Quality blog Sweeping The Nation is in the middle of 'Songs To Learn And Sing', a very admirable project in which every day of this month sees a single recommended to the readers of the blog.
The remit was along the lines of 'singles you think everyone should hear' and, as my proposal to the project was accepted, my thoughts initially went to those singles I love that did not crack the top 40. You know, songs like 'Sworn and Broken', by Screaming Trees; 'J.J.'s Song', by Kerbdog etc. However, as you shall see, my mind was changed, and I opted for a more famous single, due to its ostensible disappearance from cultural consciousness...
Elvis Costello & the Attractions - 'Oliver's Army' (1979)
I initially considered this single invalid for a topic of 'singles everybody should hear'. Not that it shouldn't be heard by everybody (it should), but more because I was labouring under the belief that it, in fact, had already been heard by everybody.
It was only when talking to friends that it became clear a worrying amount of today's young populace had never heard the greatness that is 'Oliver's Army' so, on the off-chance readers here find themselves members of such a group, that can now be rectified.
What is odd about this song is that, while I was always aware of its existence, it is only really in the last few months that it has been elevated in my mind to the level of true great. Indeed, and this is by no means intended as a slight on today's music scene, a modern equal to 'Oliver's Army', in its combination of aesthetic and commercial success, is sorely lacking; this truly is the perfect single.
Clocking in at (a shade) below three minutes, not a second is wasted. A sympathetic satire on the situation school-leavers would find themselves in during the late 1970s, the title references Cromwell's New Model Army (a precursor to the modern army), and concerns the near-predatory targeting, by the British army, of the youth: 'Called careers information / Have you got yourself an occupation?'.
The song opens in friendly enough fashion, as Costello warns 'don't start me talking – I can talk all night', but develops into rather an aggressive treatise on the policy of the time. This song is also the closest one is likely to get to hearing the 'N-word' on Radio 2; Elvis references the historical subjugation of the Irish with an eye on the contemporary Northern Irish violence:
There was a checkpoint Charlie
He didn't crack a smile
But it's no laughing party
When you've been on the murder mile
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger
What is truly sad is that, while Northern Ireland has thankfully seen less of the overt violence than in the past, young British army recruits are still being packed off to many a 'murder mile' around the world. Though the closing quip of 'if you're out of luck or out of work, we could send you to Johannesburg' is less of a threat than it was during the dark days of Apartheid, little (other than integrity of
rhyme) would be lost by replacing it with a Kabul or Baghdad in 2006.
Sobering indeed is the knowledge that the reference to the Palestine is as relevant now as it was twenty-seven years ago. Familiar, too, is the 'London is full of Arabs' line, to anyone who has seen the sensationalising news of late.
Not for Costello the politico-single that is merely a wordy essay, though. With such intelligent, abrasive, lyrics, the erstwhile Declan MacManus paired a very simple, and incredibly smart, arrangement.
The key vocal melody in the verses is both well-written and exquisitely performed – Costello gets little recognition for his singing ability, but he sings here with a sensitivity of voice, while dancing subtly around the notes. The chorus, meanwhile, is a very simple melody, but crafted well in that it rises to mini-climaxes every time it is sung.
Musically, it is also on the money; to think the half-finished song was very nearly omitted from the Armed Forces record. Thank goodness, then, for keyboardist Steve Nieve who, at the last minute, came up with a catchy piano riff. By Costello's admission, it was more than slightly in thrall to 'Dancing Queen', by ABBA. Still, if
one is to steal, it might as well be from the pop masters.
Such grand piano flourishes meet Reggae-tinged keyboard stabs in the mix without sounding at all incongruous, but the devil really is in the details: the quickly ascending piano notes lead listeners into the middle-eight that, itself, is the verse melody sung gloriously in a higher key. The loose, yet brilliant, harmony in the chorus really adds to the anthemic feel of the song. The way the piano directs the
ears into the climactic chorus, with a solitary rendition of the vocal melody itself, is the icing on the cake.
In a nutshell, then, 'Oliver's Army' is a single that managed to marry the conciseness and pure pop sensibility of the very best ABBA, with a near-Swiftian taste for the satirical. And for that, as well as countless other reasons, I love it.