Elvis Costello, rock music journeyman, is heading back on tour this summer after Covid-19 halted his shows. But one song will be notably missing from his setlist.
“Only takes one itchy trigger; One more widow, one less white [N-word],” Costello sings in the political anthem, inspired by the Troubles in Northern Ireland and his encounters with young soldiers involved in the conflict.
“If I wrote that song today, maybe I’d think twice about it,” he told the Telegraph. “That’s what my grandfather was called in the British army – it’s historically a fact – but people hear that word go off like a bell and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend.”
The song was long played uncensored on UK airwaves until 2013, when a BBC station bleeped the slur to the dismay of some listeners, who argued that its omission diluted the song’s anti-war message.
Costello agreed that bleeping the word is “making it worse,” he told the Telegraph, “because [radio stations] are highlighting it then.”
The musician said he’d written a new verse for the song – one that focused on censorship – for a previous tour but decided to retire the song moving forward, and that radio stations should do the same.
“Just don’t play the record!” he said.
Costello joins a growing group of musicians who’ve retired songs with offensive material. The Rolling Stones phased out “Brown Sugar,” which opens with a slave narrative and sexualizes young Black women, from their lineup last year, though Keith Richards said he hoped the band could bring back a version of the song in the future. The Hayley Williams-helmed rock group Paramore also retired arguably its most famous song, “Misery Business,” partly because it contains lyrics that refer to another woman as a “whore.”