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What makes 'Shipbuilding' such a great song?


In the final days of 1982, David Bowie was asked to name his favourite song of the year. Without hesitation, he cited ‘Shipbuilding’ by Robert Wyatt, describing it as a “relentlessly affecting song” with the power to reduce “strong men to blubbering girlies”. Bowie’s adoration of that immortal protest lullaby is one shared by countless others. So many years after its release, it continues to send shivers down the spines of its listeners, evoking a period of political tension in the most minimalistic and poignant way imaginable. I myself have a deeply personal connection with this song. If the story my parents later told me is to be believed, this song was playing on the tape deck the hour I was born. When I discovered the track on my own as an adolescent, it felt oddly familiar. For me and many others, ‘Shipbuilding’ stands as one of the greatest pieces of popular songwriting of all time, but even after all these years, I’m still not entirely sure why it holds such sway over so many. So, with the hope of answering a question that has been bugging me for years, here, we’ll be analysing what it is that makes ‘Shipbuilding’ such a great song.

‘Shipbuilding’ took a long time to get right. Clive Langer wrote the lush progressions on a piano after hearing Robert Wyatt’s cover of ‘Strange Fruit’, originally sung by Billie Holiday in 1939. Langer dreamt of writing a piece of music with the same emotional depth and wrote ‘Shipbuilding’ in an attempt to make that dream a reality. Knowing that he wanted Wyatt to sing the track, Langer sat down at the piano and began laying down a series of slow, descending, jazz-infused chords, spreading his fingers wide over the ivory keys. He later said that the song he came out with was the best he’d ever written, which made it nearly impossible to write lyrics good enough to match. After a couple of failed attempts, he decided to take the song to Elvis Costello, who agreed to take on the task. A few weeks later, Langer received a call from Costello, who told him that he’d finished the lyrics and that they were the best he’d ever put to paper. Clearly, the pair were onto something good.

Those lyrics were written just before the torpedos started, marking the beginning of the Falklands War in 1982. After the sinking of an Argentinian cruiser, General Belgrano, on May 2nd of that year – which killed over 320 Argentine sailors – war became inevitable. “I wrote the lyric before the Belgrano,” Costello said in 2008. “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,” he added.

One of ‘Shipbuilding’s greatest strengths is that it has a firm sense of time and place. The opening chord progression, which sees Langer descend from an A minor down to a D# minor, utilises one of the most important musical staples in British pop music. From David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ to George Harrison’s ‘Something’, it has been used time and time again, coming to evoke the very essence of the British pop canon. Because of these connotations, we immediately know where we are from the moment the track starts. Langer locates us in the post-industrial sprawl without a single word being sung. At the same time, the sparse instrumentation and minimalist production help create a certain bleakness, with the skeletal piano and double bass arrangements conjuring up images of derelict mining towns and once-bustling shipyards.

‘Shipbuilding’ is often celebrated for its ambiguity. While Costello’s lyrics are filled with nihilistic anger, Langer’s sauntering jazz progressions suffused these words with real tenderness, as though we were being sung a lullaby and a protest anthem at the same time. Understandably, ambiguity is built into the DNA of ‘Shipbuilding’. The conflict itself was riddled with moral complexity, because, while people like Costello were disgusted by the Falklands War, the longer it went on, the more ships would be needed, which would lead to more of Britain’s unemployed getting their jobs back – many of whom had been working in mining and steel industries before they were shut down. For a nation that had an 80 per cent unemployment rate, you can see why starting a war might have seemed like a good idea.

What makes Costello’s lyrics so astonishing is that he points to these layers of complexity and paradox using only the merest flashes of imagery: the man who tells his family he’ll be “back by Christmas”, the “new winter coat and shoes for the wife” the “bicycle on the boy’s birthday”. This suggestive approach to songwriting allows for ‘Shipbuilding’ to be interpreted in various ways. If you know about the Falklands conflict, it becomes a protest song. If you don’t, it seems to speak about the dignity of labour and the decline of manufacturing at a time when sections of British society – namely its skilled labourers – were being told they didn’t matter. It is Costello’s empathy and tenderness, coupled with Langer’s soothing jazz arrangments, that, for me, makes ‘Shipbuilding’ one of the kindest and most universal songs in the history of British pop music. Long may it reign.

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