John Peel, Robert Wyatt

About Shipbuilding

"Shipbuilding" is a song with lyrics by Elvis Costello and music by Clive Langer. Written during the Falklands War of 1982, Costello's lyrics discuss the contradiction of the war bringing back prosperity to the traditional shipbuilding areas of Clydeside (Yarrow Shipbuilders), Merseyside (Cammell Laird), North East England (Swan Hunter) and Belfast (Harland and Wolff) to build new ships to replace those being sunk in the war, whilst also sending off the sons of these areas to fight and, potentially, lose their lives in those same ships. According to Robert Sandall, the best version of the song is the one recorded and released as a single by English singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt in August 1982 a few months after the Falklands War, although it was not a hit until it was re-released eight months later on the first anniversary of the conflict. In September 2013, Elvis Costello and the Roots released an answer song written in the perspective of the other side of the conflict, called "Cinco Minutos con Vos" ("Five Minutes with You"). The song is a duet partly sung in Argentinian Spanish by La Marisoul. 


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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 rumor 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 home by Christmas.

It's just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The results of their shipbuilding.

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.

It's just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram for a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be reopening the shipyard
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.

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Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt (born Robert Wyatt-Ellidge, 28 January 1945, Bristol) is an English musician, and founding member of the influential Canterbury scene band Soft Machine, with a long and distinguished solo career. He is married to English painter and songwriter Alfreda Benge. more »

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Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

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13 facts about this song

Song Origin
"Shipbuilding" is a song written by Elvis Costoello and Clive Langer. Originally, it was written during the Falklands War in 1982.
First Recording
This song was first recorded by British singer Robert Wyatt. His version was released as a single in August 1982 and reached number 35 in the UK Singles Chart.
Elvis Costello's Version
Elvis Costoello's own version of "Shipbuilding" was then included in his 1983 album 'Punch the Clock'.
Theme and Meaning
"Shipbuilding" is a political song, and it explores the contradictions of war. It's specifically about the way that the Falklands War created jobs in British shipyards while simultaneously causing death and destruction.
Musical Style
Costello’s lyrical imagery and Wyatt’s delicate alto voice were combined to create a haunting result. The song also features a powerful trumpet solo by leading jazz musician Chet Baker.
Recognition and Honors
The song was recognized by NME as the "Single of the Year" in 1982.
Cover Versions
"Shipbuilding" has been covered by multiple artists, including The Beautiful South, Tasmin Archer, and Suede.
Considered a Classic
Today, "Shipbuilding" is considered a classic and has been subject to much critical acclaim.
Cultural Impact
The song was referenced in the novel 'High Fidelity' by Nick Hornby, which reflects on its poignant message and emotional impact.
Film Appearance
"Shipbuilding" appeared in the 2013 film, 'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa', which stars British comedian Steve Coogan.
The Original Idea
Clive Langer had originally intended the tune of "Shipbuilding" for Robert Wyatt but felt it wasn't the right fit for him. After hearing the beginnings of the song, Costello wrote the lyrics overnight.
Album Position
Wyatt's version of "Shipbuilding" was later included in his compilation albums "Nothing Can Stop Us" (1982) and "His Greatest Misses" (2004).
Broader Themes
Beyond war, the song also comments on class and the division of wealth in society.

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