Elvis Costello explains how to play the guitar, philosophically

Originally published at: Elvis Costello explains how to play the guitar, philosophically | Boing Boing


I too loved Armed Forces back in the day, and by coincidence dove back into it a few days ago. I couldn’t help noticing how poorly the casual use of the N word in Oliver’s Army had aged. In most songs, a fan singing along can get by using “neighbor” as a substitute (two syllables, accent on the first, start with an N, ends with an R, means a person), but that doesn’t work in Oliver’s Army because the word is used in a rhyme.

So EC has some regrets. As don’t we all.


I mean, you look at how monuments of the past are being torn down today (in some places, slave owners or white supremacist “explorers”, not just Confederate military) and being replaced with more appropriate symbols. It wouldn’t be a tragedy to rewrite some more appropriate lyrics to mirror historical truth and re-issue the track, would it?


Philosophically, I found it interesting.


Supposedly, his Irish grandfather had actually been called that name while serving in British Armed Forces. I can begrudgingly understand why he thought it would be edgy and boundary breaking at the time, particularly to use in a song that’s already about colonial violence. But uhh yeah, did not agree very well at all, eek


It wouldn’t, I agree. But to that point I’m not sure that its use in the song is purely there for the sake of being “edgy”. It was a very commonly used pejorative term used against N Ireland Catholics and Irish in the British Army. He’s trying to make a point about the destruction the English wrought all over the planet and how they created cultural divisions within nations using the very terms they employed. It’s a usage that immediately caused me to search out its origins, which does have some intrinsic value (like Dylan using the n-word in “The Hurricane”; definitely shouldn’t be on the radio or played live, but it was a calculated and arguably effective use that helped bring attention to a great injustice). We’re well past the expiration date for even well-intentioned white boys to use the term in any context, but I’m not sure that there’s any value in reworking it (aside from future revenue).

IMO, he’s doing the right thing by asking that it not be played at all as opposed to merely bleeping it. As he says, it merely highlights what’s been replaced. There are other words that could be substituted or just a wholesale reworking of the line, but it almost seems to me that retiring the song entirely is a more poignant way to account for the intent without perpetuating the misuse.


Respectfully, I disagree. The song’s message is an important one and shouldn’t be swept under the rug, because removing it from the public discourse stands to benefit the global white supremacy. Tweak the lyrics, but don’t erase the message.


Well, at the least we agree to what the intent should be, if not the mode. Who knows, maybe a rewrite would put it back in the charts and engender some long-awaited reckoning with Europe’s colonial past. :man_shrugging:t2:

At the very least, the fact that it’s more controversial 40 years on is evidence that the damn word needs to be completely abolished from the white lexicon.


Also, it’s not like he’s the only punk/postpunk to use the n word in a song… Patti Smith and the Dead Kennedys are other examples.


I wonder if that explains also why he released the audiobook exclusively on Bezos’ platform. That’s probably the exact opposite of punk.


He also apparently did rewrite it. But ultimately opted not to use or release a new version for similar reasons.

He’s not memory holing the song. It’s not getting pulled from albums, streaming services and the like. Neither is he refusing to discuss it.

He’s just no longer going to perform it and he’s said radio stations shouldn’t play it.

There’s an active thing going on with people using song in this mold as an excuse to use slurs publicly, and the use of them counter to the creators intent. With their play on radio, and steaming radio style play as well as their use in bars and clubs as very much part and parcel of that.

Costello is hardly the only musician to wind up in this bind. Both the Pogues and Springsteen recently off the top of my head. There seems a growing consensus that the closest thing to a solution, or working response is don’t perform it and minimize that exhibition play.

There’s also a pretty big issue with Irish history getting appropriated as both justification for white supremacist shit, and to shout down minority groups.


Sucks that he chose to publish with the Amazon monopoly.

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This is why I’m thinking a lyrics change is better. :man_shrugging:

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But if you just want to express yourself through music, all you really need is a capo and the rudimentary skills to play the open G, C, and D chords.

He’s pretty much not wrong here. The relative minor is a nice to have as well. I mean, have a listen to and learn John Prine songs. Or Joni Mitchell, or Dylan. Etc…

Putting aside for a moment the use of the N-Word and just focusing on the issue of rewrites, I would posit that rewrites generally don’t seem to have much artistic merit.

When Elton John hastily rewrote Candle in the Wind after the death of his friend Princess Diana, the result was (IMO) drivel. I accept maybe there may have some merit in comparing the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Spencer but surely Diana was deserving of a song of her own?

Over the Christmas season I got to hear Fairytale of New York numerous times with its radio-friendly ‘cheap bag of haggis’ replacing the artfully precise emasculation of the phrase ‘cheap lousy faggot’. By all means stop playing the song to death on the radio every Christmas but please leave the integrity of the original lyric intact. The Pogues spent a career exploring the ugly, broken and dispossessed parts of existence and exposing little gems of beauty therein. It seems to me wrong to clean up the ugliness in the interest of radio-play.

The final example that springs to mind is Billy Bragg’s modernisation of Great Leap Forward for the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld era. Like Princess Diana, this was a moment in time really deserving of it’s own song but more importantly, this somewhat bitter rewrite has dated whereas the original version written in the face of Thatcherism has lost none of its lustre, wit and positivity.

I’m all in favour of shunning the use of offensive words in the name of progress, absolutely. But rewriting history is a dangerous game. I think Elvis Costello has made the right choice in this instance.


I loved his tv show, Spectacle.



I love Elvis Costello, he’s been a major influence on me since my early 20’s. His new album with the Imposters is strong. In all of this time it was never his guitar playing that swayed me, though he is a master at hitting it at just the right time for effect.

As for Oliver’s Army, well, ¯_(ツ)_/¯

He’s got plenty of hits from the early days to more than satiate his casual fans. I’ve seen him plenty of times and haven’t heard that one live, but I have seen barnstorming versions of “What’s so funny…”, and so many more.

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I don’t believe you’re wrong there. :man_shrugging:

I don’t think this is exactly what I am promoting. Allow them both to exist, the original version for historical purposes, and another one that can be played publicly without repeatedly offending those affected by a poor choice of words.

I mean, this is exactly the dilemma that exists in my focus of study (Film & Media Studies) when I was in college. From documented images of concentration camps to the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (not so much for racial imagery as for their graphic content), and from nationalist propaganda posters to Fox News “entertainment”, these things certainly require that they remain in the discourse, for the sake of historical review and social context.


As a historian… I’m gonna disagree. That’s literally what we do, rewrite history - to make it more accurate, of course, more reflective of what actually happened in the past. In the US, it used to be that the lost cause mythos (that the antebellum south was genteel, enslavement wasn’t so bad, everyone liked "knowing their place, etc) has finally been replaced by an accurate depiction of the brutality of enslavement, the role of the south in creating the modern capitalist system, etc.

As far as music goes, I think that what changing the lyrics for modern renditions reflects is our modern understanding of how powerful and hurtful such slurs can be. And as @knoxblox noted, those original versions never disappear fully, but when artists do update them, they make them more inclusive and on some level more powerful by doing so. Personally (as a historian) I think it shows how these scenes (punk/postpunk/etc) have become more inclusive and changed for the better by acknowledging that they wrote some hurtful things in the past, and are willing to discuss that and make for a more inclusive listening situation by changing it. After all, when talking about this history, it’s very much lived memory for many of us, and understanding how times have changed can be a powerful way to remember that we can and should do better in the world…


You are of course, as usual, correct,


(@knoxblox, also)

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