Mojo, November 2003

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Mojo
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The Mojo Hall Of Fame 100

71.  Elvis Costello

Andrew Male

World-changing moment: "Oliver's Army" enters the UK charts at Number 2 — February 10, 1979.

Everyone had big hopes for Armed Forces when it was released at the start of 1979. For Elvis Costello's third album his record companies on both sides of the Atlantic were all set to turn this speccy new wave nerd into the next Springsteen. "If this album doesn't break in America then Columbia will consider us a spent force," Costello told Creem. Armed Forces became Costello's best selling album but the impact went above and beyond that. This new Springsteen was seething with ire and vitriol, penning songs about institutionalised violence, and brute militarism. Nowhere was this more apparent than in "Oliver's Army," Costello's barbed pop attack about working-class army lads. Number 2 in the pop charts? No, it couldn't happen now, and there's a good chance that every indie hopeful with pop nous since (The Smiths, Guided By Voices, The Strokes etc) has this moment as a reference point.


Recommended listening: Armed Forces

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Mojo, No. 120, November 2003


 Elvis Costello is featured in Mojo's 10th anniversary Hall Of Fame 100 and is interviewed by Andrew Male.

Images

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Photo.


Elvis Costello revisits the vitriolic
pop attack of Oliver's Army


Andrew Male

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So, "Oliver's Army" gets to Number 2...

"It's a funny sort of thing. You write a song and the subject matter is really serious but the tune made it very accessible. The first time I went to Belfast in '78, it was shocking to see these children walking around in battle fatigues carrying machine guns, knowing that the lads who got the least marks in the exam usually joined the army. Of course we [also] had this mad obsession with Abba so we added "Dancing Queen" to the piano part which gave it a bright sort of sound. It made it very memorable as a piece of music, people just caught on to it right away and of course you could sing along with the chorus without ever thinking what it was about."

Did you try and consciously write in a different way?

"It was a conscious decision to juxtapose the two things after what happened with punk. People just wanted punk to sweep all other music away. And that didn't happen. It was much more the year of disco than the year of punk. It made me realise that if you want to get your point across, singing it really loud isn't necessarily going to get it across. So then I tried to write very much more melodic songs. And it worked! The fact that we managed to get a pop record about militarism to Number 2... They gave me the gold record and I couldn't fucking believe it."

Do you ever look back on that guy?

"I, of course, never do that. Well, he was very confident, bordering on arrogance, and probably deeply insecure which you're covering up by being aggressive. I was beating my head against the wall trying to get even one record made for a number of years. Suddenly I'm an absolutely bona fide pop star. There were plenty of lippy people around then, like Geldof, who was a great frontman and had some good tunes, but he couldn't sing. I remember Pete Thomas saying, 'You can't leave it all to the Boomtown Rats. You can't let them win.


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Cover.

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