Saturday, 1 March 2014

50 songs to take to my grave - #3: Shipbuilding

So you want politics and social comment? You want a delicate, lilting, jazz-tinged musical arrangement? How about one of the most heartbreaking vocals ever put to tape? Then you unquestioningly want Shipbuilding performed by the inimitable Robert Wyatt.

For those who don't know (though there's no reason why you shouldn't), Shipbuilding was written by Clive Langer and Elvis Costello and tells of the sickening irony that saw the rejuvenation of the shipbuilding industry in Glasgow, Belfast and the north of England when vessels were made to replace those sunk in the Falklands War, while at the same time sending the sons of the shipbuilders to fight in the conflict on those same ships, some never to return.

"Is it worth it?" it begins.
"A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy's birthday."

The benefits of the jobs saved at a time when the industry was on its knees.  But then weighed up against the human cost of the very reason those jobs were saved:

"The boy said 'Dad, they're going to take me to task
But I'll be back by Christmas.'"

And just in case you didn't get the absurdity of the paradox:

"Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin."

Legend has it that Langer wrote the music and always had Robert Wyatt in mind to perform it, but he wasn't happy with the lyrics. Costello penned what he regards as "the best lyrics I've ever written" and voila! A bonafide classic was born. But for me it's Wyatt who really makes the song what it is. His plaintive delivery elevates it to an entirely different level. It lends the scathing political hypocrisy and the uneasy conflict of human emotions at the heart of the lyrics a degree of solemnity and mournful contemplation. 

It's powerfully gut-wrenching stuff, especially when you consider Wyatt's initial reluctance. On receiving the demo, he was in the process of giving up smoking and was wary of singing something that was so different in style and slower than what he had done before. The vocal was completed in one afternoon, and it couldn't sound more perfect. What's even more startling is that the backing track on the record is the same as on the demo, recorded in one take and featuring Mark Bedford from Madness on double-bass.

Shipbuilding demands silence upon listening. I'd never normally give this kind of thing, this 'night-time jazz', a second thought, but this song just does something to me. It makes the funeral list without a moment's hesitation. Everything about Shipbuilding just feels right. Politially, it was a match made in heaven: Robert Wyatt was known for his Communist sympathies, while Costello would go on to write the anti-Thatcher anthem Tramp The Dirt Down which got more than a few airings the week the vile old witch finally popped her clogs last year; and musically, it was just one of those rare perfect moments that could never happen again. In fact, Costello recorded his own version of the song for his 'Punch The Clock' album the following year. As good at it was, it couldn't hold a candle to Wyatt's version.



  1. It's funny to hear of Wyatts reluctance, but he has always been of a singular mind, since he covered Chic's At Last I Am Free in a not so different, slow fashion back in 1981 or so for a Rough Trade single. That track is, for me, one of the saddest, loveliest, most personal sounding songs ever sung.

  2. There was a debate on another blog recently (Bagging area?) as to which was the better version. You may have contributed!
    Think Robert Wyatt just shaded it - he would get my vote