Don't start that talking
I could talk all night
My mind was sleepwalking
While I'm putting the world to right
Call careers information
Have you got yourself an occupation?

Oliver's army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today

There was a Checkpoint Charlie
He didn't crack a smile
But it's no laughing party
When you've been on the murder mile
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger

Oliver's Army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today

Hong Kong is up for grabs
London is full of Arabs
We could be in Palestine
Overrun by the Chinese line
With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne

But there's no danger
It's a professional career
Though it could be arranged
With just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear
If you're out of luck or out of work
We could send you to Johannesburg

Oliver's Army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh

Lyrics submitted by JamesD

Oliver's Army Lyrics as written by Elvis Costello

Lyrics © BMG Rights Management, Universal Music Publishing Group

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Oliver's Army song meanings
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  • +7
    General Commentfrom the booklet of the rhino reissue of armed forces:

    "The origin of "Oliver's Army" is easier to explain. I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news.
    These snapshop experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premis 'they always get a working class oby to do the killing'. I don't know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nontheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London."
    lou weedon March 18, 2006   Link
  • +5
    General CommentMy take is that it's about the way military recruitment people aggressively target disdvantaged youngsters ("the boys form the Mersey, and the Thames, and the Tyne", all struggling areas of England at this time), as a way of providing soldiers and reducing unemployment figures in one fell swoop. Oliver Cromwell created Britain's first organised army, hence the song title. None of this can describew the brilliance of Steve Nieve's keyboard meldoy for the song, which is surely the track's real appeal.
    JackofHeartson October 03, 2005   Link
  • +5
    General CommentJackofhearts has the best explanation. As he says, Oliver Cromwell created Britain's first organised army. Specifically it was Britain's first PROFESSIONAL army which links into all the "professional career", "have you got yourself an occupation" stuff. Cromwell was responsible for brutal repression in Ireland, but the song only makes passing reference to the modern day Irish troubles.

    By the way - have you noticed the blatant steal from ABBA's Dancing Queen in the keyboard intro?
    paul_fon August 09, 2006   Link
  • +5
    General CommentThe 'murder mile' which Costello refers to is the hard line Republican area of the Falls Road, Springfield Road, Divis Street and area behind Dunville Park in Belfast. We called it the murder mile as long ago as 1973
    exsquaddie99on September 24, 2009   Link
  • +4
    General CommentThis song simply put is about Britishpresence around the world, mostly militant. It starts in a British citizen wanting to do good and needing to find a job. "Have you got yourself an occupation" is the British government when they were trying to build up their military force and suggesting young men to go into that field. The chorus, "Olivers Army" is a reference to Oliver Cromwell, but its not specifically talking about the things he did as a person. "And I would rather be anywhere else but here today" signify's the citizen's and Costello's opinion against this militant takeover of the world. In the next verse, they make reference to a place called Checkpoint Charlie on the british wall where there was a lot of military, not british, but military presence. The murder mile can reference to a place in Ireland, OR in upper hackney in London, both fit. "Only takes one itchy trigger" obvious is talking about guns and shootings. "One more widow, one less white nigger", this is talking about their apathetic view towards the military killing, and also using such a strong word, they make reference to unacceptance of different religions and races. In the next verse, basically its talking about different types of groups of people and places. "Hong Kong is up for grabs" is reference to Hong Kong when it was under British rule. Then its talking about other places it could conquer next, such as palestine. Then, "With the boys from the mersey and the thames and the tyne" is just talking about how they could go about conquering places from 3 different major rivers in europe. Then we go back to Britain trying to convince the youth that its a good idea to join the military with "theres no danger, its a professional career." They want to make boys feel grown up. Churchill is the Prime Minister, so of course he is mentioned. Finally, "if you're out of luck, you're out of work we could send you to Johannesburg." is meaning Johannesburg, South Africa, in which the British tried to solidify by sending more and more of their people there, and eventually getting into a war with the people. Theres the long explination.
    opivy7898on February 21, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General Commentopivy7898 had generally the right idea - needs a bit of Britain's military involvements post WW2 - "we could be in Palestine" - Britain was involved in a conflict in Palestine in 1947/1948, between Israelis and Arabs. "Overrun by the Chinese line" refers to the Korean war, when China intervened on behalf of North Korea - the Gloster regiment was "overrun" at the battle of Imjin River. The Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne... well, Liverpool is on the Mersey, London on the Thames, Newcastle on the Tyne. These cities were all big industrial cities, so with the decline of British industry post warits easy to see how these would be fertile grounds for army recruitment. "Checkpoint Charlie" was on the Berlin wall - It was of key importance during the Berlin Airlift (late 40s/early 50s? not sure of specific date). Though the "Johannesburg" reference could apply to the Boer war, I thought it could just as easily apply to places such as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that border on South Africa, and which had their independence struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, in which a great many mercenaries from European countries were involved (hence the out of work... so having to become a mercenary or something). Then again, Churchill was involved in British military history in both the Boer and First World wars, as well as the Second World War, so it could be a reference to the Boer War. Just my interpretation... hope that helps. Oh - and "White Nigger" refers to the Irish... they used to be treated in Britain almost as badly as black people were treated in the U.S.
    Indiemonkeyon March 06, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General Comment'Have yoe got yourself an occupation?'

    In typical Elivs style, a double-meaning, referring to occupied territories abroad from the UK.
    saucissonon December 13, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General CommentJust wanted to note that 'one more white nigger' is a clear reference to Ireland - white nigger was a derogatory term for the Irish in the 19th Century.

    The general meaning of the song is the death of the British Empire and the foolishness of trying to run the world by force.
    prozacrefugeeon November 12, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI don't think this is about Northern Ireland or about prudish British society. To me this is a reference to the many mercenaries who were ubiquitous in the 70s esp in Africa but also in the Mid & Far East. Very often these units were used (secretely) by the British government...Many ex-soldiers and unemployed squaddies signed up for this life.
    fortunate_boyon February 10, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentSorry warmerdays, but:

    Oliver's Army is not a general slang term. Cromwell's New Model Army was Britain's first professional army - soldiery as a profession being the key theme of the song.

    White nigger is a term of abuse used for Catholics in Northern Ireland. Not sure it goes back centuries as suggested by another poster, but certainly used in the late 60s/early 70s when the Catholics of Northern Ireland modelled their civil rights movement on America's black civil rights movement.
    paul_fon July 03, 2008   Link

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