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Loyalists sent death threat to The Clash in bid to stop Belfast gig, says Elvis Costello

By Cate McCurry

Published 21/11/2015

The Clash in Belfast
The Clash in Belfast

Loyalist terrorists attempted to prevent The Clash from playing in Northern Ireland in the 1970s by posting a death threat to the punk band, an autobiography has revealed.

In his newly-released memoir, Elvis Costello explains how the letter, written in red ink, left lead singer Joe Strummer shaken-up.

Elvis Costello on stage in Derry in 2013, his first gig in Northern Ireland in 29 years
Elvis Costello on stage in Derry in 2013, his first gig in Northern Ireland in 29 years

The letter claimed to be from a loyalist terror group threatening to kill the band if they came to Northern Ireland.

The Clash hero's fears were heightened when he noticed the Belfast postmark.

Costello also explains the inspiration behind his most successful song - Oliver's Army - which he penned hours after his first visit to Belfast in 1978.

In the book, Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink, he tells how seeing the "youth of the British soldiers" patrolling the streets of the city triggered the lyrics for the song.

Costello, who performed at the Waterfront in Belfast last year, also linked the song to other troublespots in the former British Empire, but it was while he was travelling with his band The Attractions to the Queen's (now Mandela) Hall that he spotted the squaddies, who he described as "little kids holding machine guns".

"When I had gone to Belfast we couldn't even stay at the Europa Hotel in the city centre as it was under reconstruction after the latest attempt to blow it up," he wrote. "On our way to our show at the Queen's Hall we saw soldiers on patrol. They looked like little kids, but they were little kids holding machine guns.

"You knew they had come from towns that really looked no different from Belfast. It was all so normal, except for the barbed wire, observation towers, the armed cars and the tangle of old hatreds and grievances that you could never imagine being reconciled."

Costello also describes how a man ran on stage and grabbed the microphone during the show. "I thought it was a political statement and left him to it. It turned out it was just a local punk rocker trying to make a name for his band," he said.

"I had written the words of Oliver's Army by the time our plane landed back in our own little safe European home in London. Seeing the youth of the British soldiers patrolling the streets of Belfast with my own eyes had triggered lyrics about the military career opportunity that I thankfully never had to take up."

The musician added that Oliver's Army, which was aired on MTV's first US broadcast day in 1981, was filled with contradictions.

He wrote: "The song was a jumble of ever-shifting allegiances and imperial misadventures, and about how they always get a working-class boy to do the killing, some of them Irishmen who, like my grandfather, wore a British Army uniform.

"It wasn't supposed to read like a coherent political argument, it was pop music."

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