‘Is it worth it…’, the last great politically inspired British pop song opens with a line more pleading than angry, highly contrasted with the boot-stamping rage typifying much of Elvis Costello’s other songs. It is with resignation that ‘Shipbuilding’ plays out an era of political music that the country has struggled to return to, and which makes it one of the most heart-felt anti-war songs ever written.
Never scornful, the song captures the desperation felt by northern communities at the time with one of the most smoothly rhymed set of lines Costello has ever produced.
Composed for the reedy voice of former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, the song was written directly as a protest of the War in the Falklands. Yet while the song prods at politics (Wyatt for instance viewed the song as “about the way the conservative establishment glorifies the working class as ‘our boys’ whenever they want to put them in uniform”), the narrative of the song draws much less from a radical position than it does from Costello’s own lived experience growing up in Liverpool. It is in this aspect of the lyrics, one grounded in the lives of the working class, that the song presents itself as a personal account and becomes a time capsule for early ‘80s Britain. From this perspective, the song at times questions itself, acknowledging the hope of economic prosperity the war would grant to a community for which, Costello notes with a rhyme, shipbuilding is all they’re skilled in.
Never scornful, the song captures this desperation felt by northern communities at the time with one of the most smoothly rhymed set of lines Costello has ever produced. ‘Somebody said that someone got filled in/For saying that people get killed in/The result of this shipbuilding.’ Yet never weakening on the perspective the song is written from, Costello dismisses promises of prosperity as rumours, and laments the lives lost to war, pitying those affected with the line, ‘The boy said “dad, they’re going to take me to task/ But I’ll be back by Christmas”’, ironically alluding to the attitude of Britons at the start of the First World War.
Lyrically, the value of the song lies more in its observations than it does in its prescriptions, and its emotional power comes not from some vitriolic attack but from passive resignation. It paints a picture that appeals to you to the extent that you choose to engage with it, and always presents itself not as a call for action, but as a question, ‘is it worth it’.
I’ve included two different versions of the song below, both the original sung by Wyatt, and the later Costello version. Despite a chilling trumpet solo by the perpetually mournful Chet Baker, the Costello cover probably loses out to the stripped back original driven by just an impatient double bass and loping drum beat, all of which makes the Costello cover feel overproduced in comparison, but both are great, and definitely worth checking out.