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"Elvis Costello"
Elvis Costello

By 1983 Elvis Costello’s career had reached a hiatus. Six years after his stunning debut, Costello was no longer Punk’s angry young man. The early 80s found him a considered, articulate musician, who balanced chart success with critical adulation but for Costello, the fire still burned.

The lyrically deft ‘Shipbuilding’ is one of the most intelligent “protest” songs ever written. Prompted by his anger at the futility of the Falklands war of 1982, Costello’s lyrics rail against the war while still finding sympathy with the soldiers and recognising that the dispatch of the Task Force is bound to help revitalise the moribund shipyards of the North. Few writers would even attempt to squeeze such multi-layered complexity into the format of a “pop” song.

Elvis Costello
"I wasn't being alarmist or trying to be morbid in any way"

The recruit cheerily looks forward to being “back by Christmas”, but the writer predicts that “within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards, and notifying the next of kin.” Costello later wrote: “Ships were being lost. More ships would soon be needed. So welcome back the discarded men of Cammell Laird, Harland & Wolff… Boys are being lost. We need more boys. Your sons will do…”

With these heartfelt words set against a melody supplied by producer Clive Langer, ‘Shipbuilding’ was first recorded in 1983 by Robert Wyatt. Apt, when you realise that Langer’s melody had been inspired by the plaintive way that Wyatt, former drummer with the Soft Machine, sang Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’.

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"that's the best tune I've ever written or probably ever will"

Fuses the English charm of songs like "When You Are A King" and McCartney's "Junk" with the charged rhythmic restraint of Ketty Lester's "Love Letters". The verse slides through a series of stuttering chord changes that look like they're heading for G minor, but a tender G major is the destination. All crowned by the sublime phrasing of "Diving For Pearls", of which Stan Getz would have been mighty proud.

Costello’s own version appeared on his 1983 album Punch The Clock. And where Wyatt’s version had been piano-led, Costello’s featured a guest appearance from veteran jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, whose flowing solos subtly underline the song’s real poignancy.

On the 2003 reissue of Punch The Clock, Costello wrote that he always saw ‘Shipbuilding’ as “less of a protest song than a warning sign.” But whatever you call it, the words of ‘Shipbuilding’ remain a fine epitaph for the entire Thatcher era: “Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls…!”

... you don't have to be a musician ...

Billy Bragg 

 Robert Wyatt on the success of the single

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Another example of a great collaborative effort.

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