Behind The Song: “Shipbuilding” by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello, “Shipbuilding”

“Shipbuilding” is from his 1983 album Punch The Clock, it’s a song that Elvis Costello wrote with Clive Langer during the Falklands War, reflecting the dark irony of profiting off the sales of ships on which their own sons would die.

His recording of it is distinguished forever by the haunting trumpet playing of the late Chet Baker, said to be Baker’s last recorded music.

There’s been some confusion over the authorship of the song. Most sources agree that Elvis wrote the lyrics to a tune written by Langer for Robert Wyatt, of Soft Machine, to record. In fact, Elvis confirms this himself in an interview on the UK Channel Four show “Loose Talk.”

Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt on “Loose Talk”

But when interviewed for American Songwriter in 2013, Elvis said he wrote both the music and words:

ELVIS COSTELLO: “I came up with the melody first, which I put on cassette. I was singing it wordlessly, maybe just humming while playing the melody on an organ. I sang the vocal melody over these beautiful changes. It was for Robert Wyatt. He had the hope that I would write something bright and optimistic that would be the way Robert intended it, sort of like Neil Diamond’s `I’m a Believer,’  maybe something more poignant, but it should be like a conventional pop lyric. Instead of which I wrote a very specific song about something else entirely, and that reflects what was happening at that moment, that particular conflict of all these dilemmas that blew up and came out of the lyric of ‘Shipbuilding.’”

In 2008, he told Q magazine he was proud of the song: “It’s a pretty good lyric, yeah. The key line for me is, ‘Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls.’ That we should be doing something beautiful, better than this. I wrote the lyric before the Belgrano (Argentinean Navy cruiser sunk by British forces during the 1982 Falklands conflict in controversial circumstances). I’ve been to see the monument, stood and read the names of all the men… well, boys who died. Whatever you say about the conflict of war, that crime alone will see Thatcher in hell.”

Chet Baker played live with the band, as opposed to overdubbing his solo, according to co-producer Alan Winstanley in Uncut: “So we had to edit the multi-track just to get the trumpet right,” he said. “What you’re hearing is three different band performances spliced together. Amazingly, they’re all the same tempo, with no click track.”

“Shipbuilding,”
By Elvis Costello & Clive Langer

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 rumour 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 back by Christmas”
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

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

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
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
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
When we could be diving for pearls

© Elvis Costello, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group

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