified Awards". Retrieved 25 August 2008.
  2. "UK Top 40 Hit Database". Retrieved 25 August 2008.
  3. "Academic waxes lyrical about pop's meaning: David Lister finds the message in the medium as musicologists join for an evening of deconstruction at independent.com". The Independent. London. 22 January 1993. Retrieved 27 June 2009.
  4. "The Freaky Trigger Top 100 Tracks of All Time: No. 57 ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS – "Oliver's Army" at freakytrigger.co.uk". Retrieved 27 June 2009.
  5. Armed Forces (sleeve notes). Rhino Records. 2002.
  6. Chonin, Neva (7 June 1999). "Costello Helps Lift the Fog at Fleadh". San Francisco Chronicle. p. B-1. Retrieved 7 February 2009.
  7. "BBC Radio 4: Feedback". BBC. 15 March 2013. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  8. "BBC criticised for censoring Elvis Costello lyrics". Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  9. "Cannon and Ball - Music - Rock on Tommy Album". Comedykings.co.uk. Retrieved 9 May 2014.
  10. "Cannon and Ball - Music - Rock on Tommy Album". Comedykings.co.uk. Retrieved 9 May 2014.
  11. "Meanwhile, back on earth". The Guardian. 4 September 1999. Retrieved 26 May 2014.

External links

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