Shipbuilding, by Elvis Costello

Record producer and songwriter Clive Langer approached Elvis Costello in 1982 with a song intended for Robert Wyatt, asking him to write better lyrics than those he came up with. Costello left for a tour in Australia, hearing from afar news about the developing war of the Falklands. From a distance the senseless war inspired a lyric he considers the best he ever written, full of irony and social commentary. In an allegory of the floundering British economy that a manufactured war was designed to lift while shifting public attention, Costello unfolds a story of a shipbuilding coastal town that sees an economic boost as a result of building war ships while sending its sons to perish in the same boats. Costello was in particular proud of the line “Diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls”, a poignant look at choices people make.

Costello wrote the lyrics at the beginning of the short war, a little before it escalated to torpedoing and sinking of ships on both sides. The tipping point was the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano on May 2nd 1982, killing more than 320 Argentine sailors – the single biggest loss of life in the war. It was a controversial act given that the ship was outside the 200-mile exclusion zone around the Falklands. The sensationalism and tabloid madness resulted in one of the most infamous headlines of all times: Gotcha, printed by the Sun. Costello said in 2008: “I wrote the lyric before the Belgrano. I’ve been to see the monument, stood and read the names of all the men… well boys who died. Whatever you say about the conflict of war, that crime alone will see Thatcher in hell.”

The song was recorded by Robert Wyatt and first released as a single in August 1982, a couple of months after the war ended. It did not do well in the charts. Maybe the song’s subject matter was too close to home then. The single was released again a year after the start of the war and this time reached number 35 in the UK Singles Chart, becoming the first Top 40 entry for its label Rough Trade.

A few months later Elvis Costello released his version of the song on the album Punch the Clock. It features a beautiful string arrangement by David Bedford who orchestrated and conducted the orchestral versions of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge, and created the wonderful arrangement for Me and My Woman by Roy Harper in 1971. And – a stunning solo by Chet Baker, then at the last legs of his career. Costello was a big fan of Chet Baker, who reciprocated and played Costello’s Almost Blue regularly after that.

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Is it worth it?

A new winter coat and shoes for the wife

And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town

By the women and children

Soon we’ll be shipbuilding

Well, I ask you

The boy said “dad, they’re going to take me to task

But I’ll be back by Christmas”

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town

Somebody said that someone got filled in

For saying that people get killed in

The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town

A telegram or a picture postcard

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards

And notifying the next of kin

Once again

It’s all we’re skilled in

We will be shipbuilding

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

 

It’s all we’re skilled in

We will be shipbuilding

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

When we could be diving for pearls

When we could be diving for pearls

 

Categories: Songs

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