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Elvis Costello retires ‘Oliver’s Army’ and asks radio stations to stop playing it


Elvis Costello is disconnecting himself from one of his biggest hits, completely removing it from his live repertoire, saying in a recent interview that “radio stations should stop playing it”.  

Costello wrote ‘Oliver’s Army’ in 1978 while on an aeroplane returning from Belfast, and after his first-ever visit there, he was stunned to see young British soldiers patrolling with machine guns as if it was normal. ‘Oliver’s Army’ talks about Northern Ireland’s troubles with the British army and is an anti-warfare anthem.  

Of the song, Costello told Q Magazine in 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 realise what it is you’re actually singing. Of course, the downside of that is some people only hear a tune and never listen to the words. After a while I got frustrated at that.” In spite of the political context in the lyrics, the song was extremely popular. Many listeners disregarded the meaning behind the words, which is understandable, of course. The song is catchy so it’s easy to get lost in it, a factor that Costello was worried about. 

The song spent two weeks at number two when it was released in 1979, and due to its anti-war agenda, radio stations have recently begun to censor parts of the track. “On the last tour, I wrote a new verse about censorship, but what’s the point of that?” he told The Telegraph.  

“So I’ve decided I’m not going to play it. [Bleeping the word] is a mistake. They’re making it worse by bleeping it for sure. Because they’re highlighting it then. Just don’t play the record”. Costello was referring to the use of the N-word slur that was used in the song, defending it by considering the historical context and accuracy of the time.  

“If I wrote that song today, maybe I’d think twice about it,” Costello said. “That’s what my grandfather was called in the British army – it’s historically a fact – but people hear that word go off like a bell and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend,” he added.  

The piano riff in ‘Oliver’s Army’ was influenced by ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA, but he initially considered the track to be B-side worthy. It wasn’t planned to be put on the album originally, but we’re so glad it made it on there. After all, the ABBA influence is obvious in the first six seconds of the song and on many occasions throughout. 43 years later it still sounds iconic.

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