OLIVER’S Army are on their way, Oliver’s Army are here to stay, and I would rather be anywhere else but here today.
Elvis Costello’s dramatic lyrics about the Northern Ireland Troubles he witnessed first-hand are notably juxtaposed against the joyous pop melody and uplifting harmonies of Oliver’s Army – his biggest UK hit that was kept off the No.1 spot by both the Bee Gees’ Tragedy and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.
Oliver refers to Oliver Cromwell and the song also references imperialist struggles in Hong Kong, South Africa and Palestine. But with its 1950s ‘doo-wop’ chord progression, topped off with Steve Nieve’s jubilant piano chords (deliberately styled on Abba’s Dancing Queen), the song’s musical style could not be further from the seriousness of the subject matter.
Taken from Costello’s fine third album Armed Forces (1979) Oliver’s Army is still a radio staple today and it broke Elvis Costello through from new wave to mainstream but James Iles (in part three of his music series) explains there is so much more to the body of work of this musical maestro.
‘C’ is for Elvis Costello
Born Declan McManus in 1954, in Paddington London, Costello is of Irish descent on the side of his Birkenhead-born father Ross McManus who was also a musician – most famous for writing and singing the ‘R Whites Lemonade’ TV advert song (Elvis did the backing vocals!) that anyone with a TV in the 1970s and 80s will remember (it’s on YouTube if you want some nostalgia).
Young Declan was raised in London until he moved to Birkenhead with his mother Lilian (originally from Liverpool) in 1971, when he was 16. He moved back to London in 1974 and, after recording that TV commercial with his dad he worked at being a songwriter himself, eventually producing a demo that got him signed to Stiff Records in 1976 at which point he invented his stage name – Elvis Costello.
With his trademark oversized glasses giving him a resemblance to Buddy Holly, Costello worked with Steve Nieve on breakthrough solo hit Watching the Detectives. He soon added Bruce Thomas on bass and the unrelated Pete Thomas on drums to create his permanent backing band The Attractions.
Though Costello had scored a relative success with his solo debut LP My Aim Is True (1977) that featured his first hit Alison, it was after This Year’s Model (1978) – his first album with The Attractions (including (I Don’t Wanna Go To) Chelsea and Pump It Up) – when things started to gain pace.
Saturday Night Live brought the band in as a replacement for the Sex Pistols (new wave literally replacing punk right there folks) but their performance was marred by controversy after Costello stopped them while starting to play Less Than Zero (the agreed song) and swapped to Radio Radio instead. The latter is critical of the commercialisation of the airwaves and they were asked by NBC not to play it. Costello was subsequently banned from the show until 1989.
This incident is one of many politically-charged points Costello has made in his career which have marked his cards as a controversial figure at times. In 1989 he released Tramp The Dirt Down, a vitriolic attack on Margaret Thatcher where he anticipates her death to stamp on her grave, and which he unapologetically performed at Glastonbury in 2013 following her passing that April.
Shipbuilding, released in 1982, was a poignant ballad about the Falklands War, contrasting the killing of young British soldiers as an unintended consequence of a revival for struggling shipyards. “Is it worth it?” he asked. “A new winter coat and shoes for the wife, and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday.” “Within weeks they’ll be reopening the shipyards and notifying the next of kin.”
Hall of fame
While his political commentaries give him credibility as an artist, his legacy of hit songs is what he will be remembered for.
Costello has recorded 25 studio albums including those with The Attractions or The Imposters and 11 collaborative albums over his long and successful career.
Hit songs like Accidents Will Happen, I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, High Fidelity, Every Day I Write The Book, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace and Understanding and A Good Year for the Roses, the latter being a superb tribute to his love of country music, cemented his position in the public pop music psyche and led to a host of invites to collaborate from his peers including, in the late 80s, a phone call off one of his heroes – Sir Paul McCartney.
The Merseyside duo hooked up for a song-writing session for what would become McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt album including the single My Brave Face (1989).
For Costello it delivered Veronica (1989), another upbeat pop song set to heart-rending lyrics which is a tribute to his grandmother Mabel (her confirmation name was Veronica) and her struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Costello fulfilled more ambitions and achieved more success working with the legendary Burt Bacharach on their Painted in Memory LP (1998). Costello had long been a Bacharach fan, and had recorded several Bacharach songs, beginning with I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself in the late 70s. He also recorded a credible cover of Bacharach and David’s I’ll Never Fall in Love Again for an Austin Powers movie.
That was nothing compared to his brilliant take on Charles Aznavour’s She (for the movie Notting Hill). It’s no mean feat taking on such a famous song, let alone one by someone considered a pop deity which has been recorded so many times, but Costello pulled it off with aplomb.
Costello has also collaborated with Madness, Tony Bennett, Allen Toussaint, T Bone Burnett, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Kid Rock and Brian Eno.
He is listed as one of the top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine, won Grammys in 1999 and 2020, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and in 2010 had the great honour of performing Penny Lane in front of President Barack Obama at The White House when Sir Paul McCartney accepted the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
My top Elvis Costello tracks
1. Oliver’s Army
2. Watching The Detectives
3. A Good Year for the Roses
Underrated track = She
Check out James’ Elvis Costello Playlist on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7FkXy8TC69IHpX1hKrm02N