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Elvis Costello won’t play this song live anymore over a racial slur ‘I didn’t intend’

A scruffily bearded man in a hat and dark glasses.
Elvis Costello arrives at the November world premiere of “The Beatles: Get Back” in London.
(Joel C. Ryan / Invision/Associated Press)
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Elvis Costello has given his 1979 hit “Oliver’s Army” a dishonorable discharge from the ranks of songs he will play in concert.

The song, which is about the military and imperialism and reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts back in the day, includes a racial slur in lyrics that describe a nameless British private: “Only takes one itchy trigger / One more widow, one less white [N-word].”

“That’s what my grandfather was called in the British army — it’s historically a fact,” Costello told the U.K.'s Telegraph over the weekend. “But people hear that word [and] go off like a bell and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend.”

“If I wrote that song today, maybe I’d think twice about it,” Costello added.

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“Oliver’s Army” dates itself with other references to Britain’s waning influence in the world as it was at the time: “Hong Kong is up for grabs / London is full of Arabs / We could be in Palestine / Overrun by the Chinese line.”

Costello said he wrote a new verse about censorship for the song on his last tour but ultimately didn’t see the point.

Radio stations that bleep out the offensive word are making “a mistake,” he said. “They’re making it worse by bleeping it for sure. Because they’re highlighting it then. Just don’t play the record!”

The “Watching the Detectives” singer is likely a little sensitive after decades of dealing with an accusation of racism he earned in a drunken 1979 bar spat in Ohio. Sparring with members of the Stephen Stills Band after both had played gigs, Costello threw around that same racist slur, and he definitely wasn’t talking about his grandfather.

Rather, the way Ultimate Classic Rock tells it, he used the N-word to describe legends James Brown and Ray Charles, prompting a backhanded slap from one of Stills’ backup singers, Bonnie Bramlett, who went to the media with her story after the spat devolved into a brawl.

Costello wound up holding his own press conference to defend himself against charges of racism. He explained he had been drunk and tired from touring. But he did not say he was sorry.

A white man and a Black man stand together by a metal staircase outdoors.
Elvis Costello, left, poses for a portrait with drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in 2013 in New York.
(Dan Hallman / Invision/Associated Press)

An apology finally came years later, during a chat with collaborator Questlove in 2013.

“I thought I was being ironic,” Costello said of that night in 1979, remarking on his arrogant youthfulness at the time. The Londoner of English-Irish descent said he presumed that the white American musicians he was arguing with didn’t appreciate the same R&B music that had influenced him.

“It’s upsetting,” Costello continued, “because I can’t explain how I even got to think you could be funny about something like that.”

He noted in that discussion that the racist label stuck with him over the years and has been revived periodically on social media, despite his repeated attempts to clear the air.

“I’m sorry. You know? It’s about time I said it out loud,” he said.

British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello plans to take full advantage of the L.A. Phil in his Hollywood Bowl shows this week, with an eye to fleshing out songs the way they were originally intended.

Reaction to Costello’s decision to retire “Oliver’s Army” was mixed Tuesday on social media.

“@ElvisCostello please don’t stop playing Oliver’s Army,” one Twitter user implored. “It’s a historic number written in a different time.”

“Good,” wrote another, “there’s loads of really good Elvis Costello / Attractions songs I’d like to hear on the radio more than Oliver’s Army yet again anyway.”


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