Robert Wyatt: Shipbuilding
When I heard that this week’s theme would be covers of Elvis Costello songs, two ideas jumped into my head. The first was a song that I have listened to many, many times, which I heard on the radio, played on the radio, saw on MTV and which is fun and rocks. The other was a song that I rarely listened to, never hear on the radio, probably never played on the radio, and is a slow, kind of depressing ballad. Of course, I chose the second song to write about.
“Shipbuilding” is a brilliant anti-war song written about the Falklands War of 1982. The one between the UK and Argentina over a few small islands in the South Atlantic which lasted 74 days and caused all sorts of patriotic fervor to rise up in both countries. Ending with the UK regaining control over the islands (in other words, nothing changed), it led to the death of 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders. As dumb as most wars are, this was amongst the dumber ones, certainly of the modern era.
The tune was written not by Costello, but by Clive Langer, best known as a producer, but he couldn’t come up with good lyrics. He played it for Costello, at a party hosted by Nick Lowe, and Elvis came up with a set of lyrics that he once described as the best he’d ever written. Which, considering the body of his work, is pretty impressive. Although clearly anti-war, the song does recognize a contradiction—the war helped to bring back prosperity to depressed shipyards and provide jobs to their workers. Thus, the first line—“Is it worth it?”
The song was written for Robert Wyatt, a musician who is lionized in the UK, pretty much unknown here, and who was politically to the left of the left-wing Costello. Wyatt was best known as a drummer and major force in the Canterbury scene (which I have previously written about in my Gong post). He was probably most famous as a member of Soft Machine, but after leaving that band in 1971, he released solo albums and formed a band called Matching Mole (which is a pun based on the French translation of “Soft Machine”). Unfortunately, in 1973 Wyatt got drunk at a party, fell out of a fourth floor window and became a paraplegic. To give you a sense of his place in the British music scene at the time, Pink Floyd played two benefit concerts to raise money for his care, supported by Soft Machine.
Wyatt’s injury didn’t end his musical career, and he continued to drum, obviously without using his feet, sing and play other instruments on solo records and with others. Some of his collaborators include Mike Oldfield, David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, and, on “Shipbuilding,” Elvis Costello. The musicians on this version of the song include Steve Nieve, of The Attractions, and Mark Bedford, of Madness. The spareness and simplicity of the arrangement, and Wyatt’s reedy but empathetic vocals give the song a power that continues to haunt.
Costello’s version, released after Wyatt’s on the “Punch the Clock” album, produced by Langer and his producing partner Alan Winstanley, is also quite good, if maybe a bit over produced, and features a beautiful trumpet solo by Chet Baker, but I agree with the consensus that Wyatt’s version is the better one.
Coincidently, the other song that I was considering writing about is one where I like the cover better than the Costello version (and Nick Lowe plays on it). And if no one else posts it, I will try to do so before the end of the week.