What is "Oliver's Army" by Elvis Costello about?

I love Elvis Costello and the Armed Forces album, but I’m not sure what this song is about. I figure it has something to do with history and politics :wink: , but I don’t know anything about specifics.

Please, keep your laughter to a minimum.

Oliver Cromwell, though I know the lyrics contain some contemporary references (to the late 70s anyhow) as well.

:confused: If You say so. I thought it was just about mercenary armies in general…and I don’t find any references that aren’t contemporary…what makes it about Cromwell?

Here’s some crap about Oliver Cromwell. His militia was referred to as…Oliver’s Army, or, in another eerie Cromwell-Costello connection, The New Model Army.

I guess I should say the song references Cromwell but isn’t necessarily about Cromwell.

Firstly, here are the lyrics:

(Hey! Don’t post complete lyrics! Read the bloody FAQ, willya? – Ukulele Ike, SC moderator)

So yes, he’s using the British Army’s lineage back to Cromwell to comment on jingoism, blind patriotism, decay of empire, imperialism, etc.

/Agree AndrewT

The song is about the British army and politics there of. The British army first came into existence as an organisation with the formation of the “New Model Army” during the civil war by Oliver Cromwell.

As I understand it the thing that was really different about the this was that the officers where appointed with commissions from parliament rather than nobles raising bodies of men to fight for them on behalf of the king.

In some ways though the song could ba about all armies. The New Model Army was the first army where rank was based on merit and not social standing. So all modern armies are descendants of Oliver’s Army.

Good info, but be careful AndrewT, the moderators usually frown upon giving complete lyrics to music (copyright issues).

Actually, you should keep in mind that the working title of said album was Emotional Fascism. At the time the album was coming out (and old El was writing the songs), there was a resurgence of right-wing skinheadism in the UK, with the National Front, and increasing violence aimed at immigrants, particularly Asians and West Indians.

“Oliver’s Army” to me speaks more about the Blackshirted wannabe Nazis of Oswald Moseley and his British Union of Fascists (transmuted to Oliver for the song) of the 1930s, coupled with such things as plans like “GB 76.” This was a plan to break strikes at hospitals or other “essential services” (of which there were a lot in the mid-70s) by having a flying-squad of strikebreakers in helicopters and trucks ready to roll. It was masterminded by the man who formed the Special Air Service (SAS) commando force in WW2, Lt. Col David Stirling, and never really got off the ground (literally or figuratively), but it made the news. It illustrated the right-left divide in the UK in the 70s, and the frustration over labour unrest that such Draconian and un-English paramilitary things could be bruited about. I seem to recall Costello mentioning these things in an interview in the early 80s…

Cromwell does come into it, as a military “Protector” who took power in the UK, as well. The whole album examines power politics, both in personal relationships and in the real world (“Two Little Hitlers”).

There’s also the suggestion that the Army is the dumping-ground for the unemployed in peactime (“boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne”), where they can be conveniently shipped off out of the country to trouble spots (“Hong Kong is up for grabs”). “It’s a Professional Career” was the British Army’s recruiting poster in the mid-1970s.

I have a soft spot for the album; apart from being one of his best (in my opinion), it was the first Costello record I bought.

I agree AndrewT.

I will not re-quote the entire song, but I would like do an analysis of certain lines as it relates to the idea of a general structure and application of armies since The New Model Army came into being, because I think there are illusions to specific references, some that I may have even missed, so feel free to add to anything I say, or correct me if I am wrong.

This goes in the jingoistic catagory and is a reflection of how armies are marketed today.

This is a reference, near as I can tell, to the presence of allied forces in Germany after WWII. I believe it was the name of a site on the Berlin Wall.

I don’t know if this references a specific event or issue, but I would bet that it does. The song was released in February of 1979, if that helps anyone piece it together.

Obviously a reference to Middle Eastern issues as percieved by the West, which has been a problem for at least half of the last century, well within the time frame for the release of this song.

Commentary on the red scare, near as I can tell.

Tongue-in-cheek reference here, I think. Refers back to “careers information” and the marketing of armies as careers, which are largely taken advantage of by working and poor classes.

I’m not sure exactly how this one works out. I don’t know much about Churchill, and what I do know is pretty much glorified history, so I have no idea if he did anything that this line would reference. I;d be interested to know.

Again, not sure on this one, but I would bet it’s commentary on another marketing aspect, the “see-the-world” selling point. Might be even more specific than that, though.

Refrence to the Boer War, perhaps?

I think the meaning is more general and contemporary (to the '80s) than much of the speculation here has implied. I think Rodd Hill’s take comes the closest. By my reckoning, the title “Oliver’s Army” is merely meant as a nickname for the British Army, Cromwell being considered the founder of the British Army as a professional institution, rather than, as has been pointed out above, a collection of groups of soldiers raised by particular noblemen.

Most significantly to the gist of the song, Oliver’s Army was a force made up of commoners. I think Costello’s main theme is the marketing of the armed forces as a career for those with no other prospects in a weak economy. The song seeks to remind the listener that it is, in fact, a bit more than a normal job – “only takes one itchy trigger”, “we could send you to Johannesburg”, etc.

A quick Google indicates that “Murder Mile” seems to be a recurring English slang term for high crime neighborhoods, so I think that lyric might be a reference to the neighborhood the soldier left being more dangerous than Berlin guard duty. The British Army wasn’t really engaged in a shooting war anywhere in 1979, save Northern Ireland, but Hong Kong (vs. the Chinese), Palestine, and South Africa, are, I suppose, places one might have expected the British to get into combat soon (all Commonwealth lands experiencing some unrest in the late '70s). The Falklands War, of course, popped up unexpectedly just a couple years later.

I lean towards Umbriel’s interpretation. To me, it’s about the army as a dead-end job for anyone with no other hope in life, selling it as a panacea to the problems of unemployment and hopelessness. “The Chinese line” would be Korea, “Palestine” possibly relating to the British Army in Israel in the 1940s, and so forth.

Yep, pretty reasonable, imho.

The general theme is kids from poor backgrounds fighting and dying for ‘empire’ when the nation/empire gave them no options in life anyway. The kids are, of course, blind with ignorance and easily manipulated to patriotism and doing ‘what’s right’, despite the fact that doing ‘what’s right’ gets them killed and maintains the status quo that means they and their ‘class’ remain ‘socially and educationally ‘disenfranchised’.

The point is that it’s always been thus (all through time/empire), including in the 1970s – 2004 as well, if you look at the oil agenda in Iraq; the underclass kids are still dying, if for something more recognisably corporate now than it used to be.

The US Empire is no different; you simply have to maintain a degree of social and educational disenfranchisement in society if you have a volunteer army, otherwise large chunks of your cannon fodder develop unhealthy expectations.