Pretty Green

Four Takes on ‘Shipbuilding’

One of the classic British reactionary songs was born thirty-one years ago, in the midst of the Falklands War. ‘Shipbuilding’ was written by Elvis Costello (lyrics) and Clive Langer (music) for singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, who recorded it before the more famous Elvis Costello version was released on Punch The Clock. ‘Shipbuilding’ is a tragic tale of war profiteering. The heartbreaking song paints a greying portrait of one of the many impoverished former-shipbuilding communities whose major industry was shut down between wars. As the United Kingdom enters into a new war, there is hope for renewed prosperity for these seaside villages, but it is a hope bittered by the fact that these new ships will be built to send their own sons off to war. Elvis Costello has justifiably praised this song as the best lyrics he’s ever written. Its poignant storytelling, historical significance, and haunting melody speaks for itself. It’s just so beautiful in its simplicity. There have been many stunning versions of this timeless classic. Each singer imparts his own honesty to these dolorous lyrics, and their individual arrangements lend a fresh perspective to their own version. Now would be the perfect time to revisit them all.

Robert Wyatt (1982)

This was the original recorded version of the song.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1983)

Suede (recorded for the 1995 Help charity album)

Graham Coxon (recorded for his 19 August 2004 Peel session)

Britpopping since I first heard 'Animal Nitrate' in 1993

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