One of the ways that 80s45s came into being was through recurring conversations about the diversity of music that was made and played at the time, despite the stereotype that has prevailed of a decade-long school disco.
However, in the 80s it was fashionable to be politically engaged, and protest songs regularly featured in the UK singles charts. These were not always by overtly ‘political’ acts, and were quite distinct from the decade’s rash of charity records, in that they expressed personal opinions on controversial and potentially audience-alienating subjects.
This one (in this case by overtly political artists) has stayed with me, an eloquent, intelligent lament not only for lives lost in the Falklands war and those blighted by the high unemployment and industrial decline of the 80s, but also for the human potential squandered by those in power. The personal and the political are combined in a miniature narrative, like a glimpse of a Mike Leigh film.
The lyrics are by Elvis Costello. I was always, and remain, a great admirer, but I confess to sometimes finding his cleverness a bit relentless – even he described himself as rock ‘n’ roll’s Scrabble champion. At its best, though, his wordplay is illuminating rather than dazzling, and this surely must be one of his best.
While other Costello songs, like Tramp the Dirt Down, are explicitly political and simmering with righteous rage, Shipbuilding’s lyrics are subtle and understated, alluding at first to the everyday concerns of affording “a new winter coat and shoes for the wife” and building to that beautiful and devastating line at the end of the chorus “when we could be diving for pearls”.
The song was written for Robert Wyatt, well-known as an experimental artist and associated with the prog scene (deeply unfashionable post-punk) and therefore a rather improbable visitor to the 80s charts. His plaintive voice sounds defeated and conveys the powerlessness of the individual and the inevitability of the situation. Elvis Costello later sang his own version, angrier and more dramatic, and with a gorgeous soaring trumpet solo that I like to think of, in keeping with the metaphor of the song, as both an estuary bird and a soul ascending.
The doleful elegance of the arrangement contributes to the mood of hopelessness and the piano sounds weary, yet defiantly lovely; a sophisticated response to the crude machismo that was very much the posture of the Thatcher government.
You could hardly describe it as a smash, but Shipbuilding was certainly a hit, and such an unlikely one, a humane and deceptively gentle protest song more powerful and enduring for being poetic rather than direct.