This relentlessly affecting composition was co-written by Elvis Costello and producer Clive Langer intended for English musician Robert Wyatt in 1982.
Langer, not happy with the lyrics that he had written himself, presented the tune to Costello, and within days had penned what he described as “the best lyrics I’ve ever written“. “It’s the best tune I’ve ever written,” Langer replied.
Shipbuilding is a song of it’s time, but also timeless in it’s emotional depth and power
The poignant Shipbuilding reflects on the dark irony of an economic boost off the sales of warships in an English coastal town on which their own sons would perish in a senseless war they had no reason to be in. Upon writing the lyric for Robert Wyatt, the seriousness of the music forced Costello to think about what he was saying, his phrasing overlaid into Langer’s extra-irregular musical form, allowing him the space to think out a pure coherent thought.
Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
Written in Australia while on tour, Costello’s anti-Falklands war lament, brilliantly understated in its narrative form and perfectly rendered in Wyatt’s aching very English delivery reminiscent of his version of Strange Fruit, was first released as a single in August 1982 a couple of months after the war ended. It was played constantly on John Peel’s Radio 1, and with a rare justice, Wyatt’s single peaked at number 35 on the UK charts, becoming the first Top 40 entry for the label Rough Trade.
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children, soon we’ll be shipbuilding
A few months later Elvis Costello and the Attractions recorded their version of the song and it stands out on PUNCH THE CLOCK (1983) ★★★, an album that was co-produced by the famous partnership of Langer and Alan Winstanley responsible for an assembly line of hit records at the time including the likes of Madness and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and its here where the song reached a broader audience.
Crucially, the track features jazz legend Chet Baker’s mournful trumpet solo of extraordinary colour. Baker had fallen out with Stan Getz while on a European tour, and was suddenly playing a show at London’s Covent Garden and Elvis was in attendance. He simply asked him to play on it. It was one of Chet’s last recorded performances and Langer recalled: “Chet played live with the band, so we had to edit the multi-track just to get the trumpet right. What you’re hearing is three different band performances spliced together. Amazingly, they’re all the same tempo, with no click track.”
All these years later, the song is still moving: “Can’t we do something else, something brighter and more beautiful than war-making and bullying?” Elvis once asked.
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
One of the finest songs ever written, Costello’s version may be the more emphatic instrumental performance, however it is Wyatt’s version that gives it that extra emotional weight due to the subtle use of the double bass (Bedders from Madness stars here), and the sadness and vulnerability of Robert’s vocal making it sound like he’s lived the narrative. Attraction Steve Nieve (piano) and Costello (backing vocals and session production) both contribute to the exquisite Wyatt original.