"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 four weeks at number 2 in the UK singles chart.[2]


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Music critics, such as Prof. 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. It is also possible 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 were dubbed to be part of "Oliver's Army".[citation needed]

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 at the time including South Africa, Palestine, 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.[citation needed]

The song lyrics contain the phrase "white nigger", which usually remains uncensored on radio stations. In March 2013 the digital radio station BBC 6Music played the song with the word removed despite BBC radio stations having played the song uncensored for over 30 years.[7] Costello performed the song at Glastonbury 2013, aired by the BBC, with the phrase uncensored.

Cover versions[edit]Edit

The song has been covered by a large number of artists, including Raimundos[spunge], Belle & SebastianBlurPeter MulveyOK GoO'Malley's MarchDirty Pretty ThingsBayside, and comedy duo Cannon and Ball.[8][9] ComedianFrank Skinner performed the song when he impersonated Costello on an episode of Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes.

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