Elvis Costello played Glasgow through the week there. One of the few greats I’ve still to catch in concert, the extreme burst of half-arsed lethargy with which I greeted the sale of the tickets ensured this was a fact that remains so today. There have been some great reports of the show and of course, I now wish I’d made more of an effort and gone. Maybe next time…
Like many folk of a certain age, my first encounter with Elvis came via him playing Oliver’s Army on Top of the Pops. A Buddy Holly for the Sniffin’ Glue generation, this knock-kneed, open-mouthed twitching nerd in turned-up drainpipes and his Dad’s old suit jacket (a ‘look’ I would make something of my own a decade later), replete with a Fender guitar that was too big for him and a massive pair of defining National Health skelpers (were they actually NHS-issued?) confirmed Elvis as geek chic before such a thing existed.
Oliver’s Army is literal and wordy and at the age of 9, something I couldn’t care less about. It was catchy, he had a funny voice and it mentioned Oliver, not a name I’d ever heard sung in a pop song before. He sang about the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne and white niggers, whatever they were. As it turns out, the song is partly about the skilled workforce that was needed during the war effort. If you had a particular skill, Oliver Lyttleton, Churchill’s Trade Secretary, made sure you did your bit for him, not with a gun but with your hammer or screwdriver or whatever.
Elvis wrote the song quickly after visiting Belfast at the height of The Troubles and seeing first-hand how young the soldiers in the firing line were. “They always get a working class boy to do the killing,” he remarked wryly. Those working class boys were the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne.
Elvis Costello – Oliver’s Army
The inspiration for the tune’s grown-up and none-less-punk arrangement? Elvis and the Attractions were on tour in the US and driving through the American mid-west, radio playing, when Elvis was struck by the lightning rod of creativity. Abba’s Dancing Queen was currently drifting across the airwaves and its descending piano motifs between the lines proved to be the catalyst that turned a good song into a great record. They’d make the perfect opener for his new song when they came to record it, Elvis considered. And, as it turns out, they did. So arguably, without Dancing Queen there’d have been no Oliver’s Army. (Incidentally, without George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby, there’d be no Dancing Queen, but that’s another story).
Oliver’s Army‘s parent album, Armed Forces was my first introduction to Elvis the artist, as opposed to Elvis the pop star. Again, it was wordy and literal, but offset by twitchy, synthy, noo-wavey, skewed guitar pop. You’ll know that already though.
I had no idea what any of it was about but it sounded terrific. It starts with ‘Accidents Will Happen‘, another brilliant piece of Elvis pop that just bursts in, as if you’re listening to the song half way through. Wherever that idea came from, or whoever he half-inched the notion from, it’s a masterstroke.
Elvis Costello – Accidents Will Happen
Armed Forces came in a great fold-out Barney Bubbles-designed sleeve too, all pop-art graphics and technicolour. It’s an album I come back to now and again – indeed, it was spinning just last night- and in the days before iTunes counts or any of that nonsense that gets in the road of a good listen nowadays, I must’ve played it from start to finish at least, oooh, I dunno, 37 times.