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The classic Robert Wyatt song David Bowie described as "relentlessly affecting"


‘Shipbuilding’ was, in a way, the last breath of a noble anti-war song tradition popularised during the 1960s. That’s because, beneath those layers of meaning that allow Elvis Costello’s lyrics to take on a strangely photographic power, capturing the British nation amid the political discontent of the Thatcher years, ‘Shipbuilding’ is, at its heart, an interrogation of conflict. For David Bowie, the song was an incredibly important record, and, in his eyes, nobody did it better than the cult icon, Robert Wyatt.

Elvis Costello wrote the immortal lyrics to ‘Shipbuilding’ when the Falklands conflict was still ongoing, a period that formed a substantial rift between Britain’s patriots from those who criticised Margeret Thatcher’s Tory government. The conflict began following Argentina’s occupation of the Falklands, which many hoped would be resolved diplomatically, but in fact resulted in the sinking of an Argentine cruiser in May 1982, killing something like 320 Argentine sailors.

But even before that tragedy, Costello was criticising Thatcher’s war, picking at the contradiction and paradoxes that seemed intricately bound up with the conflict. “I wrote the lyrics before the Belgrano,” Costello once recalled. “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”.

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The very first words Wyatt sings, in what is a far more chilling and spare rendition than Costello’s lush jazz arrangement, really form the central pivot around which the rest of the song sits. ‘Is it worth it?’ Wyatt asks us. At the time ‘Shipbuilding’ was written, around 10% of the British population was unemployed. The Falklands conflict, however, led to the re-opening of the shipyards and offered many-a-jobseeker gainful employment. It is in this moral grey area that Costello’s narrator sits, listing “a new winter coat and shoes for the wife, and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday,” in what is essentially a selection of products that the shipbuilders can buy only because of the industrial uptake prompted by war.

David Bowie often cited ‘Shipbuiling’ – and specifically Robert Wyatt’s version of it – as nothing less than a masterpiece, frequently calling it one of the best songs to ever emerge come from the British Isles. Indeed, he once went so far as to describe the track as “a well-thought-through and relentlessly affecting song co-written by Elvis Costello, and Wyatt’s interpretation is the definitive. Heartbreaking—reduces strong men to blubbering girlies”.

Certainly, there’s something about Wyatt’s fragility that imbues his take on Costello’s song with a ghostly charm. By the time Wyatt performed ‘Shipbuiling’, he was in a wheelchair, having fallen from a fourth-floor window during a tour with his band Soft Machine and paralysed himself from the waist down. It is perhaps this undeniably striking visual element that makes Wyatt’s TV performances of the track so haunting, his injury evoking the image of the war-torn soldier returning from the battlefield, having both given and lost so much.