Shipbuilding (song)

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Single by Robert Wyatt
B-side "Memories of You" (Andy Razaf, E. Blake)
"Round Midnight" (T. Monk)
Released August 1982, reissued April 1983
Format 7", 45rpm
Length 3:04
Label Rough Trade RT115(T)
Writer(s) Music: Clive Langer
Lyrics: Elvis Costello
Producer(s) Elvis Costello, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley
Robert Wyatt singles chronology
"The Age of Self"

"Shipbuilding" is a song written by Elvis Costello (lyrics) and Clive Langer (music). Written during the Falklands War of 1982, Costello's lyrics discuss the contradiction of the war bringing back prosperity to the traditional shipbuilding areas of Clydeside (Yarrow Shipbuilders), Merseyside (Cammell Laird), North East England (Swan Hunter) and Belfast (Harland and Wolff)[1] to build new ships to replace those being sunk in the war, whilst also sending off the sons of these areas to fight and, potentially, lose their lives in those same ships.

According to Clive Langer, he had written the tune for Robert Wyatt but wasn't happy with the lyrics that he had written himself. Langer played the tune to Costello at a party hosted by Nick Lowe, and within days Costello had produced what he described as "the best lyrics I've ever written".[1] In a 1983 interview with NME, Mark Bedford of Madness, who played stand-up double bass on the single, recounted the history of the song:

"At first Robert Wyatt wasn't involved. The original plan was to release four different versions of the song, which was then called 'Ten to Nine', as an EP with four different guest vocalists. There were going to be versions of the song by Elvis, Clive and Steve Allen [Langer's former bandmate in the 1970s group Deaf School], but once Elvis had done some more work on the lyrics and changed the song to 'Shipbuilding', they decided to approach Robert Wyatt and his version was so special that it came out as a straight single."[2]

In September 2013, Elvis Costello and The Roots released an answer song written in the perspective of the other side of the conflict, called Cinco Minutos con Vos. The song is a duet partly sung in Argentinian Spanish, by La Marisoul.[3]


The Robert Wyatt version was originally released as a single in August 1982, but did not become a hit until it was re-released in April 1983 when it reached number 35 in the UK charts,[4] marking the first ever UK Top 40 entry for Rough Trade Records. On the recording Wyatt is backed by Clive Langer (organ), Steve Nieve (piano), Mark Bedford (double bass), Martin Hughes (drums) and Elvis Costello (backing vocals).[5] The single was acclaimed by the music press, with the NME writers voting it their third favourite song of 1982.[6]

Costello recorded his own version of the song for his 1983 album Punch the Clock, featuring a performance by jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Other versions have been recorded by Suede (for The Help Album, a charity album), Hue and Cry, Tasmin Archer (whose version was a UK Top 40 hit in 1994), Mark Mulcahy, Graham Coxon, Mr McFall's Chamber, Yael Naïm, Swan Arcade,[7] June Tabor, The Unthanks and Passion Killers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sold on Song – Song Library – New England
  2. ^ Thrills, Adrian (2 April 1983). "The return of the mad 7". NME (London, England: IPC Media). pp. 24–26. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Roberts, David (ed.) (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London, England: Guinness World Records. p. 611. ISBN 978-1-9049-9410-7. 
  5. ^ Robert Wyatt – Solo
  6. ^ "Singles of the Year". NME (London, England: IPC Media). 25 December 1982. p. 29. 
  7. ^ Living Tradition CD review of Swan Arcade, Round Again,

External links[edit]