Elvis Costello Will No Longer Play Hit Song ‘Oliver’s Army’ and Asks Radio Stations to Do the Same

In the music industry, one of the most iconic contributors of all time is Elvis Costello. The British singer and songwriter has embraced a range of music genres, spanning from punk to new wave. Most of his biggest hits came earlier in his career between 1978-86, including one that became near-legendary: “Oliver’s Army.”

Despite the song’s success, Costello is changing his tune about playing it. The 67-year-old is refusing to play the song ever again. And recent reports suggest he’s encouraging radio stations and music providers to abandon “Oliver’s Army,” too.

How ‘Oliver’s Army’ came to be

BBC reports on how Costello’s hit song, “Oliver’s Army,” came to be. Originally released in 1979, he intended the tune to tell the story of the conflict occurring in Northern Ireland. Costello’s own grandfather had been called into the British army because of the unrest.

The title harkens back to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentary army. In creating the song — an endeavor that occurred on his plane back from his first visit to Belfast — Costello incorporated a racial slur used to describe Irish Catholics of the time. This is a term he’s ready to disassociate with altogether. 

Elvis Costello no longer plays the hit song

Singer Elvis Costello performs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Elvis Costello performs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert | Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images

People change. Society changes. And Costello recognized that his song “Oliver’s Army” had to change. The racial slur embedded in the lyrics grew taboo over time. Radio stations that once played the music unedited for years were transitioning to “bleep” the word from the tune. Costello even attempted to rewrite the song for his last tour in 2013 in order to edit out the unfavorable language. 

Ultimately, Costello decided to stop playing the song. He shared his sentiments that bleeping it only called more attention to it. I the end, it’s probably just best if he stops performing it. He even extended the favor by asking radio stations and platform providers to stop playing it altogether.

Don’t be dismayed, though. As Ultimate Classic Rock points out, there are plenty of other Elvis Costello favorites you’ll continue to love, like “Brilliant Mistake,” “Riot Act,” and “Party Girl.”

Costello isn’t the only artist to stop playing his own songs

Costello is not the first music industry icon to bail on a once-popular song. The Rolling Stones dropped “Brown Sugar” from their setlists because of unfavorable depictions of women, slavery references, and drugs. Madonna has publicly committed to never singing two of her most popular ’80s hits, “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl.” And Kerrang reports more than 150 titles from various artists that Clear Channel wanted to ban after 9/11.

There are other reasons behind artists’ decisions to never play certain songs. Case in point: Dave Grohl won’t ever play Nirvana songs out of respect. Prince dropped all profanity from his music after he became a Jehovah’s Witness, meaning songs like “Darling Nikki” and “Sugar Walls” were removed from live performance setlists.

REM’s leading vocalist and frontman, Michael Stipe, says he hates “Shiny Happy People” and just doesn’t want to play it ever. And Bruno Mars despises “The Lazy Song” despite its two billion or so views on YouTube.

The music industry has always attempted to promote creative freedom for artists. But radio stations and contributing artists today are recognizing a greater responsibility to the audience and fans. Costello hopes others will follow his lead and stop playing “Oliver’s Army,” too. 

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