lost password recovery

recover my password

Suggest a Songfact / Artistfact

Sign up for our newsletter

Get the Newsletter

Oliver's Army by Elvis Costello

Album: Armed ForcesReleased: 1979Charted:
2
  • Elvis wrote this in 1978 on a plane coming back from Belfast. It was the first time he went to the city, and he was shocked to see very young soldiers from the British army walking around with machine guns. The song covers Northern Ireland's troubles, the end of the British empire and life in the army.
  • The title is a reference to Oliver Cromwell, leader of of the Parliamentary army in the English Civil War against the Royalist army of Charles 1. Among other things, he established what was called The New Model Army, which was the first professional, properly trained and drilled fighting force England had. Costello's song is a general anti-military statement, it's main target is the fact that the only real option that the unemployed have is to join the army (British unemployment figures were at an all-time high when he wrote the song in the early '80s). It doesn''t have anything particular to do with Cromwell, other than the title. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Denmark - London, England
  • The line, "Call careers information/have you got yourself an occupation" refers to the habit of the British army recruiting squaddies [grunts] straight from school at 16. Many of these kids were from poor families and got bad grades.
  • Despite the strong political lyrics, this was very popular in England because of the pop melody. A lot of people didn't care about the social statement, but liked the way it sounded.
  • The piano riff was inspired by Abba's "Dancing Queen." Until the band came up with it, they considered this a B-side and were not planning to put it on the album.
  • This album was supposed to be Elvis' big breakthrough in America. It didn't work out that way, as songs like this never crossed over to US radio.
  • The line, "With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne" refers to the rivers of the 3 largest population centers on the coasts of England: Liverpool, London and Newcastle. These areas were economically depressed when Elvis wrote the song and it's where the Army did much of it's recruiting. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    James - Allentown, RI
  • In 1994, Costello described Cromwell to Time Out (London): "He was a devil incarnate to the Christian brothers. We used to sing very Catholic pieces, they'd be frowned on today as not being in the spirit of church unity, things like 'Oh Glorious Spirit of St. Patrick's' and 'Faith of Our Fathers,' lots of take on the history of England from the old-religion martyr's perspective. And we'd sing the Latin mass without knowing what it meant but loving every line." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    joshoc - Greensboro, NC
  • The "Murder Mile" is a section of North Belfast, Northern Ireland where Protestant loyalists routinely snatched Catholics off the streets in the 1970s to face torture and painful deaths. The phrase "Murder Mile" can also refer to any dangerous area and was often applied to Nicosia, Cyprus, because of British troops who patrolled the area. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Lefty_2ndbaseman - Chicago, IL
  • Costello in Q Magazine March 2008: "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."
  • This was not the only UK Top 10 hit to reference Oliver Cromwell. Morrissey's 2004 UK #3 hit "Irish Blood, English Heart" also brings up the 17th century military leader and statesman.
  • The song was produced by the singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, who is best known for his late 1970s hit tunes "Cruel to Be Kind"and "(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass." He told Uncut magazine that Costello was going to dump the song when they first started recording it. Lowe recalled: "We went through it all afternoon, and it just wasn't happening at all. Elvis didn't like it and he was getting more and more shirty. I couldn't see why. I thought it was a really good track, but it did sound very obviously poppy. Maybe that was a problem for him."

    "Anyway, something about it was getting up his nose, and I'd started making overtures about this," Lowe continued: "'Well, all is not lost, Elvis. I can take this off your hands any time.' That he wasn't really biting. Out of the blue, Steve Nieve said,'What about if I do a sort of Abba piano part on it?' Complete silence. We knew their records were good, but no one wanted to own up to it. That needs really invite them, as did Elvis, solid consensus was, 'Let's try it.' I didn't think this was going to disturb my plan to get the track for myself. Nieve did the piano part and suddenly the thing went from black-and-white to fireworks."

    "I don't think it's quite the first take that you hear on the finished record but the effect was instantaneous," Lowe concluded. "It gave the record an unbelievable sound and spirit. I thought it was pretty good before, but when you piano went on it I saw my nefarious scheme going out of the window. I didn't mind too much, because it was such a great cut. And so Elvis had them massive hit – and I didn't!"
Sign in or Register to post comments

Comments: 37

Costello's inclusion of the n-word in the lyrics became ironic when, barely a month after this song's release, he torpedoed his career in the US by using it again while racially disparaging James Brown and Ray Charles in turn during a drunken tirade in a Columbus bar.Birdman_euston - London, Uk
"I'm so tired of English apologists; Cromwell was a murderous dictator hated by not only the Irish but many Englishmen as well." etc. Well you can damn anyone for any of the things you say, they are not exclusive to England, or any nation. No one apologises for such things because they happened so long ago. The trouble with history and looking back with modern day values is that it is pointless, the methods and rationales applied by Cromwell and his enemies were not out of place at his time, you simply disagree with the politics, great, but totally pointless to apply them to now. Costello does not damn specifically England, but the exploitation of working class boys to do other people's work, ever it was so including your own nation. The list of political types making excuses for their behaviour is a long one, look close to home, look up the Revolutionary war for some real home grown atrocities, all in the name of 'liberty', equally they would be held up to be war criminals today under the current system but it would be futile to make the comparison. Sort your own glass house out before carping on about apologists, the world is riddled with them. The Scots had a great way of getting rid ot heir unwanted folk, sending them off, the Clearances were a Scottish affair. Everyone is pretty s--t really, some people are simply more efficient at it, that is what galls people.Patrick - London, United Kingdom
While I do not profess to be an expert on British Political history, I will say that, yes, the working and middle classes have always held the front lines of the military, but that isn't always a bad thing. Where my father grew up, if you didn't want to starve to death you could either become a priest, join the military or turn into a gangster. He joined and in turn elevated his standard of living for himself and his family. I did the same and had the same resultJim - North Billerica, Ma
Brian from Boston...

He doesn't use "American" English.

If many things are classed as one unit, you use "is" ("is here to stay")
If man things are classed as individuals, it's "are" ("are on their way")
Luke - Manchester, United Kingdom
If it's a blanket anti-war tale why not call it 'little Phil's Army'? It's not as catchy or biased & wouldn't have made as much money, perhaps. 'little phil' was the American General Phillip Sheridan whose people were from Ireland. He said 'the only good Indians he'd seen were dead' & he used scorched earth tactics in the Indian Wars that some regard as genocidal. Everyone can point to instances in history when their people suffered from the actions of others. Some ancient emnities die harder & noisier than most.Lincoln Green - Sherwood Forest,england, United Kingdom
This is quite simply one of THE best pop songs of all time, but, in truth, it probably wouldn't make my Top 10 Costello songs ever. The guy is a lyrical genius, a great songwriter who sings from the heart.Russell - Cheltenham, United Kingdom
In response to James, Belfast, comments on John. I couldn't have put it better myself James. I am also James ,from Belfast Ireland. I grew up as a Catholic running the gauntlet on the Limestone Road during the "hard core" days of the troubles in the 70's. On more than one occassion myself and my brothers almost became victims on the "murder mile". The actual place in Belfast ran the stretch of the Antrim Rd, from Carlisle Circus to the top of the Limestone Rd, a lenght of road imfamous for drive by shootings and not a place to venture after dark in those days.
Not sure if the great Elvis C was talking about this place as there was a murder mile in South Africa at the same period. Still, great song from a great artist.
James - Belfast, Ireland
Wayne- Oliver North was not well known in 1979, thus the song could not have been about him.

Evelyn- Yes, it was inspired by Oliver Cromwell.

Costello himself has said that it was inspired by the idea that armies always get a working class boy to do the killing.
Jason - Tampa, Fl
John from "London" Derry. Although it´s what I´d expect from a typical Northern Irish Loyalist, I must say that it´s a shame you chose to use this site to spew forth your twisted loyalist propaganda,..especially in a section designated to understanding the meaning of a song like Oliver´s Army. Being an Irish Catholic raised in Belfast, I am well aware of Ireland´s (actual) history. While you may not be able to see past the loss of your friends and family members, it by no means overshadows the countless thousands of Catholics butchered by Cromwell and his like over centuries. Elvis Costello chose to write this song to depict the cruel manipulation and sacrifice of millions of young, ill-educated people, by ruthless governments the world over (The British government specifically being referred to in this song). Cromwell was sent to Ireland to pave the way for protestant settlers by butchering the people indigenous to that land. It´s called Genocide today. Hitler was a fan of genocide too. If you can attempt to justify Cromwell´s methods you also do so with Hitler´s methods. I suggest you keep your offensive, backward, neanderthal, knuckle dragging loyalist opinions to yourself and go and live with that old dinosaur bigot Ian Paisley on his ranch in Texas. Good riddence to bad rubbish I say. May Ireland be free from moronic bigots like you and finally at peace.James - Belfast, Ireland
Zooty- 'The line about "London is full of Arabs" is very prophetic, particularly after what happened on 7/7. The next line -- "We could be in Palestine" is even more so'

He was writing about Belfast, comparing the English treatment of the Irish with the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians.

See other comment about civil rights, here, if you even know what those are, you conservative American dolt.
Jonathan - New York, Ny
This song is so poignant on so many levels, I understand the lyrics and also noticed that he is in parts really taking the piss out of the army and their 'propaganda' recruitment campaign - saying about Careers Information and also "There is no danger, its a professional career, Though it can be arranged with just a word in Mr. Churchills ear" - its like, hey, we can help you if you are out of luck and out of work, don't worry, we can send you to Johannesberg, wow won't that be great!! The sad part is, this is still the attitude today ... JOIN THE ARMY, SEE THE WORLD, TRAIN FOR A NEW CAREER BY LEARNING NEW TRADES mmmmm International Hit Man perhaps? They don't mention anything about itchy triggers or places like the 'murder mile' - I wonder why!Sue - London, United Kingdom
I was 18 when I first heard this - and I loved Elvis Costello. Educated and just about to go to University. Oliver's Army was played to death on English radio. I was 48 before I worked out who Oliver was. Funny.Mickey - London, United Kingdom
Those who like the sentiments of this song may also appreciate the punk classic "Tin Soldiers" by a great Irish band from the late 70's/early eighties called "Stiff Little Fingers". Look it up on you-tube.A bit less melodic and poppy than Costello's song, but equally poignant.Craig - Wellington, New Zealand
"Oliver's Army is here to stay
Oliver's Army are on their way."

I love how he uses both American and British English here?
Brian - Boston, Ma
A reason why that this song was popular was because the tune was so catchy and it stuck to people's brains.Asdf - La La Land, Bangladesh
I had a high school teacher from Chicago snort back at us one day that the REAL Elvis genius was Costello not Presley.... we all laghed. And then I grew up. As I get older, and am now 35, I find it scary how deep and poignant, and most importantly timeless this song has become. I was a staunch independent in my early college years and eventually jaded to being a staunch republican...and then I had nephews, and my own kids, 7 all told within 5 yrs of 9/11...and that made me realize, that that apparantly ludicrous statemtn by my religion teacher now shockingly enough almost 20 years ago...was absolutely correct- the true genuis was Costello. I love the real Elvis, but talent, does not be get genuis. And this song, no matter what else is typed here, is transient, and b/c of that-genius. I get more solemn, especially post children, thinking about kids dying for political agendas...and that is what this song is about- and unfortunately, what ultimately makes it timeless, b/c I fear this unfortunate aspect of life will never end, we as a society will continue to send our children to die for our causes. "Its just a professional career"...yeah...and one that will continue to shed blood in the face of our turning away from the horror of the impact onto the families of the soldiers and the secondary casualties that glare in the face of reason for these young men being anyware in harms way in the first place. The military industrial complex holds a near second place to the big money coorporations for ultimately holding and controlling the fate of our society. And a young Elvlis Costello captured this notion so beautifully in this song so well ahead of his time- and thus it is pure genuis. And in my opinion what this song is about.Mike - Chicago, Il
AND OH YEAH, I agree with Darrell, it's a great song!

All i know is.... its a great song !
- Darrell, Basingstoke
Joe - Ithaca, Ny
OK here goes my take. I'm 44 and this song has always had great meaning for me. I'm a history buff to start and as much as an Anglophile as an Irish American can get, and get his references. I joined the American military at 17 largely due to economics (a strong theme in his song), and have since been all over in war and semi war. I've served with Brits who joined in the period this song came out. Phrases like 'murder mile', 'itchy trigger' and 'rather be .... but HERE today..." resonate with anyone in a deployed army.Joe - Ithaca, Ny
All i know is.... its a great song !Darrell - Basingstoke, England
I've worked on a few churches over the years and Cromwells legacy was all to apparent, he ransacked Hope church N.Wales and used it to stable his horses, while he blasted 2 large holes into the side of Shrewsbury Abbey, obliterating a the sacred shrine of St Winifred.
Hard times breed hard people i guess, what hope is there for us now.
David - Here And There, Other
So it's not Oliver North. Too bad.Wayne - Edgewater, Md
I did not realize that this site existed - I made it one of my favorites - thanks for the info. One question is - How do we know these are the true meanings behind the song lyrics? Just curious - thx - MumAda - Havana, United States
I'm so tired of English apologists; Cromwell was a murderous dictator hated by not only the Irish but many Englishmen as well. In fact, when the royalists returned to power, his body was dug up, put on trial and susequently beheaded. Cromwell was an overly ambitious hypocrite who betrayed the cause of liberty, imposed puritanical values and showed scant respect for the nation's traditions. He claimed to be devoted to Christian values yet his conquests of Scotland and Ireland were extremely brutal. (historians believe his tactics would be considered war crimes today.) He advocated religious liberty but allowed blasphemers to be tortured, ordered his troops to find and kill priests and desecrated many churches. He advocated equitable justice but imprisoned those who criticized his raising taxation, sold thousands of Irish into slavery (Barbados), took the land from all Irish national land holders, burned crops causing massive famine and stavation and on and on. I wholeheartedly agree with British rock artist Morrisey . . . "I've been dreaming of a time when, The English are sick to death of Labour, And Tories, And spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell, And denounce this royal line that still salute him, And will salute him forever". Amen brother, amen.Peter - New York, Usa, Ny
Great song on many levels. Ozzy,..I think you need to relax. Doesn't sound like Zooty from my hometown was trying to be racist- but rather point out the ironic ties of the lyrics to events of the day. If he were being racist, perhaps he would have pointed out that you are likely not an aboriginal descendant and therefore, more likely to be the progeny of a British penal colony and shouldn't be so apt to defend them. That being said,...know most Americans are very fond of the British, Australians and most other citizens of the world,..and we'd appreciate it if we could stop being called Dknobs by people like you as our 30% approval rating of Bush points to a general disdain for the administration's policies.Mike - Chicago, Il
i dont understand this song. could someone please tell me what it means in simple terms thanksDavid - Merseyside, England
I hate the way people from other countries try to comment on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Having lived through it and seen friends and relations murdered by Republican terrorists I can safely say I know all about it. The British Army is OUR army. Northern Ireland is and always will be British. Oliver Cromwell is a hero to the Protestant people (the majority) in Northern Ireland. He came to Ireland to save the Scottish and English settlers from the Catholic Irish who were slaughtering them in their thousands. He soon put a stop to that! This is the part missed by Catholics. If they hadn't been murdering us Protestants, Cromwell would never have been here! Two sides to every story! CIVIL AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY FOR ALL. No surrender.John - Londonderry, Ireland
I love this song! It really is timeless... it could have been written today!Henrietta - Pheonix, Az
My father survived being blown up in the Murder Mile, Belfast. Perhaps the Boston Globe missed this event. Perhaps they also missed most attacks in the troubles. Perhaps they also missed 56% of the deaths (those who were not Catholic Irish). The term 'Murder Mile' is a global catchphrase. In this case it is a coarse attempt to describe an area in North Belfast with lots of interfaces between deprived Protestant and Catholic communities. Grotesque attrocities were carried out in this area by protestants. the failure to recognise those also carried out by catholics is a careless oversight. The type of which reinforces the division which causes them. By the way Boston Globe - statistics on deaths in the troubles are available here -http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/troubles/troubles_stats.html.Paul - Belfast, Europe
The "Murder Mile" is a section of North Belfast, Northern Ireland where Protestant loyalists routinely snatched Catholics off the streets in the 1970s to face torture and painful deaths. (Boston Globe)

The Murder Mile is generally a slang title given to any danger zone, for example a stretch of road in Nicosia, Cyprus, so called due to the hazards presented to patrolling British troops by nationalist fighters.
(Wikipedia)
Lefty_2ndbaseman - Chicago, Il
Zooty from Chicago, you absolute arsehole... "London is full of Arabs is very prophetic" do you even understand the line? London is full of Arabs, Hong Kong is up for grabs, overrun by the Chinese Lion all of these are opportunities for the army to recruit soldiers... it is not an attack on Arabs, and how is it prophetic? London has always had a large Arab population. That is a very racist statement you made, automatically linking Arabs to terrorism. Go to hell, dick knob.Ozzzy - Sydney, Australia
When someone sang this on ITV's Stars in Their Eyes the line was changed to "One more widow one less got bigger."Alan - London, England
What's truly exceptional about the song is the bridge. The line about "London is full of Arabs" is very prophetic, particularly after what happened on 7/7. The next line -- "We could be in Palestine" is even more so, given that London has now experienced what typically goes on in the former Palestine. But Elvis' harmony is absolutely exceptional, and at the end of the bridge when he sings that "It could be arranged with just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear," the harmony line continues to ascend way above treble clef, and Elvis cuts the vocal flawlessly. Paul McCartney is perhaps the only other rock 'n' roll crooner who could have done that.

By the way, does anyone know whether "Mr. Churchill" refers to Winston, as opposed to some other English politician?
Zooty - Chicago, Il
Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland and used devestating tactics to suppress the population. i assume this is what it is referring tooBen - Kent, England
Time Out (London), 1994-11-09 Writes:

'Oliver's Army', which he wrote in Belfast, is named for the man who founded the first 'genuinely national armed forces', the hated Oliver Cromwell, who reminds him of his Hammersmith convent-school youth. 'He was a devil incarnate to the Christian brothers. We used to sing very Catholic pieces, they'd be frowned on today as not being in the spirit of church unity, things like "Oh Glorious Spirit of St Patrick's" and "Faith of Our Fathers", lots of take on the history of England from thc old-religion martyr's perspective. And we'd sing the Latin mass without knowing what it meant but loving every line.'
Joshoc - Greensboro, Nc
Elvis took a lot of heat for the line "All it takes is one itchy trigger, One more widow, one less white nigger" because many felt it was a racist statement against blacks. Elvis's father defended him on the statement that the Irish (which Elvis ancestory is, though he's from England) were the "White Niggers" of the English. The term refferences how poorly the Irish were being treated by England, as they liken there cause to the civil rights struggles of black Americans in the 1960's.Steve - Chino Hills, Ca
Whoever did the piano part on this record *Steve Nieve?* sure blew away "Dancing Queen" (for whatever that's worth). This piano part is incredible...Mike - Berkeley, Ca
Who is oliver? Is it Oliver Cromwell as some people have said?Evelyn - Glasgow, Scotland
see more comments