#4: 1982, Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding

by George_East on November 18, 2010

Jackie’s superb Songs To Learn and Sing post yesterday on Ghost Town by The Specials got me thinking about political songs. They are I think very hard to pull off without sounding naive (Sham 69’s If The Kids Are United), a bit po-faced (a lot of early Billy Bragg) or just plain ridiculous (Spandau Ballet’s Through The Barricades).

Political songs which are also so crushingly sad that they leave you with tears running down your face are virtually unknown. Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding is one such song. It may be the only one.

It is not a cover version – Elvis Costello wrote it for the former Soft Machine drummer, though Costello was to go on and record an inferior version himself a year later. Wyatt’s fragile vocals are perfect for a song as complex and despairing as this. Costello’s version sounds perhaps (understandably given the subject matter) a little too angry.

It is a song which deals with both the Falklands War and the sudden and vast levels of unemployment in the industrial areas of the UK, caused by the first Thatcher administration’s brutal and disastrous economic policies. It is a song that speaks of war bringing jobs back to those hollowed out working class areas as the very same communities send their sons off to fight, possibly never to return.

˜Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards

And notifying the next of kin

Once again, it’s all were skilled in

We will be shipbuilding’

The Falklands War was for me the first time I had a consciousness that the media did not just report news stories. The jingoism of the Murdoch press was matched by the more subtle and insidious unquestioning cheerleading of the broadcast media, enabling Thatcher to recast herself as a Churchill for the 1980s – something which would contribute heavily to her landslide victory in the 1983 general election and lead to her all- out assault on the trade union movement, re-cast as ˜the enemy within”, in the miners’ strike in 1984-5.  Even at 12 I could not understand how the deaths of over 300 sailors in the sinking of the Argentine warship, The General Belgrano, many teenage conscripts not much older than I was at the time, was something to be met with a cry of ˜Rejoice Rejoice”.

The genius of the song is that it doesn’t seek to romanticise or idealise the working class.  It even takes aim at the flag-waving patriotism and pressures, sometimes violent pressures, within those communities to conform:

˜Somebody said that someone got filled in

For saying that someone got killed in

The result of this shipbuilding”

The questions Shipbuilding raises are real, the answers are not easy.  The scourge of unemployment: the shame in not being able to buy your wife a new coat or your child a birthday present and then, the possibility of a job.  Is it worth it?

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