Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding

On a Good Day has been posting a song a day on Tumblr, and has now reached day 100 (do follow if you’re a tumblrer). To celebrate, I thought I would choose one of my all time favourite songs for track of the week.

Shipbuilding was written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer during the Falklands War, about the impact of the war in the traditional shipbuilding areas of the UK. Whilst returning prosperity (briefly) to those areas, it also meant sending their children to fight and possibly die for their country. Whilst this sounds like dry subject matter for a song, it manages to combine the political and the personal in a profound and beautiful manner. Lyrically, to me, it is one of the finest songs ever written.

The first version I head was by Suede, recorded back in the mid 1990s for the Help album for Warchild. This was a charity compilation that was recorded, released and topped the album chart in less than a week, in the days when that meant physically producing and distributing hundreds of thousands of CDs. It featured most of the big names of the era, Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and so on, but Suede’s contribution always stood out even then.

Shipbuilding has been recorded by many others, from Costello himself, to Graham Coxon, to Tasmin Archer, but it is the Robert Wyatt version that I love the most by far. Where others bellow, Wyatt’s voice is fragile, the music slow and sparse, imbuing the song with a deep sadness. Not to everyone’s taste I’m sure, but I hope some of you love it as much as I do.

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