Elvis Costello asks radio stations not to play Oliver’s Army

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

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Oliver’s Army reached number two in 1979

Elvis Costello has revealed he will no longer perform his biggest hit, Oliver’s Army, and has also asked radio stations to stop playing the song.

Written about the conflict in Northern Ireland, the lyrics contain a racial slur used to describe Irish Catholics.

“That’s what my grandfather was called in the British army – it’s historically a fact,” he told The Telegraph.

“But people hear that word… and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend.”

Released in 1979, Oliver’s Army was played unedited on radio stations for decades – but as the word became increasingly taboo, many took the decision to bleep the lyrics.

On his last tour, Costello rewrote the song to address being “cut down by the censors”, singling out the BBC, which attracted criticism for editing the song in 2013.

“They’re making it worse by bleeping it, for sure,” he told The Telegraph. “Because they’re highlighting it then. Just don’t play the record!”

Costello added that radio stations will “do him a favour” by not playing the track again.

“Because when I fall under a bus, they’ll play She, Good Year for the Roses and Oliver’s Army,” he said.

“I’ll die, and they will celebrate my death with two songs I didn’t write. What does that tell you?”

Good Year For The Roses was written by Jerry Chesnut and performed by George Jones, while She was originally written and performed by Charles Aznavour.

Costello’s 1999 cover of She is his biggest song on streaming services, with 80 million plays on Spotify alone. Radio stations looking for Costello originals to play in his obituary could choose the 1977 singles Alison and Watching The Detectives, which are his next most-popular tracks.

He is not the only star to retire one of their biggest hits. Here are seven more examples.

1) The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar

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The Stones dropped Brown Sugar from the setlist on last year’s No Filter tour dates, following unease with its sexualised depictions of black women and references to slavery, sadomasochism and heroin.

“Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery?” he said.

Mick Jagger had expressed mixed feelings about the lyrics as early as 1995, when he told Rolling Stone magazine: “I never would write that song now.

“I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop’. God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.”

2) Paramore – Misery Business

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In Paramore’s breakthrough single, singer Hayley Williams launched a blistering attack on the high-school girlfriend of her bandmate Josh Farro.

People never change,” she spat. “Once a whore, you’re nothing more, I’m sorry, that’ll never change.”

She decided to stop playing it live in 2018, saying the band wanted to “move away” from the track because “calling someone a whore wasn’t cool”.

In 2020, Williams also criticised Spotify for including the song on a Women In Rock playlist.

“I know it’s one of the band’s biggest songs but it shouldn’t be used to promote anything having to do with female empowerment or solidarity,” she wrote on Instagram.

“I’m so proud of Paramore’s career, it’s not about shame. it’s about growth and progression… and though it’ll always be a fan favourite, we don’t need to include it on playlists in 2020.”

3) Madonna – Material Girl and Like A Virgin

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The two songs that established and defined Madonna’s image in the 1980s are not to be mentioned in the Queen Of Pop’s presence.

“I’m not sure I can sing Like a Virgin ever again,” she told New York’s Z100 FM in 2008. “I just can’t, unless somebody paid me, like, $30 million or something.”

In a separate interview with US Weekly, she singled out Material Girl as her “least favourite” song, adding, “I never, ever want to hear it again.”

She later relented, playing both tracks on her 2016 Rebel Heart tour, albeit in radically altered form, but they’ve been rested ever since.

4) Bruno Mars – The Lazy Song

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A relentlessly upbeat song about the joys of slacking off, it topped the chart on both sides of the Atlantic and the video has amassed more than two billion views on YouTube, but Mars later confessed: “I hate that song.”

He stopped performing it in 2014. Five years later, he took to Twitter and posted his response to anyone who “actually likes” the song – a video of him staring directly into the camera and despondently shaking his head.

5) Prince – Anything with a swear word

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Prince is almost single-handedly responsible for the Parental Advisory stickers that got slapped on album covers in the 1980s.

Two of his songs, Darling Nikki and Sugar Walls (which he wrote for Sheena Easton) fell foul of a committee known as the Parents Music Resource Center, which then campaigned to have explicit content labelled on any music released in the US.

While those songs were explicit without containing swear words, Prince’s tongue grew more foul as he found himself in competition with gangsta rap in the 1990s… culminating in his cheeky funk work-out Sexy MF (actually an ode to monogamy, but that’s another story).

But after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, the star swore off swearing – and excised any curse words from his concerts.

“Did you ever hear Muhammad Ali curse?” he asked Essence magazine in 2014. “Would you curse in front of your kids? To your mother?”

6) Radiohead – Creep

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Radiohead’s first hit single, Creep became a millstone around their neck, aligning them with the US grunge scene and, initially, marking them out as one-hit wonders.

At early concerts, fans would request the song, then walk out as soon as it was finished.

“We seemed to be living out the same four and a half minutes of our lives over and over again,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood told The Times in 1995. “It was incredibly stultifying.”

Things came to a head during concerts for the band’s third album OK Computer. At one show in Montreal, singer Thom Yorke shouted at fans clamouring to hear the song, “[Expletive] off, we’re tired of it.”

That sealed the band’s reputation for hating their biggest-selling hit… But in reality, they’ve never truly stopped playing it. In fact, according to concert database Setlist.fm, it’s Radiohead’s sixth most-played song of all time, making the cut at 405 of their shows to date.

7) REM – Shiny Happy People

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Shiny Happy People was one of REM’s biggest hits when it debuted on their 1991 Out of Time album, but the infectious, sing-song melody quickly became a source of contention for the group.

They only played it live twice (both times for TV shows), and excluded it from their 2003 greatest hits album, In Time.

Lead singer Michael Stipe later said it had “limited appeal” for him, telling the TV show Space Ghost Coast To Coast, “I hate that song.”

But the band revived it one last time in 1999, performing it on Sesame Street under the new title Happy, Furry Monsters.

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