Here’s a clip of Elvis Costello, performing his 1983 track ‘Shipbuilding’ which was originally included on the Punch the Clock album. This is a live version, featuring Costello’s long term backing band, the Attractions.
This song in many ways was the follow-up to the kind of style that Costello had achieved with his song “Almost Blue” which was included on the Imperial Bedroom album of the previous year. Like that song, this one had Chet Baker in mind melodically speaking, going one further by including Baker on the track, playing trumpet. This stylistic turn was emblematic of Costello’s wandering interest in exploring other styles, breaking out of his well-established ‘angry young man’ label which marked the first phase of his career. Ironically, this is a very angry song, perhaps one of his angriest.
In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a set of landmasses off of the South American continent, and home to a great many sheep. However, they were British sheep; the islands in question were still a part of the British Commonwealth. Reasons for a military response remain to be controversial to this day, but the British Navy was dispatched to the area, and battle commenced.
Daily rags in Britain worked up a media frenzy, the flames of nationalism in Britain were stoked, and ultimately lives were lost fighting to take back the islands thousands of miles away. While this was going on, many justifications for the war were centred around the promise of a job boom and industrial prosperity which war would bring to depressed areas.
The question ‘is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife, and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday?’ was, for the time being, not being asked – at least in the Daily Mail. It wasn’t being asked by the military junta in Argentina either. They had invaded the islands in order to win the favour of nationalists who had argued the ownership over the Falklands for generations.
But this song demands that the question be answered. Is it worth it? Is it worth it to risk the lives of young men and women for economic and political gain? Is this really about defending a way of life? Or, was the whole thing an opportunity for the governments of both nations to distract their citizens from the inadequacies of their leadership, and turn the tide of uncertain political currents toward electoral dominance?
Who knew that this tune, and the questions found in it, would remain to be relevant over 25 years later?
In addition to Elvis’ version of the song, Robert Wyatt’s cover version is a favourite among many, his brittle-yet-angelic voice bringing out the sadness in the track perhaps to an arguably greater degree than Costello’s take on it.
Enjoy the clips.