Oliver’s Army


When I was a child I went through a weird phase when Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces was my favorite record. It’s hardly children’s music, but I responded to the catchiness of it, not having any clue what a word of it was about. This song in particular was just word soup to me. I kept hearing it as word soup well into adulthood, until eventually I realized it’s quite the opposite. It’s anything but gibberish, but even as an adult, I was missing the context to make sense of it. The text is full of references that went over my head because the historical and geographical context is so far removed. In short, Elvis Costello is talking about things that would strike a deep chord with you if you were alive and conscious in the UK in the late seventies. There are references to very time and place specific things like The Protected Occupations Act of WWII, the Troubles in Belfast, the Apartheid in South Africa, Checkpoint Charlie in Communist Berlin, among other things that American children don’t get to learn about in school. All laid over with the spirit of malaise that seemed to permeate Great Britain during the late 70’s. But if you don’t sit down and learn about what the world was like in 1979, it’s just a ditty-bop pop song.

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