Army offensive – Frank McNally on the decommissioning of an Elvis Costello classic

An Irishman’s Diary

Elvis Costello: will never again perform his 1979 classic Oliver’s Army, and is encouraging radio stations to drop it too. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Only last year in this space, I declared it the best of all songs inspired by the Northern Troubles. So I was saddened to read this week that Elvis Costello will never again perform his 1979 classic Oliver's Army, and is encouraging radio stations to drop it too. Thirty years into the peace process, it seems, this is one army that has definitely gone away (you know).

Costello’s issue is not with the song’s politics, which have stood up well. The problem is its inclusion of a notorious n-word, albeit in a compound form which meant something different from the n-word itself and, far from being racist, was intended as a protest against racism.

When Costello (real name Declan Patrick McManus) sang “Only takes one itchy trigger/One more widow, one less white n*****”, he was voicing sarcasm on behalf of his paternal Irish ancestors and their like, traditionally deployed as cannon fodder in British colonial wars while being despised by their officer class.

“Sadly the two-word slang is historical fact,” Costello told the Daily Telegraph. “It was a derogatory term for Irish Catholics, which I sang to make the point.”


His own grandfather, a British soldier, had been so described. But the power of the N-word itself has long overwhelmed such nuance, so the singer admitted he wouldn’t write the same line today. After a period when he changed the original lyric in performances, he has now decided to abandon the song altogether.

It was not always only Irish Catholics of whom the term was used, by the way. As Irish Times readers may recall, the same phrase was once notoriously applied to the then editor of this newspaper Douglas Gageby, a Belfast protestant with nationalist politics.

The question of who said it, however, remains disputed. It only emerged years later from a report by the British ambassador of the period, who attributed the expression to the newspaper’s then chairman, Major Tom McDowell.

McDowell and Gageby certainly had different ideas about Northern Ireland. They had also served in different armies, British and Irish respectively. But McDowell's PA, Dermot James, who later wrote a history of the paper, insisted the Major would never have used the phrase. He thought it more likely to have been the diplomat's own summary.

Getting back to Oliver’s Army, the genius of his song until recently was that, in general, it wore its politics lightly. The lyrics were too oblique to be understood by most listeners, for whom the catchy tune and even catchier piano riff – shamelessly borrowed from Abba’s Dancing Queen – were the main attraction. A whole generation of English people may have danced to it in discos without ever realising that the Oliver of the chorus was Cromwell.

On the other hand, right from the start, the song’s n-word was an issue in some places. Costello’s father, Ross McManus, had to write to Rolling Stone magazine in 1979 rejecting suggestions of racism. Part of his defence was that the singer’s mother came from a multiracial area of Liverpool, and had no tolerance for racial or religious discrimination. She would “still beat the tar out of” her son if she thought him guilty, McManus insisted.

That phrase – to “beat the tar out of” – is another I hadn’t heard for a while and sent me searching out its origins. It sounds like something I may have been threatened with myself as a child, although as other survivors of the 1970s will recall, tar was more often added to victims than subtracted back then.

As I have now been reminded, having tar beaten out of you is a mainly American concept, the “tar” in question being short for “tarnation”, itself a portmanteau of “eternal damnation”.

Further confusing the phrase is that "tarnation" sometimes became "the nation" in American speech, particularly in the south. Mark Twain used it repeatedly, as in this otherwise nonsensical line from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "... the horse broke loose, and away he went like the very nation ..."

Twain of course is somebody who could sympathise with the Oliver’s Army dilemma. Thanks to the n-word, his finest book, arguably the great American novel, has become extremely problematical in 21st-century America, despite having otherwise impeccable politics on slavery.

As for Costello’s song, the slaughter of its 1979 backdrop notwithstanding, it arose from a more innocent age than ours.

Speaking of n-words, that is also illustrated by the keyboard player responsible for the famous piano part, Steve Nieve. His surname is pronounced "naïve", but it isn't real. Born Stephen Nason, he was rechristened by that well-known rhymester Ian Dury after being overheard asking on one of their joint tours: "What's a groupie?"