Elvis Costello

These days I’m mostly hunting out recent stories about the Great War, and sometimes finding them in unexpected places.
I’m not really (as some regular readers might have guessed) a rock’n’roll dude, and Elvis Costello is a name I’ve registered, but I’ve never gathered that much about him, except that he’s a solid rocker, though sometimes veering a bit towards the pretentious.
Yesterday he was on the Radio 4 Front Row programme, promoting his new album, National Ransom. This consists of tracks that are each set in a particular place and time, and You Hung the Moon happens in “A Drawing Room In Pimlico, London – 1919”.
It describes a family attempting a séance, to contact the spirit of a soldier killed in the War.
The lyric goes:

Now tapping on tables
And sensing a chill
Poor families expecting loved one’s return
Only summon some charlatan spectre
Oh, when will they learn?

This is not exactly poetry; “poor families” is a dimly generalised and surely condescending phrase. The singer is not interested in them as individuals, just as types that he knows better than. The “Oh, when will they learn?” is even more crushingly condescending. It’s the sort of phrase that bad amateur poets put at the end of a poem, with the implication that the reader has not been bright enough to understand what they were saying.
“But,” Costello explained on the radio yesterday, “the twist is…”
I twitched. I  immediately knew what the twist had to be. What else but the current favourite WW1 cliché, as featured in Private Peaceful and any other text with designs on our more superficial emotions?
“…the twist is that he wasn’t killed in battle, but shot by a firing squad for being a coward.”
What interests me is that Costello sounded proud to have thought up this twist, although it has been immensely popular among the kind of people who enjoy being indignant, for about fifty years (ever since the sixties, when King and Country made an impact).
Costello describes the execution with a heavy irony that ascribes the worst motives to those who condemn him and carry out the sentence. They slap, sneer, and crow over him.

So slap out his terrors
And sneer at his tears
We deal with deserters like this
From the breech to the barrel, the bead we will level
Break earth with a shovel, quick march on the double
Lower him shallow like tallow down in the abyss

What on earth can “ Lower him shallow like tallow” mean? Tallow is rendered beef or mutton fat. According to Wikipedia it is best kept in an airtight container, but I’ve never heard of it being buried. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of a shallow abyss.
No, I don’t expect rock lyrics to make much sense, alas ( I was listening to a CD of words by Ira Gershwin today, so I know well how different things were in the past, but I know that the days when words were pointed, literate and witty are long gone). But the nonsenses that Costello makes are indicative. He patronises the people of the past, and assumes the worst of the members of the officer class who are conventionally given the role of villains. I think he thinks he is being a rebel and individualist for doing this. Does he not realise how conventional his attitudes are?
On the subject of executions, I have great respect for the families who badgered successive governments to get their cases reconsidered, and also for scholars like Julian Putkowski who have done solid research to unearth the stories of victims of military justice. I have little respect for the Labour politicians who declared universal pardons for WW1 deserters while not doing their very best for those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor for those like Costello who use the past as an easy source of pathos. I am constantly reminded of the words of Douglas Jerrold:

‘As for their infinite pity, nothing is easier, unfortunately, than to be bravely sympathetic about the sufferings of the past.’

The complete lyrics for the song can be found at: http://www.elviscostello.info/wiki/index.php/National_Ransom_lyrics



  1. Dennis Anderson
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Well done critique. Few lyrics hold up to scrutiny when divorced from the music. I say this as a fan and owner of much of Mr. Costello’s music. Give Mr. Morrissey a listen for smart lyrics.

  2. Posted October 29, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    This song does seem rather trite, I agree.

    Can I be allowed a slightly kinder word for Shipbuilding, however? Written in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict, it’s a song about the opportunities and costs that war brings and imposes on working-class communities. The demand for armaments revitalizes the town’s depressed economy; but it’s the sons of the factory workers who must fight the wars and pay the bloody cost of this prosperity. It’s a much more thoughtful, far less condescending song.

    • Andy Frayn
      Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Following Alan’s comment, I’d like to point to ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, too, in which EC describes an imagined Thatcher funeral. Witty and acerbic.

  3. David Jardine
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the “great war fiction” meditation on “You Hung the Moon,” a few minor points:

    1. First of all, I think that, as with Ira Gershwin that the writer mentions, this is not “the singer” who is being condescending or oversimplifying, but the character singing the song, the one who sings, at one point “since he was taken from my side,” which just might give a hint of the voice, its era and its locale. This is fiction.

    2. “Poor family” can mean the unfortunate family who now are dealing with death. “Oh when will they learn” is an antiquated phrase that is somewhat condescending, but it is precisely the sort of early-20th century “tsk-ing” that bespeaks the period and the moralizing sort of reprimand that would have surrounded desertion, I expect.

    3. Tallow (see “Pills and Soap”) evokes the color of the skin of a corpse, and the image of rendered flesh.

    4. A “shallow abyss” invokes a shallow grave (as per the image of a traitor’s grave quickly dug) and the abyss of death. A nice juxtaposition, I think, which jars.

    5. He is not “patronizing people of the past” but speaking with a voice of the past. “Oh when will they learn” is NOT a contemporary utterance by “the singer,” but an old moralizing saying. Costello does not “assume the worst of the members of the officer class who are conventionally given the role of villains” but expresses this assumption through the fictional narrative he has constructed. He thus raises the question of the “officer class” (and the very idea that they are called a “class” is already telling, and then reflects back, as the writer seems to distain, on the use of “poor family”—“not officer class”. . .how’s that?) and what happens to those who get caught up in the vagaries of war.

    6. “I think he thinks he is being a rebel and individualist for doing this.” Seems the author also thinks that Costello is “the kind of people who enjoy being indignant” and pursue “easy pathos.” These “dimly generalized and surely condescending” sentiments belie something of the very accusations flung at “the singer.”

  4. Posted October 30, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    David –
    Thanks for your comments, but I’m not convinced. Some of Costello’s lyrics (e.g. “Bullets for the New Born King”) are clearly in the voice of a persona, but I can’t see any clue in words or music that “You Hung the Moon” is supposed to be. The first set of lines I quoted seem definitely to be an authorial voice, unchallenged by anything else in the song.
    It is a poor defence of clichéd writing to say that the clichés are in someone else’s voice, and that the writer need not take responsibility for them. There are of course songwriters who use cliché brilliantly, in a way that makes the listener reconsider the lazy formulations of standard language. Maybe Costello does it elsewhere, but he does not do it here.
    Your defence of “Lower him shallow like tallow down in the abyss”, on the grounds that the word “tallow” might conjure some sort of visual image, and that the shallow grave contrasts with an abyss of horror, is ingenious, but does not stop the line being very poor. the words may have emotive connotations, but the sentence as it stands is pretty well nonsense.
    My main objection though is that Costello, a singer-sonwriter generally rated (and probably rating himself) higher than the Jedwards of the pop world, is here writing a song full of lazy language, and based on stereotypes, in the same way as his song about that most clichéd of subjects, the variety artiste who has outlived his time, “Jimmy Standing in the Rain”.
    I vaguely remember some of his early songs as being much better.

    • John R Cornwall
      Posted October 31, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I stopped listening to Mr Costello with any degree of frequency after Blood & Chocolate. Like yourself, George, I find him more and more these days fashioning for himself if not exactly a rather distinguished mention in the rock & roll hall of fame, then at least a mention. .. .a singer-songwriter generally rated (and rating himself)………..is about it it seems to me, particularly the barbed words in parenthesis! His angry young man attitude may not have assuaged entirely, but it is on the way out. Maybe his driving desire is to be remembered for something other than the singer whose song was sung at the opening of the film ET!

  5. Posted October 30, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t Ira Gershwin guilty of the same faults when he wrote “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round”? It’s a lazy cliche; it’s historically inaccurate; it’s condescending to people in the past and doesn’t treat them as individuals. Although he didn’t actually use the phrase “when will they learn”, that seems to be a major theme of They All Laughed, as he condemns a nameless, faceless “they” who supposedly opposed all scientific and technological progress, then ends up saying “let’s at the past laugh”.

    I don’t buy the idea of a long-term decline in lyric writing either. Anyone who watched Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven or listened to Alan Dell’s Dance Band Days programme on Radio 2 will have heard plenty of banal mediocrity churned out around the same time that the Gershwins and Cole Porter were producing works of genius (and I do think they were geniuses despite the Fedex arrows). Costello was up in the ranks of geniuses in the late 70s and early 80s, but not so much now (even if the song is in character it’s a very conventional and unimaginative character). For the present, I think Stephin Merritt is as good as the Gershwins. The album “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields is a good introduction to his work. The Indelicates, The Would-Be-Goods, and Emmy The Great also have witty and literate lyrics.

  6. Posted October 31, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Bravo, George! And how apt the quotation from Douglas Jerrold.

    The best description of a WW1-related seance that I’ve read occurs in Charlotte Sometimes. It’s genuinely creepy.

    • Posted November 1, 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      I’d quite forgotten “Charlotte Sometimes”. It was one of my daughter’s favourite books when she was about eleven. I wonder if she still has a copy.

  7. Jim Wise
    Posted November 2, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Leaving Mr. Costello aside for the moment, are you familiar with the Stan Rogers tune “Harris and the Mare”? It’s a pretty standard “Conscientious Objecter realizes there are some things one must fight for” story, in this case set some years after the (unnamed) war, but well told and well sung.

    Lyrics are online here:


    • Posted November 2, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      Interesting song. From the early twenties?
      http://www.mudcat.org is an excellent site for obscure lyrics.

      • Jim Wise
        Posted November 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Set in the early twenties, but written in the sixties or seventies — Stan Rogers had a knack for getting the period `feel’ right in a lot of his songs; several of his sea songs are often mistakenly introduced as `traditional’ at many folk festivals, too. 🙂

      • Jim Wise
        Posted November 3, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, make that “written in the late seventies”.

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