"Less Than Zero" as written by and Elvis Costello....
Calling Mister Oswald with the swastika tattoo
There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo
Carving "v" for vandal on the guilty boy's head
When he's had enough of that, maybe you'll take him to bed
To teach him he's alive before he wishes he was dead

Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won't detect it so your father won't know
They think that I've got no respect, but
Everything means less than zero
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey

Oswald and his sister are doing it again
They've got the finest home movies that you have ever seen
They've got a thousand variations, every service with a smile
They're gonna take a little break, and they'll be back after a while
Well, I hear that South America is coming into style

Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won't detect it so your father won't know
They think that I've got no respect, but
Everything means less than zero
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey

A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor
Mister Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet
Let's talk about the future now we've put the past away

Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won't detect it so your father won't know
They think that I've got no respect, but
Everything means less than zero
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey
Hey, oh hey
Hey, hey
Hey, oh hey


Lyrics submitted by fearofmusic

"Less Than Zero" as written by Elvis Costello

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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Less Than Zero song meanings
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7 Comments

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  • +1
    General CommentDallas Version referred to above by ssinger:

    Jenny takes her clothes off in succession,
    While her husband rides a bumper in the President's procession.
    She's sees him on the screen as she looks up from giving head.
    When he's had enough of that her lover throws her on the bed
    to teach her she's alive and suddenly he's dead.
    Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
    even your mother won't detect it,
    no your father won't know.
    they think that I've got no respect
    but everything means less than zero.
    Hey, ooh hey, hey, ooh hey.

    Calling Mister Oswald, calling anyone at the scene,
    If you were taking home movies there's a chance you might have seen him.
    They've got a thousand variations, every witness in a file.
    Jenny puts on some coffee and she comes back with a smile.
    She says, "I hear that South America is coming into style."

    chorus

    A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor.
    Mister Oswald thought he had an understanding with the law.
    She's got rubies on her fingers, Jenny turns and looks away.
    Her mind upon a basement out of the USA.
    She says, "Let's talk about the future now we've put the past away."
    moikon September 17, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is a scathing attack on Oswald Mosley, a politician who was popular in England at the time. Mosley was the leader of the British Union of Fascists. He died in 1980.
    HazMatadoron April 23, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt's a bit of a garage sale, but does point toward one thing: There's a sham job going on, and we have to rise to the occasion and countenance it, before it's too late.
    The central idea is how foolish we look when we let our consciences slip away; how corrupt the world becomes when we're not busy digging up the baobabs of immorality before they become lumbering giants that take up all our living space.
    The title line simply means this: Criticism is good. When you criticise, people may think you have no respect. But look at the alternative: Giving yourself over to the wiles of power, slavishly parroting the party line only serves to expose the immorality of the host system; to expose that system as having a negative value ("less than zero").
    The line in the bridge is great, and cleverly explains the dynamic whereby the media function has been perverted to hide the truth, rather than expose it. The medium is the message, and that medium/message is more concerned with quantity than quality, of turning the volume up to 11, rather than encouraging the silent contemplation that can lead to self-knowlege, healing, genuine dialog, and ultimately heaven.
    razajacon September 27, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentInteresting side-light to this song. As HazMatador notes, the "Oswald" refers to "Oswald Mosley," yet when the lyrics were heard in the US, many assumed it meant Lee Harvey Oswald, and that inspired Elvis to rewrite the lyrics in concert and perform what is commonly referred to as the "Dallas Version" of "Less Than Zero," which is written from the viewpoint of the wife of one of JFK's secret service agents. It contains some of Elvis's cleverest lyrics (possibly better than the original), with references to the Zapruder film, Jack Rubie, and the Warren Report.
    ssingeron December 07, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthis song is about British politics, so as an American I don't understand all the references.
    When I first heard it, I thought "Mr. Oswald" was Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who (disputedly) shot President Kennedy.
    He is described as a nihilistic and rebellious or at least indifferent and irreverent young man because "everything means less than zero."

    He has a bad relationship with his parents, and has an incestous relationship with his sister:

    "Oswald and his sister are doing it again
    They've got the finest home movies that you have ever seen
    They've got a thousand variations: every service with a smile"

    So, apparently, they have sex and tape themselves doing it.

    "A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor"

    Oswald kills someone, but justifies it:

    "Mister Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
    He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
    He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet"

    I'm not sure how this fits in:
    "Turn up the TV
    No one listening will suspect
    Even your mother won't detect it
    So your father won't know"

    But the television is turned up to cover up sound, maybe Mr. Oswald's incest or gunshots from murdering someone.
    I like the: "your mother won't detect it, so your father won't know" lyric - something about mother's intuition, that the father is oblivious while mom can usually sense things. But if she doesn't know, you're out of trouble with Dad.

    Again, this analysis is probably incorrect, but this is how I took it as someone unfamiliar with British politics.
    LonelyHeartson January 02, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think this song goes much further than criticising Oswald Mosley himself and is more to do with Costello's contempt for public tolerance for the Fascist presence in Britain and amorality in general. Hence Costello mockingly depicts Oswald as a gleeful pervert who tortures, rapes, commits incest and murders, and when it makes the news it only seems to fit in with the general direction of an increasingly nihilistic, apathetic, hedonistic nation. This song also marked the inspiration for Bret Easton Ellis's novel 'Less Than Zero' which has extremely similar themes to it.
    GimpChimpon November 30, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThe lines about the American couple who "traded in their baby for a Chevrolet," on the surface this seems to be a lurid story intended as misdirection, to distract from the smoking gun. It may conveniently serve other purposes also. One can imagine a Fascist demagogue trying to get people riled up--generating some hysteria helpful to his own ambitions--by spinning an outrageous fantasy. Then he can say, "Do you want our fine country to fall so far down as those dissolute Americans: whose sickening practices receive not only official sanction, but economic incentives?"
    foreverdroneon June 23, 2008   Link

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