Key changes are almost always a cheap way of getting a bit more mileage out of a song which has otherwise run its course. The results are almost always unbearably cheesy and corny. Think of, say, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder, one of the very worst key changes in musical history (quite the achievement for such a talented person, but then the 80’s were rough for everyone). It doesn’t add anything, it just cranks it up a few tones in the hopes of wringing a bit more emotion out of the song. Unsuccessfully, as it happens. Or the somehow-even-more-ghastly key-change in Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You”, not a feature of Dolly Parton’s infinitely-superior original. Technically, yes, it’s amazing Houston’s voice can even do that while at the same time being absolutely bloody terrible and, like the Stevie Wonder example, adds nothing to the song except perhaps an excuse to show off.
“Oliver’s Army” by contrast, has one of the best key changes in popular music, and why it’s so great gets at the absolute heart of why the song itself is so great. The key change itself is almost invisible. It happens at the point where Costello sings the line “but there’s no danger / it’s a professional career” after Steve Nieve’s chirpily poppy ascending piano line. The key change exactly follows the almost gabbled “with the buyers from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” and it really juices the song, the shift up in key paralleling the move into the simpler clarity and structure of the “but there’s no danger” line at the same time. It’s a genius little move, made especially impressive since there are other little key shifts throughout the song, and it is using one of the standard bits of pop song construction to really push a lyric. Yet the song doesn’t oversell it – when we get to the chorus it discreetly moves back to the original key rather than, as might be more typical, going up again. Or to put it another way, it isn’t over-egged. The reason this is so great is because it demonstrates such a clear, obvious grasp of how to assemble a pop song from off-the-shelf individual components and do something really impressive with them.
And that’s what “Oliver’s Army” does throughout its run. It’s not an innovative song in the sense of new approaches or techniques, rather it’s using existing structures to subvert and undercut traditional pop with politics. It’s a new wave song, but it’s as politically astute as just about anything in the punk canon, being as it is about the British army being posted on the streets of Belfast. It’s also straightforward pop music in the Abba mould – Steve Nieve has explicitly acknowledged “Dancing Queen” as an antecedent of his piano work here, one of the key features of the song and one of the driving factors behind its greatness.
Costello is in full-on nerd cosplay, in such sharp contrast to the safety-pin clichés of punk or the big-hair-shiny-suits of disco, but the nerd-image is what makes the anger of the song so striking – it’s coming from someone that looks like a maths teacher not a revolutionary. And there’s no mistaking the anger and frustration inherent in the lyrics. That the song invokes the name of Oliver Cromwell, who despised the Irish and remains a hated figure there, and that this invocation doesn’t feel like a contradiction shows what a firm grasp Costello has on the lyric. The song itself is even happy to comment on the absurdity of trying to tackle something as politically charged as British troops in Northern Ireland at the start with its opening four lines, equating the discussion the song is taking part in with lying round late at night talking bollocks while “putting the world to rights”.
And then the song goes right ahead and discusses the issues anyway – and again this doesn’t feel like a contradiction. Although, naturally, “Oliver’s Army” isn’t simply concerned with Northern Ireland, but rather also with colonialism, whether by politics or business – given how Thatcherism would develop throughout the 80’s this now looks incredibly prescient and of course 1979 is the year she came to power. It’s an astoundingly detailed lyric for such a short song, in fact, and it covers a lot of ground. The Top 40, pop sensibilities of the music allows the deeply invested politicised nature of the lyric to inveigle its way almost to the top of the charts, at least in the UK. But that’s why it works – the sweetness of the music with the acidity of the lyric combine to make a truly memorable single. “Oliver’s Army” was prevented from getting to Number 1 in the UK by two disco songs – our old friend Gloria Gaynor with her signature hit, “I Will Survive”, and the Bee-Gees with “Tragedy”. In the US it sank without trace and didn’t chart at all, despite the success of the accompanying album Armed Forces. And its Costello’s most popular UK song in fact, at least in terms of chart success – he never made it to Number 1 in the UK, but if your best success is “Oliver’s Army”, well, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a brilliant song.
Costello would score a second hit in 1979 with “Accidents Will Happen”. It’s a good song, and it got to Number 28 in the UK (faring fractionally better than “Oliver’s Army” in the US, it scraped in at all of Number 101). But it’s no “Oliver’s Army”, which has gone to become one of Costello’s signature songs, and one of his 1979 stand-outs. But Armed Forces itself is a slight step down from the last album, although as the last album was My Aim Is True almost everything would be. Which is not to say Armed Forces is in some way a bad album – it is in fact terrific, and it’s shot through with much the same sensibility as “Oliver’s Army” – pop music used to slyly side politics into the listener’s cross-hairs. It’s cleverly constructed and endlessly re-listenable to anyone who enjoys great pop music with some actual weight to it.
But 1979 wasn’t exactly a perfect year for Costello – he famously got into a drunken fight during which he used the N-word to refer to both James Brown and Ray Charles. He apologised almost straight away (and Charles himself eventually forgave Costello and told everyone to just move on already) but it did lasting damage to his image in America. The following year, 1980, saw the release of Get Happy!! which is a great album, if just a little less remarkable than the three that precede it (not least because of its retro vibe). And there’s some great songs on it – but again, nothing that quite lives up to the calibre of “Oliver’s Army”. But then, so few songs actually do. “Oliver’s Army” captures, in one three minute single, everything that makes Costello so compelling as a songwriter and lyricist. We mustn’t in any way forget the contributions of the other band members – Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas all do sterling work and Nick Lowe is a perfect producer – but the sensibility here is all Costello, and he is almost never better than he is here. “Oliver’s Army” is one of the finest singles of the 1970’s and proof, if proof were needed, of just how gifted a songwriter Costello is.
What Else Happened in 1979?
Personal portable music becomes A Thing for the first time – Sony release the Walkman in Japan. Donna Summer has a frankly amazing year – she becomes the first female artist to have five Top Five hits in one year in the US, the first female artist to have a Number 1 single and album for the second time and the first female artist to be at the top of three charts simultaneously (The Hot 100, the Hot Soul Singles chart and the Billboard 200). Not bad! Elton John becomes the first artist to play Israel and also the first Western artist to tour the USSR. Talking Heads release their best album, Fear Of Music, Sid Vicious dies of a drugs overdose, Public Image Limited release Metal Box, and the whole Disco Demolition Night debacle takes place. Blondie score their first US Number 1 with “Heart of Glass” – it’s the biggest song of the year, though “I Will Survive” is hot on its heels. For fans of genuinely terrible disco Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” hits the top spot but fear not because it’s also the year of the Bee-Gee’s “Tragedy”. Faith No More are founded and Emerson, Lake and Palmer quit their collective keyboard abuse and go their separate ways. Gary Numan gives us The Pleasure Principal, The Cure debut with Three Imaginary Boys and AC/DC are on a Highway To Hell. U2 release their first album, denim becomes inexplicably popular with Status Quo’s “Whatever You Want” and right at the end of the year The Clash release London Calling. Oh, and one of the best one-hit-wonders of all-time is released – The Knack give us the immortal “My Sharona”. Duh-du-da-da-du-duuuh!
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Preceding Elvis Costello in the Number 2 spot was Abba with
Chicken Tikka “Chiqititia” and Abba always represent temptation but once again, it’s not their best work. The wold is still disco and we’re only living in it though, so The Village People’s “In The Navy” and M’s punishingly cynical “Pop Muzic” both lurk on the UK horizon. Squeeze’s rather excellent “Cool For Cats” got to Number 2 in the UK, and The Village People are again in contention in the US – “YMCA” hit the Number 2 spot in February of 1979. Dance optional.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
6. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
7. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
8. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
9. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
10. Queen, “Killer Queen”
11. Blondie, “Denis”
12. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
13. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
14. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
15. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
16. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
17. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
18. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
19. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
20. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”