Elvis Costello is saying that fans may have heard “Oliver’s Army,” one of his biggest hits, in concert for the last time. He’s “done singing it,” rather than continuing to censor or alter the original lyrics, as he had when he’d performed the song on tour as recently as two years ago.
Costello has said he would also prefer that radio stations halt playing the original recording — which went to No. 2 in the U.K. in 1979, and had been an enduring favorite in America — rather than play a bleeped version, which he maintains only calls more attention to the lyric in question.
An arch anti-war song with lyrics that remain cryptic to the average U.S. listener, “Oliver’s Army” was written about the conflict in Northern Ireland, and includes the historical use of a racial slur in England and Ireland. The line: “Only takes one itchy trigger/ One more widow, one less white [N-word].” The use of the word, while still shocking then, caused far less of a stir in the 1970s — at least as a synonym for non-racially based prejudices (John Lennon also used it in a feminist anthem’s title earlier in the decade) — than it does in the modern day.
“If I wrote that song today, maybe I’d think twice about it,” Costello told the Telegraph. He explained the original context: “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.”
In a separate interview with the Guardian, also tied to his new album, “The Boy Named If,” Costello addressed cutting the song from live performance.
“I believe I was wide awake when I wrote the song about career opportunities” leading to lives as career soldiers, he told the newspaper, “but sadly that two-word slang is a historical fact. It was a derogatory term for Irish Catholics, which I sang to make the point. One dreads to think how the officer class spoke about people of color. Perhaps I’d express the same idea differently now. I’ve tried changing that verse, but after 44 years I’m done singing it. I’ll sing ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ instead.”
In 2013, the BBC began bleeping the lyric when it was aired, which didn’t sit well with Costello. That “is a mistake,” he told the Telegraph. “They’re making it worse by bleeping it, for sure. Because they’re highlighting it then. Just don’t play the record!”
“On the last tour, I wrote a new verse about censorship, but what’s the point of that?” he added. “So I’ve decided I’m not going to play it.”
Costello’s previous tour with his backing group the Imposters had just gotten underway in Europe when the pandemic put a halt to it. Costello had been singing the classic with new lyrics that cut out not just that line but the verse around it. It included a line about “being cut down by the censors,” alluding to the BBC’s bleeping. The then-new verse, as transcribed by fans: “They say the times are changing / And peace on Earth has come to pass / Although the war is raging / They say each war will be the last / Send our boys back to Enniskillin / ‘Cause a robot army does all the killing / And the BBC will beg you to forgive them / Take a word or two and cut them out with scissors.”
But the tune was missing in any form when Costello and the Imposters played a fall 2021 tour in the U.S. — not that the song (which Costello modeled partly on the pure pop of ABBA, for ironic effect) had always been a staple of his sets, the way that “Peace, Love and Understanding” and a few other late ’70s songs have.
Costello joked that if radio stopped playing “Oliver’s Army” altogether, it would simplify setlists of his greatest hits that might pop up upon his death. He said that “when I fall under a bus, they’ll play ‘She,’ ‘Good Year for the Roses’ and ‘Oliver’s Army.’ (Now) I’ll die, and they will celebrate my death with two songs I didn’t write.” (Although those other two songs aren’t well-known in America, “Good Year for the Roses,” a cover of a George Jones ballad, and “She,” a Charles Aznavour cover he recorded for the “Notting Hill” soundtrack, were indeed two of Costello’s bigger hits overseas.)
A recent Costello album, “Look Now,” won the Grammy for best traditional pop album two years ago. The harder-rocking “The Boy Named If,” recorded during quarantine with his band the Imposters contributing from different locations, comes out Friday.