Oliver's Army

Elvis Costello - Oliver's Army

Elvis Constello's album
Elvis Constello's album

Unique Anti-war song

I have to say, this is my interpretation of the song when i first read the lyrics. Other people might see them differently

Don't start me talking

I could talk all night

My mind goes sleepwalking

While I'm putting the world to right

Called careers information

Have you got yourself an occupation

CHORUS:

Oliver's army is here to stay

Oliver's army are on their way

And I would rather be anywhere else

But here today

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

CHORUS

Hong Kong is up for grabs

London is full of arabas

We could be in Palestine

Overrun by a Chinese line

With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne

But there's no danger

It's a professional career

Though it could be arranged

With just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear

If you're out of luck you're out of work

We could send you to Johannesburg

CHORUS

And I would rather be anywhere else

But here today And I would rather be anywhere else

But here today

This is an idiosyncratic anti-war protest song by Elvis Costello (real name Patrick MacManus), with a great tune but unfortunately many people find the lyrics difficult to understand. This is mostly because the song was written in the early 1980s and so some of the things he was referring to are no longer happening. It is also very British and so many people outside of the UK wouldn't know what he was referring to.

The title of the song is Oliver’s Army, and this is probably a reference to Oliver Cromwell who is strongly hated, even today, by the Roman Catholics in Ireland and Scotland. The irony of Oliver Cromwell is that he overthrew the British King, Charles 1 whom tried to disband Parliament, which started the English Civil War of 1642-1651. Yet after winning the war Cromwell beheading Charles 1 he took over as dictator and disband Parliament! He turned out to be an even worse tyrant than Charles 1, so that when he died, the British people restored Charles 2, (the son of Charles 1), to the British throne.

Don't start me talking

I could talk all night

My mind goes sleepwalking

While I'm putting the world to right

This part of the song is easy to understand, as he is expressing how strongly he feels about the subject.

Called careers information

Have you got yourself an occupation

This is simply a play on words, the occupation is not about a job, it is more about the occupation of countries by conquering armies.

CHORUS:

Oliver's army is here to stay

This song is not simply about Oliver Cromwell but every army in the world, who have conquered and occupied other countries. Except for Antarctica, Greenland and perhaps Iceland, every country in the world has been conquered and occupied at one time or another, by conquering armies. (This includes Australia and North America where Europeans conquered the native people and occupied their lands.)

Oliver's army are on their way

This suggests that every country in the world is still in danger of conquest and occupation.

And I would rather be anywhere else

But here today

Any sane person would not like to be a member of civilian population when being conquered and occupied by a conquering army. As many armies throughout history have practised mass rape and murder, or have indoctrinated the population to a new way of life. Or the civilian population have been caught up in guerrilla warfare of those have resisted the occupation. So he is protesting against all this insanity

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

This is a reference to the Cold War that was still going on in the 1980s, and people were being shot trying to flee the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Hong Kong is up for grabs

Hong Kong in the 1980s was still a British colony and it was feared that Communist China would take it over by force. But as it turned out it was handed over in a peaceful manner.

London is full of arabas

Since the 1960s millions of people have immigrated to England, and most of them settled in London. This has created a lot of racial tension and in one politician of the time, Enoch Powell predicted, “rivers of blood” as war would break out between the immigrants and white English people. This fortunately didn’t happen.

We could be in Palestine

This is a reference to the many Israel/Arab wars, which was started by the conquest and occupation of Palestine by the Jews

Overrun by a Chinese line

This is about the fear of Communist China and the possibility of them coming so strong they might attempt to conquer the world.

With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne

This is a reference to football hooligans, the Mersey is about the football clubs in Liverpool, the Thames is the football clubs in London and the Tyne is the Newcastle football supporters who called themselves, ‘the Tyne army’. In the 1980s British football hooligans had the reputation of being the worse in Europe. This resulted in 1985 in the deaths of 39 Italian football fans at Heysel stadium who clashed with Liverpool supporters. He is clearly saying that there is no difference in gang warfare, football hooligan fights and warfare fought by soldiers.

It's a professional career

Though it could be arranged

This is a reference to the way the Military advertise itself to appeal to young men. Calling themselves a professional career and ‘forgetting’ to mention the fact that the whole point of being a soldier is to kill other people, and be killed. This brought about a funny incident in the Falkland War of 1982. The Royal Navy had advertised themselves to young men as a good place to learn a trade like electronics. Then many of these young men who joined up for that reason, found themselves in warships sailing to the other side of the world, to fight the Argentina navy and air force. The mothers of some of these men protested about this, saying their sons joined up to learn a trade! It then had to be explained to them that the whole purpose of a navy is to fight wars.

With just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear

Churchill was the Prime Minster of Britain in the Second World War, who is seen by many as a hero but by others as a warmonger.

If you're out of luck you're out of work

We could send you to Johannesburg

There was high unemployment in Britain in the 1980s so the army did recruit unemployed young men. Johannesburg is in South Africa and has a reputation even today of being a very violent city. At the time it was predicted that the black majority would take over South Africa from the white minority, through a very violent revolution. Fortunately because of Nelson Mandela and the pragmatism of while politicians, a peaceful transition was made possible. It this song was written now, then he probably would of referred to Iraq or Afghanistan.

© 2008 William Bond

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Comments 7 comments

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

Excellent analysis and review of a brilliant song!


wabond profile image

wabond 7 years ago from England Author

Thanks Steve


BrainFire profile image

BrainFire 7 years ago from The Island

Thumbs Up as usual! I think you're great. I don't even think you've reached your full potential yet, so I'm anxious to read more, and what your development will be. It's very interesting, informative, mind expanding, and honorable. You are truly special, and so important in our history.

With much love,

Rev. HP D


wabond profile image

wabond 7 years ago from England Author

Thank you Brainfire, i hope i can live up to your expectation.

william bond


Andrew Kennedy 5 years ago

Agree for the most part, but I think your inclusion of football thugs is way off the mark.


Chris 2 years ago

Nice try but all wrong. Song is about powerful politicians using young men or boys in their armed forces. The working class lads have no other option in life and end up as soldiers. The boys from the Mercey, Thames, Tyne refer to these working class lads.


wabond profile image

wabond 2 years ago from England Author

I agree with you Chips, yes poverty is used to drive young men to join the arm forces. I don't think there is a big difference in our opinions of this song,

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