History lessons with Elvis Costello — Armed Forces-Tea Party mash-up, side A

Happy Sunday, folks! I know the price of climate disaster will be steep before too long, but I will savor for now the extra dose of warmth and vitamin D we’re getting here in the midwest. And thank you, of course, for checking out my musings here at radio K-SAT. In the event that you’re in NYC on 10/29, I’ll be giving a talk kitty-corner from the Empire State Building at 630pm on technology, music, and fandom. It should be a hootenany. (Tix are free, but a reservation is required.)

For the most part, I resist partisan pontifications on the blog, but with the frustration on the left and the right with the Tea Party extortionists, I think the time is right for a bit of humor at their expense. As fans of Elvis Costello know, the original working title for album #3 was *Emotional Fascism.*

“Fascism,” of course, refers to an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government, a social organization of the sort and, more generally, intolerant views or practice. While Costello and the Attractions were assembling Armed Forces, Mr. C.’s marriage was falling apart at the time and, under Thatcher, the thugs of the National Front were increasingly visible and violent. If charity begins at home, Mr. C. was party to little of it at home or in his homeland.

The Clash, Rock Against Racism concert, Victoria Park, 1978.


Following the bouncy, radio-friendly tunes of the first two LPs (“Radio, Radio” excepted, of course) , the sound turned darker and denser on *Armed Forces* and, for long stretches, served as the sonic analog to the paranoia and power grabs represented in the lyrics. It’s a sharp production effort by Nick Lowe, and a pop LP for the ages.

Here I follow Marx’s reminder from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Just *Armed Forces* helped shine light on the emotions and fascism and armed adventures of Thatcher’s England, is it possible it holds lessons about the American republic, in its current and dilapidated state? Is Representative Boehner the farcical re-presentation of the tragedy-inducing Margaret Thatcher? Ms. T. was considerably less prone to tears–and not because she was more “man” than Boehner. She simply believed with more conviction the things that came out of her mouth.

Side A

“Accidents Will Happen”

The second single from the album is, according to Costello, a “heartless apology and barely coded confession.” The farcical “Accidents” of the Tea Partiers include Representative Ellman’s position on taking her salary during the shutdown after voting to deny millions of Americans their paychecks:

“And it’s the damage that we do / and never know / it’s the words that we don’t say / that scare me so”

Is it possible? Could a few of the TPers actually be scared? I’m bloody terrified.

“Senior Service”
Some pundits suggest the presence of big money for entry-level Congress-folk undermines “senior service,” begets “junior dissatisfaction,” and allows Canuck-borns like Ted Cruz to hi-jack the government. You can just imagine Cruz reporting back to his fellow Tea Partiers about a meeting with the Koch brothers:
“They took me in the office / and they told me very carefully / The way that I could benefit from death and disability”
There will be death and disability, I figure. Whether it will benefit Cruz’s political fortunes remains to be seen.

“Oliver’s Army”

The Oliver in question is likely Cromwell or Lyttleton (who served under Churchill). EC himself explained how, following his first trip to Belfast in 1978, he spied “mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing.'” (Costello reprised this theme to great effect in “Shipbuilding” on *Punch the Clock*.) I don’t know how hardscrabble the roots are of the Tea Party folks, “but it’s no laughing party / when you’ve been on the murder mile.”
“Big Boys”
“I was caught in the suction / by a face like a truncheon / I was down upon one knee / stroking her vanity” — So confesses the anti-hero of “Big Boys.” And who might the subject of his desire? Ms. Thatcher? That might require an understanding o of history. Does the phoenix of Sarah Palin have a visage “like a truncheon”? Hmm. 

“Green Shirt”

I’ll always remember seeing Elvis Costello in 1986 (Nick Lowe opened), when he toured with the roulette wheel and the go-go dancer cages, and took pot-shots at David Lee Roth. When he played “Green Shirt” that night, hundreds of concert-goers clapped in time in bars 6 and 12 (?) in place of the percussion. Lots of fun. 
I think Aaron Schock (R, Ill.) best fits the profile of “Green Shirt.” Here he is in green shorts — the best I could do.
“You tease, and you flirt / and you shine all the buttons on your green shirt.”
It’s certainly the case that Rep. Shock is pleased with himself and, as a result of his obstinacy, there’s no doubt that “somebody’s going to get it.”

“Party Girl”

Years after, Costello explained that “Party Girl” was written for an art student acquaintance, following an evening of “kindness and tenderness.” While no one would mistake Christine O’Donnell’s tactics and Weltanschauung as kind or tender, she partied with Wiccans and, as she told Bill Maher, “”One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar.” Party girl indeed!
And here’s the odd video for “Army”: 
Thanks for reading all the way to the end of today’s ramble. Please chime in with comments or objections, and have a lovely, lovely day.

Author: stealingalltransmissions

CA ex-pat loving life in Northeast Ohio. Like most of you, I write stuff.

2 thoughts on “History lessons with Elvis Costello — Armed Forces-Tea Party mash-up, side A”

  1. “Fascism” — with its desire to crush dissent, control every aspect of life public and private, and nationalize industry (like, just for instance, healthcare) — is just as apt to manifest as a left-leaning phenomenon, assuming such labels as right and left are even useful. Fascism is actually a tool that, like a gun, has no left or right platform but can be used by either side to try to bring about “utopia.”

    See, for example, British man of the left H.G. Well’s advocation of “liberal fascism.”

    In Costello/The Clash’s time to our own, the word “fascism” has come to mean simply “people I don’t agree with so I’ll call them names.”

    The word is no longer a helpful rhetorical device, merely a handy insult for nostalgic people who haven’t kept up with modern scholarship on the topic:


    I’m not a fan of big government conservatism OR liberalism. In its purest form, the Tea Party is a libertarian movement that also rejects big government (i.e. fascism, “compassionate conservatism” and communism) and champions laisse faire capitalism, individual freedom (as long as it doesn’t jeopardize the true rights of others) and personal responsibility. Of course, there are embarrassing and idiotic people who call themselves Tea Partiers, and opportunistic ones as well who will jump ship when the next fad comes along.

    But of course, this is true of all political movements. And unlike embarrassing Communists, socialists and fascists of history, at least none of the people you’ve singled out for ridicule have killed another human being.

    You may not approve of the Tea party agenda (or, more accurately, your idea of it. You may think it is just as dangerously “utopian” as communism. However, it does not fit any definition of “fascism” that can be found in any dictionary, either.

    Remember that a government powerful enough to give you ever thing you want (or think you do) is powerful enough to take it all away and wipe you out.

    1. Ms. Shaldle,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I did, actually, consult the OED for today’s keyword, and here’s what I found for fascist:
      “One of a body of Italian nationalists, which was organized in 1919 to oppose communism in Italy, and, as the partito nazionale fascista, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), controlled that country from 1922 to 1943; also transf. applied to the members of similar organizations in other countries. Also, a person having Fascist sympathies or convictions; (loosely) a person of right-wing authoritarian views. Hence as adj., of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Fascism or Fascists.” So, I don’t think I’m using the term as loosely as you suggest. The Tea Party, I’m afraid, is quasi-libertarian, since they serve particular masters of industry, rather than industry (rather than the state) in principle.

      Likewise, I don’t know that Palin, Schock or O’Donnell have blood that’s landed directly on their hands, but let’s not be naive. They are putting people’s lives at risk here, over a battle that they lost fair-and-square.

      This blog, too, as you may know, is not a political forum, and I don’t expect the government to give me everything I want. I’ve seen what the communists do with popular culture, and it’s absolutely miserable. I’m a big fan of the marketplace, but I’m also a fan of other things, like history, the integrity of the American republic, and a bit of humility. As far as I can tell, none of the people I named here shares my fandom.

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