BBC gets heat for censoring Elvis Costello's 1979 hit "Oliver's Army"

Critics point out that the anti-war song has been played without edits for more than thirty years


Prachi Gupta
March 19, 2013 10:11PM (UTC)

The BBC is fielding complaints for editing the 1979 Elvis Costello hit "Oliver's Army" on a 6 Music radio broadcast last week. The Mail reports that BBC censored the "one more widow, one less white nigger" lyric, despite the fact that the song has generally played uncensored on the radio for more than thirty years.

According to the Telegraph, one listener said, "‘Although it is not a nice phrase and I wouldn’t condone the use of the word these days, it is an anti-war song as far as I believe, arguing against British colonialism and the word would be appropriate for that song."

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BBC DJs Mike Read and Trevor Nelson also criticized the censorship on a program called Feedback. Nelson called the conspicuous edit "a little patronizing," while Read said, "I think cutting a piece out and changing the whole tempo of the music simply draws attention to it. If you don’t like the sentiment or you don’t agree with the sentiment then don’t play it but to take the scissors and cut a bit out of it, I am sure Elvis Costello might have something to say about that."

In the 2002 reissue of the album, "Armed Forces," Costello offers context for the song, writing that it is about the conflict in Northern Ireland:

"I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw 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'."

Given the song's history, Radio 1 and 1Xtra Head of Music George Ergatoudis said on Feedback that BBC had "contextualised" the word, but nonetheless, radio stations are in an "interesting position" with the use of "that word."

A spokesman from 6 Music told the Mail that "In this instance it was decided that the song would be edited but it does not mean that it would always be the case."

"We take into consideration a number of factors including the nature of the language, the station and its audience, the time of day, editorial justification and the wider context of the program," he said.

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Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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