The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’


Just imagine that you have written, or at least co-written a song. A song of genius, of powerful, heart-rending lyrics, full of moral ambiguity, allied to a melody of fragility and strength, that alone might move your audience to tears.  You’d rush to record it, wouldn’t you as soon as you can? Now imagine what it must feel like, give those circumstances, to record this classic song in the knowledge that someone else, to whom you have given the song, has not only already recorded it, but has recorded a perfect version of the song, one that leaves patterns on the heart whenever it is played, to which all other versions, including your own, will be forever compared and found inferior.
You are Elvis Costello. You were asked, by your producer Clive Langer, to put words to a piece of music he had written. You named it ‘Shipbuilding’. Robert Wyatt recorded it, creating a record of breath-taking beauty. When you choose to record this for your seventh album, ‘Punch the Clock’, how can you not feel intimidated, even on your own song, by trying to follow that.
Give Costello the credit: he did it. Given Wyatt’s version, the courage that must have required is phenomenal.
But it didn’t make a h’apporth of difference. This is the one, the only one.
It came about because Robert Wyatt was recording with record producer Clive Langer, one half of the legendary late Seventies/early Eighties Clanger-Winstanley production team, with Alan Winstanley, who were responsible for the vitality and joyfulness of the early Madness albums. Langer had written a melody, a slow, achingly beautiful melody, and he asked Costello to put lyrics to it.
And it was recorded with the sparsest of instrumentation: drums played by brushes, a stand-up bass, played by Madness’s Mark Bedford, an acoustic piano, and Wyatt’s unadorned voice, that cracked falsetto, alone in the midst of considerable silence and space, singing a song that,once you understood its allusions, broke your heart.
It was the time of the Falklands, of the stupid, unnecessary, pointless war that made my mother proud to be British, that brought down the Argentine Junta, that unleashed naked racism in our sickening press, that Jorge Luis Borges summed up best as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. It revealed the stupidity of our government, whose penny-pinching brought it on, and it may have secured their continuation in power in a time of recession.
Costello’s words were neither direct nor brutal. Its just a rumour that was spread around town, a rumour that the shipyards will be reopening, that vital employment is coming back. We will be shipbuilding. And the men rejoiced at work and pride and money and respect, and their sons sailed off to battle. And the ship was sunk and the crew lost, sons lost in the ships that had salvaged their lives. Men lost. Diving for dear life, when (they) should be diving for pearls.
The song was stark and Wyatt’s version, in music and voice, was stark to suit it. Nothing was said or done to beat you over the head, yet there was nothing that you could mistake (unless you were the BBC who, when the record briefly broke into the top 40, featured it on Top of the Pops with footage of shipyards,  building ships).
Costello’s version, when it appeared was, in contrast, richer and fuller, and so much the inferior for that very reason. Robert Wyatt secured himself a place in whatever passes for an immortal heave among musicians by singing this as if he was going through every emotion himself, but then he was a socialist bastard himself. If you can listen to this song without becoming one, if only for four minutes, then you don’t deserve ears with which to hear music.
Don’t think, because this song is more than thirty years old, that it’s time is done. The words are never done with. Costello wrote well, his aim was deadly true.

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