This song just popped into my head around noonish today, Eastern Standard Time. Seems as good a song to post as anything.
I was a huge Costello fan in 1979, when this song came out on EC's third album, Armed Forces. Well, I still am a huge Costello fan, but I was particularly keen in those years; I couldn't wait for this album to arrive. This track is still the biggest hit single Elvis ever had in the UK, though of course he wasn't primarily a singles artist. But you can see why it hit a nerve in Britain that year, in the dawn of the Thatcher years.
I originally assumed "Oliver" referred to Oliver Cromwell. In the Catholic schools young Declan/Elvis attended, Cromwell — the harsh Puritan general who wrested power from the Catholic-favoring Stuart monarchy — must have been painted as a villain.
However, I've later heard that Elvis also meant for Oliver to refer to Oliver Lyttelton, a Churchill crony who helped well-connected men avoid conscription in World War II because of their "usefulness to trade," thus throwing the burden of fighting onto poor unskilled men — "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne," all disadvantaged areas at the time.
Either way, it's an anti-war, anti-racism, anti-oppression anthem, inspired, Elvis says, by a visit to Belfast, where he saw in horror raw young boys patrolling the war-torn streets with automatic rifles on their shoulders. "They always get a working-class boy to do the killing," as Elvis has put it. There's that startling line, "One more widow, one less white nigger" (a "white nigger" was a common term used by Belfast Prods to describe Belfast Catholics) and the couplet "But it's no laughing party / When you've been on the murder mile," Murder Mile being a slang term for a particular violent section of Falls Road in Belfast.
Of course, the song doesn't stop with Belfast. That would be too particular. No, he wants us to see a bigger pattern, where this sort of thing also happens in Berlin, Korea, Hong Kong, Palestine, South Africa. Mercenaries, gunfights, and retribution everywhere, while the politicians ordering the killing sit in their luxury office towers miles away, dictating memos and going out to steak lunches. Or, like Elvis and the Attractions in the video, on a tropical beach, being serving umbrella cocktails.
The genius stroke of it all? Pairing these angry, cynical, allusion-crammed lyrics with a supremely catchy, jaunty radio-ready tune — a real ear-worm — underlaid with Steve Nieve's sparkling keyboards, drenched in ABBA-like pop chords and arpeggios. You can't help singing along to a song like this — and maybe shouting the lyrics a little more fiercely when you realize what it's all about. Speaking truth to power.
Today that refrain is haunting me: "And I would rather be anywhere else / Than here / Today."