History was not my strongest subject at school. Nor was Geography. I’ve always been good with things that incorporate logic. Memorizing facts? Not so much.
Music was the exception. Because music was my primary passion, stories and trivia about my favorite artists and songs tended to get lodged in my brain, never to escape.
Sometimes I came across songs that taught me facts and concepts more effectively than any teacher. Thanks to Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “NaCl,” I got an A in Chemistry. The song explains the ionization process, wherein atoms gain or lose electrons to become positively or negatively charged, by detailing a budding romance between Sodium (Na) and Chlorine (Cl). I can tell you when Louis XVI assumed the monarchy in France, thanks to Allan Sherman’s “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louis.” Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” educated me on the sinking of that ship and, more importantly, gave me a way to recall the names of the five Great Lakes, thanks to a gratuitous verse that names all of them.
Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” helped me with crossword puzzle clues such as “River in England.” The song’s reference to “the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” gives me three options for that answer. The Oliver of the song’s title is Oliver Cromwell, an English military and parliamentary leader in the 17th century. I don’t remember learning about him in school but maybe I did.
Today is Elvis Costello’s 60th birthday. Kicking off our playlist is “Oliver’s Army,” a song that wasn’t destined to make Costello’s Armed Forces album until Steve Nieve, Elvis’ keyboard player, suggested adding a piano riff based on Abba’s “Dancing Queen” to the track. That brought the track to life, giving Costello his first UK top ten single, reaching #2 in 1979.
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