Another of the new books that should be on sale in the next couple of weeks is Franklin Bruno’s take on Costello’s Armed Forces. This one is written as an A-Z, with entries including the Agora Ballroom, Winston Churchill, Al Jolson, Rock Against Racism, and Two-Tone Records. It’s a great strategy for one of these books, and throws up all manner of interesting threads and juxtapositions. The extract that follows is from the entry on “Oliver’s Army”…
Ultimately, though, the song is less concerned to put forward a starry-eyed pacifism than the notion that the realities – and purposes – of war are rarely, if ever, as advertised; and that the might of the modern state depends on limiting the economic options of some of its able-bodied citizens. The recruiter’s appeal is not to honor or duty, but only to a job opportunity. As Costello says in the Rhino notes, “They always get a working class boy to do the killing.” There, he traces the song to a visit to Belfast, where he encountered “mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons,” though where they might have been deployed in 1978 is not stated. Knowing this adds a note of specificity to “white nigger” (see below), and a further twist to the title, given Cromwell’s later campaigns against Irish Catholics. But the song’s sympathies lie more broadly with all those who, “out of luck or out of work,” find themselves shouldering the guns.
Or the guitars. Like “Goon Squad,” the song also comments on Costello’s own adventures as a working musician. The notion of a “professional career” is no small matter; anyone who has spent time with the Rhino reissues wil have noticed how often Costello divides his life into “pre-professional” and “professional” periods, the latter marked by his quitting his day job at Elizabeth Arden and adopting his stage name. That he has never looked back is a point of pride, but doubts about making his art his livelihood are often present as well, most sharply during his closest approach to commercial dominance. As much as he would like to believe that he is a free agent, the recognition that “Elvis Costello” performs at the pleasure of the entertainment-industrial complex is never far away.
After the fact, these links were strengthened by the iconography of the tour and press campaign. But they are first forged in the song itself: “The boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” are inductees from Liverpool, London, and Newcastle, but in giving pride of place to the first, Costello calls forth the Merseybeats, Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and many less remembered – the “beat groups” whose lessons in soul and R&B will, to him, never feel second-hand. But most of all, he invokes The Beatles, the benchmark British Invaders, whose conquest of America he aims to repeat, even if it means becoming cannon fodder for another kind of corporate empire.
One Thought to “Armed Forces”
This is great. I love posts of book excerpts. I’m going to add this book to my wishlist.