Few pop records are so poignantly steeped in a sense of time and place as "Shipbuilding." A slow, haunting piano tune written by the producer Clive Langer with lyrics by Elvis Costello, sung by Robert Wyatt, it was released here as a single in August 1982. Two months earlier, Britain had just won the Falklands War.
Insofar as it took sides, "Shipbuilding" was an anti-war song — not a popular stance at a time when bellicose patriotism ruled. The fact that it only scraped into the top 40 said much about public receptivity to its downbeat mood and message. That it has been more cherished since than any of the 35 tunes that beat it in the charts in its first week is a testimony to its deceptive toughness and durable, unsentimental truths.
"Shipbuilding" offered an uncomfortable reminder to a country still celebrating victory in the South Atlantic that things at home were not looking good for the communities whose young men had done most of the fighting. The song's first line "Is it worth it?" sounded like the intro to a standard lament for lives lost at war. But it wasn't. Costello was weighing the benefits of jobs temporarily saved in a dying industry — new clothes for the wife, a bike for the kid — against the human cost of the fruits of all that labouring.
Of the 255 British dead in the Falklands conflict, the majority had been killed at sea, in warships built in Northern ports like the one in which the young Declan MacManus (aka Elvis Costello) grew up, in Liverpool. For some of those struggling shipyards, the naval adventure in the Falklands had come as a last hurrah.
The beauty of the song lay in its ambivalence. "Shipbuilding" sounded as much as an elegy for the passing of a way of life as a belated call for peace in our time.
By 1982, it had become clear that the old centres of heavy industry were undergoing seismic change. Unemployment had risen above three million for the first time since the Great Depression. Two years before the miners' last stand against a new, more abrasive caring brand of Toryism, Costello's lyrics mourned the predicament of a British working class that had recently become expendable both on the battlefield and off it. The lines about the guy who gets "filled in" for raising a lone voice against the shipbuilding conveyed the angry, sometimes vicious intolerance of Britain in the early 1980s in one of pop's all-time genius rhymes.
An unusual degree of teamwork went into the making of the "Shipbuilding" single. Langer, a much in-demand producer in 1982, had been approached by Costello to work on his and the Attractions' next album. By then, Costello was starting to move into a jazzier area. Langer had written a tune on the piano whose slowly ascending chords had a late-night jazz feel. But he couldn't come up with lyrics that sounded right for them.
At a party hosted by Nick Lowe, Langer played the tune to Costello. Within days, Costello had come up with a set of words he once described as "the best lyrics I've ever written". Nowadays, he declines to talk about them because, he says, he's said everything he wants to say in the song. You do wonder, though, whether in his current über-muso phase, Costello finds the political posturing of his youth ever so slightly embarrassing.
He was, in 1982, very much the angry young socialist. "Pills And Soap," a UK hit that Costello issued under the pseudonym of "The Imposter" in 1983, was a scathing attack on the changes in British society brought on by Margaret Thatcher's government and its harsh economic rigour. Costello released the song in the run-up to the 1983 UK general election. (Though he never formally joined the Red Wedge grouping of Left-wing pop artists who backed Neil Kinnock, Costello remained, for most of the 1980s, a staunch supporter of Old Labour.)
For "Shipbuilding", he called in one of the great maverick politicos of British rock, the former Soft Machine drummer, and now paraplegic singer, Robert Wyatt. This proved to be an inspired move, and not just because of Wyatt's well-advertised communist sympathies.
When a demo of the song arrived in the post, with guide vocals by Costello, Wyatt was trying to kick the smoking habit that limited the range of his fragile and reedy voice. For most of 1982, Wyatt, vocally, was on top form. "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."
Strangely, the message of the song was never discussed. "Musicians tend not to talk about things like that," Wyatt says. "We try to make everything as non-verbal as we possibly can. Elvis was very nervous about interpreting what he'd written." Although Wyatt clearly viewed the song as "about the way the conservative Establishment glorifies the working class as 'our boys' whenever they want to put them in uniform", he insists that the thing he most loved 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."
With Costello coaching him in the studio — "Elvis was very rigorous with my pitching" — Wyatt knocked off the vocal one afternoon in west London. He was surprised later to discover that nothing else on the original demo had been re-recorded. The accompaniments by Steve Naive on piano and Mark "Bedders" Bedford from Madness, guesting on double bass, went straight on to the record. Their confident, one-take freshness lends the track much of its charm.
As a mark of deference to Wyatt, the song's creators Costello and Langer let him put it out on his own Rough Trade label. For their part, Geoff Travis's team at Rough Trade designed a lovely sleeve, from a painting by Stanley Spencer, and made a video, which cost more than the record and turned the project into a money-loser.
The melancholy beauty of the Wyatt version of "Shipbuilding" has never been surpassed, despite several attempts. Costello himself recorded the song on his Langer-produced 1983 album Punch the Clock. But even with a trumpet solo by the mighty Chet Baker, Costello's vocal doesn't inhabit the bashed-up character describing his wartime job prospects as touchingly as Wyatt's.
None of the song's other interpreters — who have included Suede, Hue and Cry, Tasmin Archer, and Graham Coxon — were anywhere near as close.
It has often been remarked that nobody now writes songs that engage as passionately as "Shipbuilding" does with the social and political issues of our time, and that — with the honourable exception of Neil Young — rock has pretty much turned its back on the unfolding tragedy in Iraq.
Back in 1982, before pop ate itself, railing against stuff was standard and the bitter arguments of punk were fresh in everybody's minds. It's actually the dry-eyed, sotto voce restraint of what Elvis Costello, Clive Langer and Robert Wyatt did in "Shipbuilding" that pins you to the spot when you hear it today.