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Costello, Thatcher, and the Renewed Relevance of an Old Protest Song

15/04/2013 14:29 BST | Updated 15/06/2013 10:12 BST

By Jim Beviglia, author of Pump It Up: Elvis Costello's 100 Best Songs.

In the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher's death last week, those who didn't feel too sentimental about her time in power looked to an Elvis Costello song almost 25 years old to speak for them. That song, 'Tramp The Dirt Down' from the 1989 album Spike, was a brutal excoriation of what Costello felt were the awful side effects of the policies Thatcher enacted as Prime Minister.

The song makes its case over a bed of medieval-sounding folk music, and contains the incendiary send off, 'When they finally put you in the ground/I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.' Costello borrowed this bit of bile from Bob Dylan, who expressed a similarly dire wish on 'Masters Of War,' a takedown of U.S. war profiteers from 1963.

Many might find it beyond the pale to wish someone dead for any reason, but it's interesting to hear the similarities in the songwriters' reaction to their corrosive compositions.

Dylan in the liner notes to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: "I've never really written a song like that before. I don't sing songs that hope people will die, but I couldn't help it in this one. The song is sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?"

Costello in a 1989 interview about 'Tramp The Dirt Down': "It's an honest emotional response to events, and writing it was like casting out demons or something. And the song itself is the result of a form of madness, because when you get to that point of thinking these thoughts, actually wishing somebody dead, it really does become a form of madness. It's a psychopathic thought. And it's fucking disturbing to find it in your own head. But it would be cowardly not to express it. Because once it's there, if you don't get it out, it's only going to come back and haunt you some more."

Great minds, and great songwriters apparently, think alike.

For those who can't handle the dark territory covered by 'Tramp The Dirt Down,' check out Costello's more nuanced attack on a Thatcherian initiative: 1983's 'Shipbuilding'. The song, inspired by Elvis' disgust at the Falklands invasion, is a beautiful, melancholy meditation on the effect that armed conflict has not just on the soldiers but also the loved ones they leave behind.

'Tramp The Dirt Down' may be the timely song for Thatcher-bashers, but 'Shipbuilding' is Elvis Costello's most profound protest song, since its target is not just Margaret Thatcher, but the ultimate inanity and futility of war itself.

Jim Beviglia is the author of Pump It Up: Elvis Costello's 100 Best Songs, published by Endeavour Press.