Smashed hits: Shipbuilding

Elvis Costello in hat

Is Shipbuilding the finest - perhaps the most poignant - of protest songs? Many would agree, but as Alan Connor writes, lyricist Elvis Costello described it as "less a protest song than a warning sign".

Some protest songs feel like a pop star looking up from the newspaper and having a moan. Shipbuilding comes from a different tradition - the long line of lyrics documenting the lot of working people. In this case, it is 1982 and Costello finds a tension in the prospect of Britain's ailing shipyards being reopened because of the Falklands conflict. Financial good news for the laid-off, less so for some of those who will be manning those ships as they head off to war. "In my understanding of British history," said Costello, "they nearly always get a working class boy to do the killing." Singer Pat Kane summarised it differently: "War is great business for big business."

"Everybody's behind them," Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said of the UK armed forces. Costello, too, but in a different sense, anticipating the telegrams "notifying the next of kin". Shipbuilding describes a grim world in an otherwise conversational tone. The stiffer, shoutier Costello of the 1970s didn't tend to start his verses, "Well, I ask you" - Shipbuilding is a different kind of song, filled with a quieter fury and very far from punk rock.

It would have sounded very different if Costello had written the song for himself - or written the music. Shipbuilding was originally a piano piece written by Madness's producer Clive Langer for a gentler performer, Robert Wyatt. Langer bumped into Costello at a party and suggested they go out to his car and listen to a cassette of the tune. Costello subsequently called from an Australian tour to say he had "the best lyric I've ever written". Wyatt's song was made - and in 1983 Costello recorded it himself.

And what of the shipyards? BAE is ending Portsmouth's shipbuilding but it was the north of England and Northern Ireland that Costello had in mind, citing venerable firms Cammell Laird and Harland & Wolff on the album sleeve. Seventy five per cent of Harland & Wolff's business is now in offshore renewables, and a lottery grant is helping to refit the company's Belfast HQ as a boutique hotel.

The development is expected to create 109 jobs.

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