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Classic Tracks: Elvis Costello & The Attractions 'Oliver's Army'

Producer: Roger Béchirian By Richard Buskin
Published January 2011

A song named for Christmas‑cancelling regicide Oliver Cromwell may seem like an unlikely hit, but the infectious ebullience of 'Oliver's Army' provided Elvis Costello with his biggest-selling single...

Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Birkenhead Observatory, 1979. From left to right: Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas, Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve.Photo: Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns

I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons,” Elvis Costello recalled in his liner notes to the 2002 Rhino Records re‑release of his 1979 album Armed Forces. "They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world.”

Such was the background to 'Oliver's Army', Costello's uncharacteristically melodic, upbeat and elaborately produced number that cheerfully slammed the government for countering high unemployment by recruiting jobless young men to fight its imperialist battles in not only Northern Ireland, but also the likes of Hong Kong, Palestine and South Africa. His biggest‑ever hit single, it peaked at number two while selling over half a million copies in the UK, despite not even charting in America (where Armed Forces cracked the Top 10), and took its title from Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army that battled the Royalists in the English Civil War.

"The song was based on the premise 'they always get a working-class boy to do the killing,'” Costello explained in the aforementioned sleeve notes. "I don't know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless. I pretty much had the song sketched out on the plane back to London.”

With its multi‑textured pop sound — including tight harmonies, jangling keyboards and layered guitars — 'Oliver's Army' helped set the musical tone for an album that contrasted sharply with its relatively stripped‑down, more straightforward rock predecessors, My Aim Is True (1977) and This Year's Model (1978). However, while this made Armed Forces more accessible to a mainstream audience, Costello's lyrics veered between political issues and personal relationships on an album whose working title was 'Emotional Fascism' and which was the second to feature his band the Attractions (as well as the first to credit them): Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas (unrelated to Bruce) playing drums.


"Most of this record was written in hotel rooms or on a tour bus,” Costello commented with regard to the road commitments that immediately preceded the Armed Forces recording sessions. "Every shop front or nightclub sign seemed like a line from a song. In some cases, that was just what they became... Much of the credit for keeping the heart and pop soul of this record should go to Nick Lowe, who produced the album with Roger Bechirian engineering [and mixing]. The recording venue was once again Eden Studios in London, and the sessions were booked for what seemed like an extravagant six weeks.”

Roger Bechirian at Eden's custom-built console. Behind him you can see the control-room window and the studio's Ampex MM1200 tape machine.

"It wasn't laboured, but it was quite an intense record,” says Roger Bechirian, who also recorded This Year's Model and Get Happy! on either side of Armed Forces, in addition to 1981's Trust. "It has a lot of energy going on and the band sounds pretty tight. I remember having a lot of fun — I enjoyed making Armed Forces far more than This Year's Model or Get Happy! There was a lot of excitement, based on the conviction of Jake Riviera — who was Elvis's manager at the time — and everyone else, including me, that this was going to be the huge breakthrough record. So, there was an awful lot riding on it, and it was also a much more grown‑up record in terms of the writing, the band and the way it was put together. It was a much more dense production than This Year's Model, which was very sparse and had involved a quick, off‑the‑cuff way of working.”

According to Elvis Costello in 2002, "it seemed as if we were making an impossibly sophisticated leap from the sound of This Year's Model, but listening now, there are very few production devices that sit between the listener and the songs. The confidence and cohesion of the Attractions' playing is the product of 12 months of intense touring. The sessions were not without dissent and tension, but we probably never had quite this level of consistent musical agreement again. Some of the music that we were listening to on the road had an icy clean line that came straight out of art school, but it was safe to say there was little danger of Nick allowing us to take this path beyond the adoption of a few instrumental colours, the most prominent of which were Steve Nieve's use of the Polymoog and Jupiter [4] synthesizers.”

"There was a lot more experimental work,” Bechirian now adds. "In addition to all the keyboards, Steve was also involved with the harmony parts. In fact, this record had lots of vocal things that we didn't do on the previous one. So, from my point of view as an engineer and a mixer, it was much more memorable to work on. Nick Lowe had an interesting style of production I learned a lot from him. He was acutely aware of arrangement structure and there were also a few lyrical things that I remember he would suggest to Elvis — I guess Elvis learned some tricks from Nick in that respect. Overall, however, Nick was very much about the vibe. He wasn't a dictatorial producer; in those days, there was still the dinosaur brigade whose word was God and you did as you were told. As a musician, Nick came from a completely different background, so the sessions were much more relaxed in lots of ways and Elvis was pretty involved with the arrangements. He always knew what he wanted to do and experiment with, so he was involved quite a bit in the production.”

The Way To Eden

Another view of Eden's custom console. The then-new JBL 4350s are clearly visible in the background.Photo: Roger Bechirian

Born in Calcutta, India, in 1954, Bechirian relocated to London, England with his family as a 10‑year‑old and, in addition to taking piano lessons and proving he had a very good ear, he was clearly always interested in the technological side of the music business.

"While my friends were checking out the names of guitarists and singers, I was checking out who recorded something and where it was done,” he says. "I was very intrigued by the whole process of engineering and how those sounds were made. There were some great, great records from the Tamla [Motown] era that really blew me away, and what with my father's jazz records and the Elvis Presley records played by my elder sister, there was always music in the house and I just knew that I wanted to be a part of the creative process.”

Recording music from the TV and dubbing sound to his father's 8mm cine films, Bechirian learned to edit tape, and he'd also build synths and small feedback amps from basic tone generators. In 1972, after studying electronics and computer technology at college, he landed a job at the four‑track Eden Studios in Kingston Upon Thames, South London, and in the winter of 1974, during the three‑day week caused by the oil crisis, Bechirian then moved to its new 16‑track location in Chiswick, West London, where he learned all about wiring and acoustics while helping to build that facility — and its recording console — from the ground up.

Work on Stiff Records projects featuring Lene Lovich and the Damned, as well as his engineering and mixing of tracks on Nick Lowe's 1978 album Jesus Of Cool, helped to hook up Roger Bechirian with Elvis Costello who, with Lowe, would soon follow Jake Riveria to his new label, Radar. This, in turn, then kicked off a halcyon New Wave period, during which Bechirian recorded and/or produced Graham Parker & the Rumour, Dave Edmunds, the Jam, the Flamin' Groovies, the Undertones, Squeeze, Carlene Carter and Wang Chung. His initial Costello‑related assignment was a remix of 'Alison', from the Lowe‑produced My Aim Is True, and this led directly to Bechirian's engineering of This Year's Model.

"I was quite nervous,” he now says about initially working with the former pub rocker born Declan Patrick MacManus. "Elvis had already had a hit with 'Watching The Detectives', so he was quite well known and, potentially, this big star. I was therefore very keen to impress, but within a few days, all of us — Nick, Elvis, the band and I — got very used to each other in the studio environment. Eden was a fairly plush facility back then; very, very modern for its time, with beautifully designed acoustics and all the best gear, and this was quite a change for them compared to where they'd recorded the first album.”

That was Pathway Studios, the tiny eight‑track facility in Islington, North London, that recorded numerous other luminaries, including Madness, Dire Straits, Squeeze, Haircut 100 and Ewan MacColl.

"Things went really well,” Roger Bechirian continues with regard to This Year's Model. "I worked very hard on really trying to pull that sound together, which was basically Pete Thomas's drumming style and kit sound that I pushed and pushed to get that clanky, trashcan‑lid‑type effect, as well as Bruce's fantastic, intuitive bass playing which I fell in love with right away. The mixes were always very kick drum and bass‑heavy, with the vocal sitting in there and everything else then fitting around it.

"I enjoyed those sessions tremendously and we took more or less the same approach for the Armed Forces album. The band members were laid out pretty much the same way, but there were also more keyboards involved, Nick wanted to develop a far bigger sound, and I spent a lot of time moving and changing mics, fussing over the drums and piano. Whereas This Year's Model featured that Farfisa or Vox Continental sound, Armed Forces was much more piano‑driven, and so Eden's lovely old Yamaha grand was really the focus on the basic tracks. Steve also used a bit of Hammond on those sessions — there were lots of variables and he tried to bring in some synthesizer, too, so the main change was all the different things that were going on keyboard‑wise, as well as a lot more guitar overdubs.”

A Homemade Mixer

This shot of Pete Thomas playing drums shows the live room set‑up for the tracking of Armed Forces. The green and blue screens were specially made and spell 'EDEN'!Photo: Roger Bechirian

At that time, Eden's solitary control room housed a 32‑channel custom‑made console, and Bechirian recalls that "we literally built the circuitry ourselves. Mike Gardner, one of the studio's founders, was its technical director, [his former BBC colleague] Chris Glass was also a technical engineer there, and between them, using Neve's circuitry as a basic guide, they pretty much designed all the circuitry and the layout of the desk. After the panels had been designed and manufactured, we then put everything together inside this big wooden frame that was constructed for us by a local carpenter. The whole thing was transformer-in and transformer-out, and the mic amps had fantastically high headroom, so they were pretty much bullet‑proof. That was the main thing, and other than that it was very simple, a standard layout at the time, with a 24‑track monitor section that we could also feed into the mix if we needed it for extra returns.

"With its EQ section, the way that console sounded was unique — the coils were basically hand‑wound and we'd have to count the windings to get the frequencies right. If the phone rang in the middle of doing that, you might lose the count, so things were a little bit out here and there — if it said 2.8k, it was probably 2.6 or perhaps 2.9, but that's what gave it its fabulous character. Being that it was quite literally hand‑made, it looked crazy and a lot of people would come in and completely freak out, but it was a wonderful desk to use.

"Back then, it would have cost the earth to buy a Neve, an MCI or an API. The three owners [Gardner, Philip Love and Piers Ford‑Crush] simply didn't have the money, but they had the technical skill to do this and decided to spend what money they could borrow on having acousticians and architects design this fabulous studio, with its great control room and overdub booth. We also had built‑in Audio & Design compressors that could actually be bought in kit form at that time, so they bought the kits and made them themselves. They were, basically, old F760s that later became the Vocal Stressor, which was another great compressor — I used to use one of those predominantly on Elvis's voice.

"All of the wiring — including the mic panels and headphone rigs — was done by us and the results were fantastic. Eden had a wonderful reputation as one of the best studios in London, if not the world, and many great records were made there down the years.”

Having started out as 16‑track, Eden's new facility had upgraded to 24‑track courtesy of an Ampex MM1200 that Bechirian describes as "a fabulous machine. Not brilliant mechanically, but very, very good electronically”. The Armed Forces album was recorded using Dolby-A noise reduction, with the multitrack running at 15ips.

Whereas the main monitors during the This Year's Model sessions comprised Tannoy Ardens for the top‑end and Lockwoods for the bottom, these had been replaced by JBL 4350s by the time work commenced on Armed Forces. Meanwhile, in terms of effects, there were four Revox recorders that Roger Bechirian used for tape and reverb delay.

"We had a lovely EMT 140 plate, which was used predominantly for things like vocals,” he recalls. "There was also an AKG gold foil, an early digital reverb and a couple of spring reverbs that had been retained from the old [four‑track] facility in Kingston. They were great and I used them a lot on Elvis's guitar. Then there was an early harmoniser, an Electro Harmonix phasing device and a selection of compressors: Urei 1176s, Dbx 160s, Kepexes and Gain Brains. Effects‑wise, there wasn't really an awful lot used on his records; just delays and reverbs. Other than that, it was very, very clean.”

Mics & Miking

Roger Bechirian today at his favourite MCI desk in Rockfield Quadrangle studio.Photo: Roger Bechirian

Sitting behind the console, Bechirian had to look to his right to see through the control room window towards the 33 x 22-foot live area, while in front of him there was a small overdub booth that he often used just to accommodate Bruce Thomas's bass amp.

"That was the only booth there, so everything else was screened off,” Bechirian explains. "We used to use those big screens with the glass window in them, and I'd screen the drums side‑on but not at the front. I would have half‑size screens in front of the kit so everyone could see Pete. Another half‑size screen would be placed in front of Elvis's guitar amp, which was somewhere near a wall, and while Steve's keyboards were DI'd, I'd record the piano with the lid not quite closed, on the short stick, and then covered with numerous blankets. That's while we were tracking; obviously, if we overdubbed stuff, I'd record it with the lid open.

"I used to group everybody kind of in a semi‑circle, so the person I'd see the back of most was Elvis, who was probably closest to the [control room] window, with a guide vocal mic. I still have it lurking in my studio; one of the original Beyer Soundstars. Since we often ended up using the guides, most of his vocals were actually recorded with that mic.

"To his and our right would be Steve and his keyboard rig. To Elvis's and our left was Pete's kit, and further 'round to the left was Bruce with his amp and DI. On the kick drum, I used to use an AKG D25 in its original suspension, combined with an Electro‑Voice RE20, and on the snare I'd use an AKG 451. I bought the little angle‑knuckle that you could attach so that the capsule was angled at 45 degrees to the body. I could get in very close with that, and away from his hi‑hat. I'd actually use an old dynamic mic, the Beyer 201, on the hi‑hat, because that could take a huge pounding without breaking up. Then, for the tom‑toms, I'd use [Neumann] U87s, only miking the tops, not the bottoms, and the cymbals were either [Neumann] U47s or AKG 414s, depending on my mood and the general feel! Sometimes, I'd set up the 47s and think they're not quite splashy enough, so then I'd use the 414s and they'd be much noisier.

"Other than that, I'd just use a couple of wild mics. One trick I had was to use two 4038 figure‑of‑eight ribbon mics, positioned on the floor and looking up at the kit from four or five feet away. You'd get a lot of rumble and noise from the kit that way, without too much cymbal, and it actually had quite a nice spatial ambience. It doesn't always work — it depends on the room — but it worked nicely at Eden. I'd also stick one mic up in the room, usually some kind of Neumann — probably an omnidirectional U87 — and I'd have that very, very high near the ceiling, with some trashy compression that I'd incorporate into the mixes just to pick up the amps and general noise in the studio.”

While this was Bechirian's standard miking setup for the drums, he points out that he did occasionally play around with it during the Armed Forces sessions, employing AKG 451s as overheads and Sennheiser 441s on the toms for tracks such as 'Goon Squad'.

"Elvis's guitar would be recorded with a pretty standard combination of Shure SM57 and Neumann U47 — usually, that was his [Fender] Jazzmaster with his name inlaid in the neck. I don't remember which amp it went through, but I do remember it was really hideous and difficult to get a decent sound just out of the amp, let alone trying to mic the damned thing. That's one of the reasons his guitar always sounded so jangly — I don't think it was particularly deliberate, but just the best sound we could get in the circumstances.

"A pair of Neumann U87s was used to record Steve's piano. We also had these little Calrec stick mics that I'd try now and again, but I'd usually end up with the U87s, looking down at the strings if the lid was open, but not close to them. It was a fairly wishy‑washy stereo picture, but it was also more realistic, and I used to compress it like crazy with Urei 1176s to fit in with that sound. Unfortunately, that meant all the wonderful audiophile quality would go out the window the minute it hit the mix. In addition to the Polymoog, Steve's other keyboards included the Vox Continental, and he had a wonderful understanding of the harmonics.

"He was really, really brilliant at arranging chord structures and intertwining notes, and I think part of the grandeur of how Armed Forces sounds is very much down to Steve's contributing style and performance with piano. You can hear it's very, very keyboard driven, and if you listen closely to how he's playing it's extremely intricate. He was very thoughtful. Superficially, you might have thought he was a bit nerdy and just working out parts, but everything was knitted together really well in his head, and although I spotted that at the time I think he's very much the unsung hero of this record and should be credited more with how it turned out. He was a really big part of it.”

All Together Now

Several months before the Armed Forces sessions commenced in August 1978, Roger Bechirian recorded Elvis Costello playing acoustic guitar and experimenting with several of the songs. The band subsequently routined the material with Nick Lowe, so that by the time they entered Eden, there wasn't much need for experimentation.

"Nick liked to cut the backing tracks first, so we'd go through a whole pile of those and then go back and start overdubbing things,” recalls Bechirian who, in addition to production and engineering credits that also include Paul Carrack, the Monkees, the Blues Band, the Trashcan Sinatras and, most recently, Tom McRae, BellX1 and Bear Driver, is involved in artist management, co‑owns the Animal Farm record label and has a Pro Tools‑based home studio setup. "Personally, I've always much preferred the system of recording a track and building it up until it's almost finished before moving on to another song. However, in this case we'd do a whole bunch of backing tracks, do some overdubs, and then do another bunch of backing tracks and some more overdubs.

"The Attractions played really, really tight, and Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas were a great pair together. By comparison with today, I suppose there were a lot of things that we'd allow to go by that we'd never tolerate now when everything has to be so in time and so perfect. There was a general sense of excitement when everyone sped up slightly towards, say, a chorus, which added up to a more natural feel. I miss that nowadays.

"When we were recording 'Oliver's Army', it was one of those songs that immediately made me think, 'Wow, this is a hit.' It just sounded so good. When you listen to it you can actually hear the general joy on the part of the musicians — there were definitely a lot of smiley faces while this was going down, and that always comes across. The basic track — consisting of bass, drums, piano and Elvis strumming a rhythm guide on his guitar — was built up fairly quickly and Steve then added a lot of keyboard parts that really drove it along in the orchestral sense, including the intro [inspired by Abba's 'Dancing Queen'] and that wonderful piano lick at the end of the chorus. There were also all of those backing vocal parts that Elvis had in his head. I really enjoyed doing all of those things; stuff that had never been done before on the previous two albums. It was all very poppy and lush, and at the time it was brilliant.

"There was very little comping with Nick. The formula was always to record until they just nailed a great overall take from beginning to end. If there was something wrong with a small part, I might cut that in from another take, but in general it was always one whole take without comping. That was Nick's vibe — he wanted to get excited about a take. The two of us would be in the control room listening to the band in the studio, and we'd always know when we had the take. 'Yeah, that's the one!' Everyone would come in and listen to it, sweating and pretty hyped, and it was very much a universal thing: 'Yeah, that's the one, let's keep it.'

"The basic tracks generally went down fairly quickly, and everybody would get quite bored when something wasn't working out. If you went through more than, say, five takes, there was obviously something not right about it — either not the right moment to be recording the song or something wasn't working with the arrangement and it would have to be reapproached. Generally, however, everything went down fairly fast and, although one or two songs might require four or five takes, a lot of the songs only required two or three at the most.”

Accidents Will Happen

"When it came to the harmony parts on 'Oliver's Army', Elvis was really keen to get those sounding just right and not too obvious. There was a lot of double tracking of his voice, and Steve also helped a lot in terms of getting those parts sorted out. I certainly remember him in the control room when Elvis's harmonies were going down, making sure we got things right and sometimes suggesting other ideas.

"Elvis was very natural as a vocalist and he's actually one of the few people I've ever recorded who's great to work with in that regard. Being that he writes the songs, he understands what he wants to convey to the listener, and you can hear that in his delivery. That's why most of the vocals on the record are from the basic tracks, and the quality of delivery from him reflects the passion all of them had for what they were doing.

"That was the key and that's why Elvis is so believable — he actually believes in what he is singing. That really does come across when you listen to him and it stirs you. If he was recording a take, we'd all know straight away when it was the one. He himself knew when he had it nailed — he was very much in control. He knew what he was up to and what he was trying to achieve, and he was very sure when he did get it right, as every true performer does. That having been said, when Elvis sings he is very loud and he puts out a huge amount of air that is very moisture laden. So all the capacitor microphones would cut out after a few seconds and it would be a pain in the arse. They'd just get wet and short circuit, and that meant we'd constantly have to stop and wait for them to dry out. He'd get right in on the mic and I'd be saying, 'Elvis, please stand back a bit.' It was impossible. He would get closer and closer and closer as he went along and get more and more worked up, and then the damned thing would just shut off... 'Shit, not again!'

"I used to use 47s a lot on vocals in those days, and it would work and then suddenly it would go a little quiet and then suddenly it would cut out — it was just too much of a nightmare to bother with. No matter what I put in front as a screen, it would always end up cutting out, so I started looking for alternatives, but there were very few around at the time. The Shure SM7 was kind of okay, but I didn't think the Electro Voice RE20 was good enough quality, and I then came across the Beyer Soundstar by accident. It wasn't a particularly special microphone — I suppose it was Beyer's version of the 57 or the 58 — but it just seemed to work on Elvis's voice and it pulled out that mid-range. With the sort of compression and EQ I was using, it just seemed to work very, very well. So, I used that mic when we recorded the guides because we knew it might be a keeper, and we obviously used it again when he dubbed things in and even when he recorded things from scratch, because we wanted to be consistent.

"Today, I wouldn't dream of using a mic like that. There are lots of ways you can get around these problems now, but in those days it was really hard, and that's why I ended up using the famous Beyer Soundstar. At the same time, I wasn't afraid to use EQ, and I'd use it in whatever way I fancied until the sound was the way I wanted to hear it. I'd do some really extreme things, like pushing mids and highs all the way up at narrow Q's just to get what I wanted to hear. You see, moving and changing mics wasn't the only thing it was all about; I was pushing compressors and overdriving preamps to make the noise I wanted. Nick called it 'sound sculpting'.

"I used to push the preamp on Elvis's vocal so that it was just on the edge of breaking up, creating that real focus in his voice. It helped shape his sound at that time, as did the pattern of EQ that I'd use: it was at around 2.8k that I used to push that frequency, and because the amps were overdriving it was in that kind of distortion area where you pull out all of those harmonics. That's what gave him that really angry, nasal sound. At the low end, I used to add around 200Hz, at the high end I'd just put a gloss on it with a shelf from about 10k upwards, and that was pretty much it for his vocal.”

Pop Junkie

As Bechirian only used a single reverb during the recording process, everything sounded fairly dry when it came time to mix the Armed Forces album, and it was at that point, mixing an average of two songs a day, that he asserts the tracks came alive.

"I remember sweating over the mix,” he says. "There were a lot of vocals to play around with, as well as the pianos that had to cut through, and trying to get everything to fit in, including the general racket that was there, was more of a task than on the previous album. It was a lot denser, and so from the mixing perspective it was harder to get things to sit just right without it all becoming a big mess.

"I suppose the biggest challenge was to retain a rock edge and prevent the music from sounding pretentious. 'Oliver's Army', 'Chemistry Class', 'Accidents Will Happen' are all very big‑sounding songs, and even something like 'Goon Squad' would have probably been done in a very sparse, punchy way on This Year's Model, whereas on Armed Forces it had this big, cinematic sound. At the time, Elvis and his manager Jake Riviera still had to be mindful of selling the New Wave article, but in lots of ways that's probably why the record did so well in America. Sonically, it was a little safer, and I suppose it transferred to mainstream radio much more easily.

"Being that I am a real pop junkie as well as a lush junkie, for me it was wonderful to actually have the opportunity to make this record sound so big. Nick was bashing me at times, saying, 'Can we not go so far?' and there was a little bit of pulling between us on that subject, but from my point of view I love the way the record sounds. For its time I think it's a great, great album, and to this day it's one of the best records I've worked on. They were great musicians with real vitality, and there was an energy in the studio that shows up on the record.”