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."
Ade from Coventry UkI once heard Elvis Costello say that he considered this to be Robert Wyatt's song that he covered.
Damon from Fayetteville, NcI first Heard this amazing song when I was 12 or 13, living in NYC. Didn't understand the significance, but I knew it was an amazing song that I played over and over and... Played that cassette so much it fell apart. Lol
Joe from Ithaca, NyImagine a popular artist today trying to cover a subject so well, in such an abstract way. I don't think the public has the intellect for the next EC, either. Sadly we (the masses) get what we deserve. More Britney, anyone?
Alan from Edinburgh, ScotlandSuede also did a fantastic cover of this for the War Child charity album "Help"
Don from Newmarket, CanadaCovered by Robert Wyatt, who had a hit in Britain with his version.
Craig from Madison, WiThis song is used in the movie "High Fidelity." Though this is a great song and all, I think the Elvis song they should have used in it was "High Fidelity." I know it's a stretch, but...
Wolf Chinnery from Hemel Hempstead,,, EnglandI cant believe that nobody has made a comment re this incredibly moving song.Right in the middle of the Thatcher years when we were fed a War to to disguise the rumblings of dissent at home.The only chance for a dying industry was to raise up its weary arms, build ships and ferry this countrys sons to their death.Not to be nit-picky but i think that Chets haunting solo is actually played on a Flugel horn,,,,,,bloody wonderful!!