It’s somewhat baffling to read in Elvis Costello’s liner notes for his 1980 album Trust that he felt the take of “Clubland” used on the disc lacked something compared to subsequent performances of the song. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that only a musician can hear, but it’s hard to imagine something any more dynamic coming out of the speakers than the version of the song Costello fans have come to know and love.
Elvis also claims in those notes that he hears the influence of The Police in his style of guitar-playing. That is also tough for these ears to discern. I do hear a quasi-Latin influence in the piano of Steve Nieve, almost like a flamenco, a ploy that really shouldn’t work but does to great effect, especially when played off the charging music in the chorus. Pete Thomas really is a beast on this track, all over the place propelling the song in different directions without ever getting in the way of the tune.
What Elvis does say in those liner notes that holds true is that he was suffering from a kind of “disenchantment,” to use his word, from the world around him at the time of the album’s recording, caused by circumstances political, professional, and personal. This frustration is evident in the way he barks out the lyrics in the verses of the song almost as if he’s daring someone to push him even further. The chorus provides a little relief from the sense of unease in the song, but it’s only a brief respite. “Clubland” even ends on the minor chord to really leave the listener balancing precariously on the edge.
“Clubland” is a chronicle of what happens when reckless behavior is introduced into an already toxic environment. On the surface, everything is fine in this realm, what with the “boys next door” and “mums and dads” joining in the benign fun. But the punchline to the refrain explains what those innocents have in store for them: “Have you ever been had in Clubland?”
Costello uses the club scene as a metaphor for any place, physical or figurative, which seems alluring but doesn’t deliver on its promises and turns out to do more harm than good. It also gives him an excuse to survey the nightlife with his scalpel and deliver some of his most incisive lyrics ever. (My personal favorite line here is this doozy from the bridge: “The long arm of the law slides up the outskirts of town.”)
Even if you manage to get out of this place alive, you end up going back to your normal life a shell of your former self. The song is a powerful indictment of any scene where greed and the pursuit of pleasure take the place of restraint and common sense. Elvis’ hindsight may have a different opinion, but my opinion is that this “Clubland,” in all its lurid glory, couldn’t have been depicted any better.
12. “Oliver’s Army”
I’m not sure if Julie Andrews and Elvis Costello have ever crossed paths (although Elvis does make a little wisecrack at her expense on the Brutal Youth track “This Is Hell,”) but, at some point, Elvis must have heard her Mary Poppins advice about giving medicine with a spoonful of sugar. He really took it to heart on “Oliver’s Army,” heaping bucketfuls of the sweet stuff all over the instrumental arrangement to make sure his acerbic lyrics would get the audience they deserved.
And what an audience it turned out to be: The song, off 1979’s Armed Forces was the biggest hit ever for Elvis in the UK, reaching #2 on the charts. Is that because the teenyboppers rocking along to it on the radio agreed with Costello’s stance on the socioeconomic underpinnings of military service? Well, in a perfect world maybe, but, on this flawed planet, we’ll have to settle for the fact that most were drawn in by Steve Nieve’s “Dancing Queen”-inspired piano fills and The Attractions’ irresistibly colorful presentation of Costello’s pitch-black material.
The brilliance of the song lies in the strategy Costello uses to make his point. He writes from the perspective of one of the kids desperate enough to join “Oliver’s Army” because he has no other better options. Yet this kid is blessed with the songwriter’s untrammeled view of both the dangers of this choice and the less-than-noble motivations of those doing the recruiting.
This kid is cornered, essentially, into doing the killing and the dying while his superiors are free to look for more lands to occupy. Only in the chorus does the optimistic facade drop to be replaced by legitimate disgust and fear: “And I would rather be anywhere else than here today.”
Costello’s lyrics are versatile enough here to lambaste not just the practice of sending mere boys into these foreign lands but also the national mindset that insists upon spreading banners further and further from home with each new campaign. It’s true that a good portion of the folks listening to “Oliver’s Army” might miss the satire and simply bop their heads to the glossy surface of the music. Elvis’ eloquent and eternally-relevant message needed to be delivered one way or the other, and the sugary music ensured that its medicine oozed into many who might have otherwise spit out the important stuff.