Elvis has said in interviews that this was written from the perspective of workers in British shipbuilding seaports during the buildup to England's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982, an event that then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher seized (as most politicians would) in order to use the cacophony of nationalistic fervor to drown out the groaning sounds of a crumbling economy.
The song is set in a region that's economically depressed, one where essentials like "a new winter coat for the wife" is hard to come by. But there's a "rumor" that the local shipyard will soon have work, building ships for a war. The townspeople want to be happy that they will soon have jobs, but it is at the expense of their own boys who must go fight the war.
Chet Baker plays the mournful, lonely trumpet solo on this ballad. It is rumored to be Baker's last recorded performance.
Co-producer Alan Winstanley recalled to Uncut: "Chet played live with the band, so we had to edit the multi-track just to get the trumpet right. What you're hearing is three different band performances spliced together. Amazingly, they're all the same tempo, with no click track."
Chet Baker was a very talented jazz trumpet player who fought a heroin addiction for much of his life. He died in 1988 after falling from a hotel window.
"Shipbuilding" was first recorded in 1983 by Robert Wyatt peaking at #35 in the UK charts. Costello then recorded his own version for his Punch the Clock album.
British producer Clive Langer wrote the melody. It was originally a song he'd written for former Soft Machine drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt. The melody was inspired by the melancholy way that Wyatt sang Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit
." However Langer wasn't happy with his lyrics, so he played the tune to Costello who within days had written new words about the Falklands war. Costello later described them as "The best lyrics I've ever written."
Radiohead once nominated "Shipbuilding" as the song they'd like to see reach alien life on the Voyager satellite probe.
Costello was asked by Q magazine March 2008 if he still considered "Shipbuilding" to be the best lyrics that he'd ever written. He replied: "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."
Costello explained to Mojo magazine that he asked Chet Baker to come in and play on the recording to make it distinct from Robert Wyatt's original 1982 single. "I had this idea of a trumpet," he said. "I couldn't believe we got Chet Baker and how beautifully he played."