The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #309: Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello and the Attractions (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #309: Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

Declan McManus was born in the UK to an Irish father and English mother. As such, he always had his feet firmly planted into much of the history that exists in combination and, in isolation, between England and Ireland. Declan was always surrounded by books on the subject and, as well, by a sea of adults who spoke passionately about matters of a nationalistic slant. Language is important. Words well-chosen or poorly-chosen can make the difference between success or failure of any venture, including those as fundamental as peace and liberty. Thus, it is not surprising that as Declan McManus donned the stage name, “Elvis Costello” and began writing his own songs, that he did so with one eye firmly trained on that moment in History known as “The Troubles”.

“The Troubles” is the name given to a period in Irish/English history when much violence occurred between the English Army and a local resistance group in Northern Ireland known as The Irish Republican Army or I.R.A. Without recounting the whole history of the times, the gist was that Northern Ireland was split along religious lines; with Protestants supporting close ties with England (which, at the time, included British soldiers patrolling in the streets of Northern Ireland) and Catholics, who sought complete political independence from the Brits by any means necessary, including violent force. The song, “Oliver’s Army” refers to a man named Oliver Cromwell, who lead British armies in battles of conquest and subjugation in the 1600s. The lyrics to the song refer to several other instances when England had involved itself in colonial conflicts around the world. The song drives home the point that England always seems quick to make threats against others and mobilize armies for aggressive means but, it is always the poor, the marginalized who end up forming the ranks and being the ones marching off to War. This included those young British soldiers dodging I.R.A. bullets and bombs in Belfast. The funny thing about this song and, the thing that makes it stand out, is the musical structure it possesses.

“Oliver’s Army” became Elvis Costello and the Attractions highest charting single. One of the reasons for that is because the song sounds different from much of their earlier work. While songs such as “Alison”, “Pump It Up”, “Watching the Detectives” and “Radio Radio” were all well-received songs, each release was always met with a comment about Costello’s “sharp tongue”. All of his earlier hits failed to disguise their point or crouch it in velvety, lush orchestrations and, as such, Elvis Costello and the Attractions began getting a reputation for being acerbic. Thus, folks began tuning him out, despite the quality of the songs the band was releasing or the depth of the message the songs were attempting to convey. So, as an experiment, Costello decided to write his “most political song” but, to make it sound like an Abba song; all lite and breezy-sounding and, definitely, Pop-like. It worked. The public ate it up. Critics marvelled at how the band was able to produce a song about the high personal cost of colonial campaigns and make it sound like something from “Top of the Pops” on TV. When you listen to “Oliver’s Army” in a few moments, try reeeeeeeeally hard to actually listen to the words being sung. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the melody and to bop along happily without hearing about working class boys going off to War and wishing they were anywhere but where they were. “Oliver’s Army” is quite a feat of songwriting and music producing and is well worth a listen. So, without further delay, here are Elvis Costello and the Attractions with “Oliver’s Army”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Elvis Costello and the Attractions, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for playing such intelligent and entertaining music on their station. The link to their website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: