Thirteen days without gambling, the sun is shining, and life is good. Did someone get married today? I have to say I’ve been too busy writing.
I’ve been looking forward to writing this blog about not only the impact that this song made on my life but also the esteem with which I hold the writer, singer and now recognised and established as a leading force in music, through his on-going work and sheer talent.
February 1979 when the single was released with the B-side as his beautiful version of ‘My Funny Valentine,’ a song originally written in 1937 by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart for the Broadway musical ‘Babes in the Wood.’ Many versions of this have been recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in different keys, but Elvis’s choice to include this shows, I believe, his own diverse musical heritage and influences.
At the time I was playing in the Northern Clubs on the organ to back singers. My key skill being sight reading, where I can just play anything from sight by just looking at the music. At the time it lent me some reputation as I was only 16 years old, but well known on the Northern club circuit as, despite my youth and ‘baby face’ being one of the best musicians on the scene – through my classical training and diverse love of music.
Sometimes I do wonder at those times when I would sit at the organ and go through my favourites, which at the time would normally be a catalogue of Cole Porter songs, or show my skills in playing ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck so cleverly written in 5/4 unlike any other standard rhythm, and have the audience watch as I navigated the keyboard with the fantastic melody, tree and two chord vamp and my walking bass in 5/4 played on the Hammond organ pedals – giant Leslie speaker close by to push into reverb when I flicked the switch. Happy days indeed.
These were happy days personally as through the job on a weekend, every Saturday and Sunday night I was able to fund my own band as well as my love of fashion, records, music and even had bought myself my first car which was a kind of purple coloured Austin 1100 (registered in 1973) with 4 gears and a double declutch when changing from 1st gear into 2nd. I was able, thanks to lots of driving lessons, to pass my test and legally drive the car in March 1980.
I guess at the time I wouldn’t have had a clue that our local Olympic athlete Brendon Foster would come up with the idea of the first ever rock festival in the Gateshead Stadium, held on Saturday August 29th and Sunday August 30th, 1981 which I was at. Also notable about this event was that, as a nightly listener to John Peel’s radio show I’d been introduced to a new band from Dublin called U2 who featured at the bottom of the bill. I loved the gig and am proud I was there. Elvis came on as the headline band late in the day with Elvis Costello and the Attractions and did a great set with Steve Nieve on keyboards. I wonder if Elvis remembers the day as one thing that happened on the day was not just one great set from Elvis, but also the introduction and impeccable performance of Bono and U2 where it became obvious that they indeed would soon move on to far better things.
So, back to the song and what a song!
In context at the time British popular music was at competition with the mainstream well marketed music from the US, so it’s a wonder that Oliver’s Army (Radar Records) even got to number two, competing with the established Bee Gee’s ‘Tragedy’ on RSO and then with Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ on Polydor. I continue to have every respect for the talent of the Gibb brothers as well as Gloria Gaynor but I was praying that Oliver’s Army would reach number one as anyone I knew of my generation were bowled over by it, and playing it.
The beginning of the song is a brilliant intro on keyboards by Steve Nieve before Elvis calmly gets into the lyrics which in hindsight show how in touch the young Declan MacManus was in touch with politics in Ireland (having Irish heritage of course), world politics and the historical dilemma working class youths have been constantly put into by the establishment – providing canon fodder for the war games played out over history at the expense of so many innocent lives.
A great lyric is when Elvis sings ‘Called careers information, Have you got yourself an occupation?’ Spot on with what then was marketed by the British forces as a ‘career.’ Yup, hey young man, don’t think about the killing side of the army or warfare. Look at the unemployment situation and see it as a career. Okay we may want you to kill a few innocent civilians now and then, but hey ‘it’s a job!’ At a time before the brilliant ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ by Alan Bleasdale in 1982 when unemployment was reaching record highs and the phrase ‘Gizza job!’ by the character Yosser Hughes played by Bernard Hill was screaming out at the plight of the working classes under the Thatcher regime.
I didn’t even care that Elvis decided to use ‘With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne’ – missing out the Wear but concentrating on the areas of high population for recruitment of young men to go to war.
I wonder how many young men listened and took note, just in time before the God-awful Falkland’s War of 1982 with its basis in both British colonialism and the possibility of oil in the region. How many lives of young men were lost in this on both sides for this campaign Thatcher was determined to use as not only a device to show her ‘Iron Lady’ credentials and continued tenure of power as the UK Prime Minister. I guess she thought she needed a reason or device to show how strong a leader she was in 1982 and used the lives of the innocent soldiers who died in the conflict to these ends, as the working class marched on to what they thought was a noble cause, but in fact is now just about faded from the history books. Young men’s lives. Families destroyed. Yes, Elvis did put the warning call out in 1979 but it seemed the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor were more palatable and didn’t keep you awake at night. Certainly, I guess nothing kept Maggie awake at night, and surely not the idea of sending working men to untimely needless deaths.
The song was a warning call and Elvis’s way to highlight how we were being used, but sadly was forgotten when the Falkland’s campaign started. I remember thinking of the song as the UK cut off diplomatic relations with Argentina in 1982 and, as a student then, arguing through the night that we were all being hoodwinked. At the time the students were against the war, but we were a minority and our voices would not be heard in preventing the catastrophe that was unfolding before our eyes on TV.
I maintain a great fondness and absolute appreciation of Elvis Costello and his talent. Born in Liverpool to a family of Irish immigrants who then went on to do so well musically and is still working. I remember reading of his first encounters with the musician and producer Nick Lowe who had come to my attention long before as a member of the Dave Edmunds ‘Rockpile’ with their sing ‘I Hear You Knowing,’ one of the earliest singles I can remember buying. The story I heard was that he came across this young geeky looking but talented musician, with his ‘Buddy Holly’ spectacles and saw his talent. From what I recall it was a talent that Elvis himself at the time was sure of. And so Nick took an interest in the Liverpool, Paddington and London wandering young musician, helping to produce some of his earliest recordings. Sometimes you see these things as fate, such a Brian Epstein seeing the potential and talent of the four young Beatles, but often I believe the tenacity in his drive of ‘making it’ for Elvis Costello would have gained him recognition whoever he ended up being produced by. Talent like cream will always rise to the top.
I’ll post again a favourite clip, at the risk of repeating myself, of Elvis Costello sing at Paul McCartney’s Gershwin Prize for his contribution to popular music, at a private event in front of President Obama. What a journey from Liverpool to the Whitehouse for both men and both completely deserved.
I’d urge anyone to listen to ‘Oliver’s Army’ as the piece has proven to be timeless in content. Styles may change, but the content is solid and a clear message.
Is it my favourite of Elvis Costello’s work? I really can’t say as he has a wealth of clever and beautiful songs and great political statements from his great LP ‘Spike’ and ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ to beautiful love songs such as ‘Alison’ which any young person can relate to.
One wonderful thing that I love to imagine also is that whatever, in his life, I hope he can look back at his achievements and be proud and in his personal life he married the gorgeous and talented Diana Krall in 2003, who gave birth to twin boys in December 2006.
So, if you see this Elvis/Declan I take my hat off to a true musical genius and hope you are happy and can look back at your achievements with pride and take note of the impact your music made on my generation – and I hope generations to come.
© Michael Gamble 2018
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