There are few songs which capture the mood of the time and place so poignantly as Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding. Written by Costello with Clive Langer, who composed the song’s hauntingly beautiful piano line, the song was first given to Robert Wyatt and released as a single two months after Britain had won the Falklands War.
The Falklands War was a ten week war fought between Argentina and the United Kingdom over two British overseas territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The war had begun on Friday 2nd April 1982 when Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands (followed by their invasion and occupation of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands the following day) in an attempt to establish the sovereignty it had long claimed over them. In response, the British Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, dispatched a Naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force before making an amphibious assault on the islands. The conflict lasted or 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on the 14th June 1982, when the islands were returned to British control. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Island residents died during the war.
In a time of great British patriotism, Shipbuilding bucked the trend by being an anti-war song. The very fact that when the Robert Wyatt’s version of the song was released as single, it only managed to reach number 35 in the UK Top 40 said much about the public attitude of the time. However, it was the first single released by record company Rough Trade to reach the UK Top 40 and 33 years after its release, the song is probably much more remembered than many of the 34 songs that beat it on that week. What Shipbuilding accomplished was to remind the United Kingdom, which was in the midst of its post-war celebrations, that things weren’t as rose-tinted for the communities of the young men who had done most of the fighting and for the locations in which the warships were built, which would now, once again, be subjected to closure.
The song’s opening line, “Is it worth it?” (very) temporarily lures the listener into thinking that what will follow will be a standard anti-war protest telling of the pointless loss of life. However, what Costello accomplishes with aplomb is a song which weighs up the benefits of temporary job availability in the dying industry of the shipyards and a better way of life (“A new winter coat and shoes for the wife”; “And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday”) during the conflict against the cost of human life which all that labour has, in part, influenced. A majority of the 255 British troops killed were killed at sea in warships which had been built in shipyards around the United Kingdom. The Falklands War had been an unexpected boost for the ailing shipbuilding industry.
Shipbuilding was written at a time when unemployment in the United Kingdom had risen above three million for the first time in history. Traditional industries such as shipbuilding were in turmoil and two years after this song was released, Britain was in the midst of the Miner’s Strike. In the song, Costello speaks of the plight of a British working class which had now become sacrificial lambs on the battlefield and off it. The lines “Somebody said that someone got filled in, For saying that people get killed in” tells of the result of one person’s objection to shipbuilding for the war effort.
Shipbuilding is a song which takes the idea of the protest song and puts a new spin on it. Take for instance the line “The boy said, ‘Dad, they’re going to take me to task but I’ll be back by Christmas’”. Here, we see Costello playing on the term ‘task force’ with the hoary old adage that in all wars, the sailors and soldiers will be “back by Christmas”. And then, in a verse (fitted between two stunning brass solos performed by Chet Baker on the Costello version), we find the line which is the crux of the song, “Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyard, And notifying the next of kin”: Reopening the shipyard will result in the deaths of troops “Diving for dear life” when they “could be diving for pearls”, who will then have their next of kin notified.
The contradiction of Shipbuilding is that beneath the surface of its beautiful exterior lays the heart of angry socialism. Costello was known for his hatred of the Thatcher government and he made it known in his songs. Take for example, Pills and Soap, from the album Punch the Clock (1983) and credited to Costello’s alter-ego The Imposter, which is a scathing attack on the changes to British society and economy brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s reign in Number 10. Costello chose to release Pills and Soap as a single shortly before the 1983 UK General Election.
Shipbuilding takes a slightly more subtle approach in its disdain of the British government but, quite wonderfully, becomes more powerful for doing so. Costello’s recorded version of arguably his most beautiful song was released a full year after Robert Wyatt’s version on the album Punch the Clock.
In 2013, Elvis Costello, in collaboration with The Roots, released an answer song to Shipbuilding, written from the perspective of the other side in the conflict. The song, Cinco Minutos con Vous (which translates as Five Minutes with You) is a duet partly sung in Argentinean Spanish by La Marisoul. Cinco Minutos con Vous can be found on the album Wise Up Ghost.