Song of the Week 59: Shipbuilding (Langer/Costello) – Robert Wyatt

Forgive me Father SOTW Blog, for I have sinned. It’s been over 5 months since my last Confession. (I started this post the summer of 2016. Another post I got stuck on!)

I’ve had quite a musical weekend. On Sunday evening I got back to Madrid from Primavera Sound 2016 in Barcelona. After a quick bite to eat, I made my way to Teatro Monumental for Elvis Costello’s Detour, where he performed in front of a large television which displayed images of his songs, photos from his family album, and a performance with Alain Toussaint, his hero and collaborator, who died after a concert in Madrid November 2015. I’ll return to that maestro at some point in the future.

elvis costello madrid

Costello preceded each song with a story, and moved around the stage playing various guitars, a ukulele and a baby grand piano borrowed from his wife for the tour with the proviso that it doesn’t get damaged.

I have a list of songs I want to write about in future Song of the Week posts, and Elvis played one of them last night on that piano: Shipbuilding. David Bowie said it was his favourite song in an interview.

Likewise, stay tuned for a Song of the Week on Mr Bowie coming soon. S

On stage Costello’s intro to this song began: “I never wanted to be a magician, did I say magician? I meant musician.” One of his first jobs after being kicked out of school was working in an office in the Shipyards correcting errors. He lasted a few days until they realised he was left handed and would smudge the ink and mess up the papers.

Costello was born Declan Patrick MacManus in London in August 1954, son of Liverpudlian parents Lilian and Ross (a musician and bandleader). He is of Irish descent. His stage surname is in tribute to his father, who performed under the name Day Costello.

Day Costello - The Long and Winding Road

Shipbuilding was released as a single in August 1982, just two months after Britain had won the Falklands War. It’s ostensibly an anti-war song in a time when patriotism was running high.

In 1982, producer Clive Langer, was working on a song to pitch to ex Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, inspired by the latter’s take on Billie Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit.

He had written the melody, but got stuck on the lyrics. He played the song for his friend Costello at a party hosted by Nick Lowe and asked him if he could write the words for it. Costello took it to Australia where he was on tour, and while the ongoing Falklands War was preoccupying him. In his own words, the song is “one of the best lyrics I’ve ever written”. At that time, he wasn’t sure if Langer would be happy with the political content of the song. By this stage Wyatt still wasn’t involved, but once the new version was complete, they decided to ask him to have a go.

“Once Elvis had done some more work on the lyrics and changed the song to ‘Shipbuilding’, they decided to approach Robert Wyatt and his version was so special that it came out as a straight single.”

Costello approached the song from the perspective of workers in Britain’s shipyards in the buildup to the war. The 80s was an economically depressed time in Britain, with the Thatcher’s centre right Tory government coming down hard on the striking miners. Working class communities were being hit the hardest and felt expendable on and off the battlefield. Unemployment had risen above three million for the first time since the Great Depression. The irony that the jobs and ‘prosperity’ wartime brings to that community is weighed against the human cost. Most of the 255 deaths on the British side in the Falklands War had come at sea; many of them young men from those same communities. For many of those struggling shipyards, the naval adventure had been their last hurrah.

Is it worth it?

A new winter coat and shoes for the wife

And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

Wyatt sung the song very straight, and his limited vocal range and fragile vocal chords lend the tune it a tender beauty. The ambivalent vocal makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

It’s part lament for a lost way of life, part cry for peace.

”Geoff (Travis, head of Rough Trade Records) sent me a cassette saying this is a pretty good song, you ought to sing it. So I tried it out and it sounded good. The musical setting was nothing to do with me. Elvis had already recorded a vocal for it – very good vocal – and it was going to come out in the same form with him singing on it.”

Costello was very strict with the pitching of Wyatt’s voice in the studio.

“I went in and did a vocal in a couple of hours with Mr. Costello producing, and that was it… I had no expectations of it at all. All I thought about was singing it in tune!”

Wyatt was trying to quit cigarettes, which had damaged his voice, and wasn’t confident in his vocal powers.

“My first thought was, ‘Ooh, I can’t sing that.’ But then I thought, because I’d been making slower records recently, and I quite liked to sing long notes, that it might work.”

The musicians didn’t discuss the meaning of the song. And nowadays Costello doesn’t like to analyse the words, believing the lyric speaks for itself, so I won’t either, as it’s pretty self explanatory, but here’s what Wyatt had to say on the topic.

“Musicians tend not to talk about things like that… We try to make everything as non-verbal as we possibly can. Elvis was very nervous about interpreting what he’d written.” For Wyatt it’s “about the way the conservative Establishment glorifies the working class as ‘our boys’ whenever they want to put them in uniform”

However, what he loved most about it was “…Clive’s beautiful chords. I hadn’t really thought about the issues. Plus I’m not good at anger. I saw my role as a messenger, just a canary really. The singer’s job is not to interfere. I simply shadowed the demo.”

He was surprised that nothing else on the demo was re-recorded, and the confident one-take feel of the music is what gives it its charm.

“It’s a credit to Robert’s singing that the song has filtered through on daytime radio, where they usually naturally back off anything that’s vaguely controversial, vaguely political, vaguely likely to cause offence.” Costello

The song wasn’t a hit the first time around probably coming too soon after the Falklands had ended when the prevailing sentiment was one of patriotism and celebrating victory, but on its second release there was a movement to get the song heard.

Here’s an interview with Costello with a snippet of the song.*

Costello would go on to record the song himself in 1983 for his Punch The Clock album, and it featured a trumpet solo by Chet Baker, one of his last recordings. Costello had written Almost Blue for Baker who was featured in Song of the Week 39. Have a look at the video, which features Falklands War footage, including Maggie Thatcher making speeches, and families bidding tearful goodbyes at the docks.

There have been plenty of notable covers (Suede, Hue and Cry, Tasmin Archer, Graham Coxon, Maria Doyle Kennedy etc), but none for me really capture the essence of the song like the Wyatt version, which floors the listener on the first listen.

Costello started out as a politically conscious young man in the late 70s, not always subtle in his songwriting (his vow to Tramp the Dirt Down on Margaret Thatcher’s grave springs to mind), but here he’s right on point.

Since the concert, I’ve started re-listening to his albums, and his wordplay, insight, and energy are inspiring me to write something in a similar vein.

These days there’s a marked lack of political commentary in popular singles, where money and popularity pull the strings just as they do in American politics. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the so-called War on Terror, and Syria have provoked outrage, paranoia and political movements around the world, but where are the protest songs? I’m returning to this post in 2017 and there recently has been a backlash in the media against newly elected President Trump, with comedy taking up the mantle of criticising the establishment. Pop is dead. Long live comedy!

So, was it worth it?

Costello wrote an answer to the song in 2013, from the Argentine perspective, Cinco Minutos Con Vos (Five Minutes With You), recorded with The Roots, which begins with a dig at Thatcher calling on Britons to “rejoice”. The song focuses on the image of a dissident being thrown out of a plane into the River Plate.

Here’s Robert, Elvis et al in the original video for the song. Enjoy!

Is it worth it?

A new winter coat and shoes for the wife

And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town

By the women and children

Soon we’ll be shipbuilding

Well, I ask you

The boy said “dad, they’re going to take me to task

But I’ll be back by Christmas”

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town

Somebody said that someone got filled in

For saying that people get killed in

The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town

A telegram or a picture postcard

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards

And notifying the next of kin

Once again

It’s all we’re skilled in

We will be shipbuilding

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

It’s all we’re skilled in

We will be shipbuilding

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

When we could be diving for pearls

When we could be diving for pearls

*Unfortunately a joint interview with Costello and Wyatt speaking about the song has been removed from youtube. If it returns, I’ll post it.

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