Oliver's Army

Album: Armed Forces (1979)
Charted: 2
Play Video
  • Don't start that talking
    I could talk all night
    My mind goes sleep walking
    While I'm putting the world to right
    Call careers information
    Have you got yourself an occupation ?
    Oliver's Army is here to stay
    Oliver's Army are on their way
    And I would rather be anywhere else
    Than here today
    There was a Checkpoint Charlie
    He didn't crack a smile
    But it's no laughing party
    When you've been on the murder mile
    Only takes one itchy trigger
    One more widow one less white nigger
    Oliver's Army is here to stay
    Oliver's Army are on their way
    And I would rather be anywhere else
    than here today
    Hong Kong is up for grabs
    London is full of Arabs
    We could be in Palestine
    Overrun by the Chinese lion
    With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne
    But there's no danger
    It's a professional career
    Though it could be arranged
    With just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear
    If you're out of luck or out of work
    We could send you to Johannesburg
    Oliver's Army is here to stay
    Oliver's Army are on their way
    And I would rather be anywhere else
    Than here today
    And I would rather be anywhere else
    Than here today
    And I would rather be anywhere else
    Than here today Writer/s: Elvis Costello
    Publisher: BMG Rights Management, Universal Music Publishing Group
    Lyrics licensed and provided by LyricFind

Comments: 44

  • Ron from New South WalesInteresting - I will tell you this, in South Africa there was a myth going around that Oliver was Oliver Tambo, the head of the A N C resistance movement and armed struggle, exiled with freedom fighters in Zambia. Oliver's Army was "on its way". Oliver was the joint leader with Nelson Mandela - Oliver Tambo was of course free while Mandela was in prison. The fact that the song mentions Johannesburg seemed to reinforce this meaning though in reality the song never made any sense - it only begins to make sense now I know Oliver is Cromwell.
  • AnonymousCouple of aspects of this song that I haven't seen noted before:
    - Thought the "murder mile" reference fits Belfast of the then-present 1978, the references to Palestine - meaning British Mandate Palestine which ended in 1948 - and the Chinese Line (Korea), as well as Churchill still being PM points to an earlier timeframe, namely the few years just after WWII. Likely the end of that war was when the army first needed these types of recruitment messages to get young men to enlist, as England was no longer in the existential danger it had been when fighting Nazi Germany.
    - I also love the "just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear" line. The wording seems to imply to the impressionable youths/targets of this sell job, how important their alleged "professional career" would be, as if the PM needed to personally authorize every low-level grunt who joined the army! My favorite lyric in this very clever song.
  • Ben from LondonRonald R Budd - sorry but you are misunderstanding Costello's lyrics in this song - as a military man you cannot appreciate the subtlety and sarcasm of his words.It's not as simple as saying "There's nothing wrong with the military" - inordinate amounts of money are spent on maintaining a standing army - something which Oliver Cromwell started - which could be spent more productively - on education.Elvis is talking about the way the army recruits poor kids straight from school,exploiting their lack of alternatives - targeting poor urban areas - and perpetuating the cycle of violence in the world.The British makes billions of pounds each year exporting arms to oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and The Yemen.
  • Dean from New York CityEvery song on the “Armed Forces” album has Nazi references. Costello mentioned in an interview that he originally wanted to call the album “Emotional Fascism “but the record company balked. I see nothing positive coming from these types of references.
  • David from Tennessee James from Belfast. Why are you attacking Ian Paisley and dragging him into your pointless fit? Wtf is wrong with you?
  • 2texasbears from Austin, TexasI’ve listened to this song since I was in my teens. First I apologize to Mr. Costello as I never really knew exactly what his intention with writing this song actually was in relation to. Over the years of listening to this song, I started to realize that this was a political statement of some kind, but wasn’t exactly sure what the true story behind the lyrics actually meant. It’s just as relevant in Aug. 2020 in the U.S. now as it was when it U.K. when it was released. I always understood it was sort of political as the lyrics mentioned a lot of the issues that Great Britain was facing at the time. I wasn’t aware of who “Oliver” was but I was aware that there where a lot of Pakistani's living in London at the time period this references. I was also aware they where the targets of the British young men who we’re unable to get jobs. It’s sort of what America is facing currently with the COVID-19 Pandemic and a Dictator leading our country in the wrong direction. It is very similar to the way that some White American’s treat people of color. Black, Asian, Hispanic, and other races have been killed, payed less for their job abilities, and generally have faced blatant racism. My husband, who is 15yrs older than myself and prefers Country music, was very aware of the plight of the economic situation in the U.K. as he was in London when the trash was stacked up all over the streets and the unemployment rate was extremely high in the 70’s due to his government job. I just happened to be listening to this incredible album and he was tuned into the lyrics. He started to explain what he thought they were about and I decided to look the lyrics up. He was absolutely correct about the meaning behind most of the lyrics. It’s amazing how much you can learn while you’re in confinement. We have been in a chosen state of quarantine since March 7th of this year. He’s extremely high risk for this virus as he’s had respiratory issues in the past. It’s a song that is just as relevant today as it was 40yrs ago. That’s what makes for a great song and an extremely talented artist who has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager. It’s amazing how this song has stood the test of time.
  • Ronald R Budd from Saudi Arabia Nothing wrong with the military. I don't understand why Elvis sounds so sanctimonious about it.
  • Birdman_euston from London, UkCostello'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.
  • Patrick from London, United Kingdom"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.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaWhile 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 result
  • Luke from Manchester, United KingdomBrian 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")
  • Lincoln Green from Sherwood Forest,england, United KingdomIf 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.
  • Russell from Cheltenham, United KingdomThis 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.
  • James from Belfast, IrelandIn 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.
  • Jason from Tampa, FlWayne- 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.
  • James from Belfast, IrelandJohn 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.
  • Jonathan from New York, NyZooty- '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.
  • Sue from London, United KingdomThis 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!
  • Mickey from London, United KingdomI 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.
  • Craig from Wellington, New ZealandThose 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.
  • Brian from Boston, Ma"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?

  • Asdf from La La Land, BangladeshA reason why that this song was popular was because the tune was so catchy and it stuck to people's brains.
  • Mike from Chicago, IlI 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.
  • Joe from Ithaca, NyAND OH YEAH, I agree with Darrell, it's a great song!

    All i know is.... its a great song !
    - Darrell, Basingstoke
  • Joe from Ithaca, NyOK 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.
  • Darrell from Basingstoke, EnglandAll i know is.... its a great song !
  • David from Here And There, OtherI'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.
  • Wayne from Edgewater, MdSo it's not Oliver North. Too bad.
  • Ada from Havana, United StatesI 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 - Mum
  • Peter from New York, Usa, NyI'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.
  • Mike from Chicago, IlGreat 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.
  • David from Merseyside, Englandi dont understand this song. could someone please tell me what it means in simple terms thanks
  • John from Londonderry, IrelandI 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.
  • Henrietta from Pheonix, AzI love this song! It really is timeless... it could have been written today!
  • Paul from Belfast, EuropeMy 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.
  • Lefty_2ndbaseman from Chicago, IlThe "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.
  • Ozzzy from Sydney, AustraliaZooty 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.
  • Alan from London, EnglandWhen someone sang this on ITV's Stars in Their Eyes the line was changed to "One more widow one less got bigger."
  • Zooty from Chicago, IlWhat'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?
  • Ben from Kent, EnglandOliver Cromwell invaded Ireland and used devestating tactics to suppress the population. i assume this is what it is referring too
  • Joshoc from Greensboro, NcTime 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.'

  • Steve from Chino Hills, CaElvis took a lot of heat for the line "All it takes is one itchy trigger, One more widow, one less white ni--er" 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 Ni--ers" of the English. The term references 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.
  • Mike from Berkeley, CaWhoever did the piano part on this record *Steve Nieve?* sure blew away "Dancing Queen" (for whatever that's worth). This piano part is incredible...
  • Evelyn from Glasgow, ScotlandWho is oliver? Is it Oliver Cromwell as some people have said?
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Joan Armatrading

Joan ArmatradingSongwriter Interviews

The revered singer-songwriter talks inspiration and explains why she put a mahout in "Drop the Pilot."

Krishna Das

Krishna DasSongwriter Interviews

The top chant artist in the Western world, Krishna Das talks about how these Hindu mantras compare to Christian worship songs.

In The Cards

In The CardsSong Writing

Songwriters have used cards and card games to make sense of heartache, togetherness, and even Gonorrhea.

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the Song

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the SongSong Writing

How a goofy detective movie, a disenchanted director and an unlikely songwriter led to one of the biggest hits in pop history.

Loreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennittSongwriter Interviews

The Celtic music maker Loreena McKennitt on finding musical inspiration, the "New Age" label, and working on the movie Tinker Bell.

Harry Shearer

Harry ShearerSongwriter Interviews

Harry is Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap, Mark Shubb in The Folksmen, and Mr. Burns on The Simpsons.