Every December, during the Christmas period, the late John Peel would dedicate a chunk of his Radio One show to a chart compiled by his listeners called, imaginatively, the Festive Fifty. The chart was made up of tracks that he had played throughout the previous 12 months (and woe betide those who selected music he hadn't played!). Peel aficionados can still be heard reciting its statistics and trivia to this day.
After Peel played the record at number two in the Festive Fifty of 1982, he thanked everyone who'd had the good taste to vote for it and then remarked, in his not trademark gruff and lugubrious manner that, in twenty years' time, the song would be the only one from that year that people would actually remember.
I'm certain that Peel was well aware that, come 2002, 'Shipbuilding' by Robert Wyatt wouldn't be squeezed onto a series of brightly packaged Eighties-themed compilation albums or be the topic of any pop nostalgia TV programmes. But what the DJ did realise was that the quietly delivered song about the effects of the Falklands conflict on a beleaguered ship-building community would have much greater longevity.
As a historical note, the Falkland Conflict (war was never actually declared), began in April 1982 when Argentine Military Forces invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, the Argentine government claiming sovereignty. The conflict lasted for ten weeks - which saw the deaths of 649 Argentinian and 255 British troops. Famously, the sinking of the Argentine Naval Ship - The Belgrano was covered by one British tabloid with the one of their vilest ever headlines: 'GOTCHA!' (323 lives were lost that day).
Maybe it's because 'Shipbuilding' has been covered by the likes of June Tabor and The Unthanks that has led me to think of it as a modern folk song. There are plenty of recognizable folk song traits in the lyrics: a distant war, the experiences and, in many cases, the exploitation of working communities. What it certainly isn't is a protest song, lyricist Elvis Costello was always dubious of such things. In early 1982, record producer and musician Clive Langer asked Costello to write lyrics to a melody that he had written for Robert Wyatt. Costello wrote the lyrics whilst watching the frequently sensationalist news coverage of the Falklands conflict as he toured Australia: 'I was in a country where Rupert Murdoch had cut his poisoned teeth, so reports did not stint on lurid speculation or gruesome details'.
One of the things that makes 'Shipbuilding' so powerful is that in a pre-Internet world, the thought that members of the navy were being killed whilst aboard ships that they may have built is '...just a rumour that's been spread around town'. It's the distance, not just in geography, between them and war, between the political leaders and the community that builds the weapons, that is most horrifying. And this is not just the case of the conflict in question but all wars.
It's Robert Wyatt's delivery that makes 'Shipbuilding' so poignant. The opening line of 'Is it worth it...' goes straight to how beaten down the narrator is, a voice so full of hurt. Yet it's the closing line of '...when we could be diving for pearls' that reveals the futility of his existence - and, indeed, so many of us. Wyatt was becoming far more vocal with his political beliefs (he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain), his most recent album had included versions of 'The Red Flag', the Cuban song 'La Ciamanera' and a version of World War Two song championing the role that the Soviet Union took in defeating the Nazi's called 'Stalin Wasn't Stallin''. There is a sense that if there was one singer who could empathise with, as well as convey the anguish of, the shipyard workers being murderously exploited, it was Robert Wyatt.
Wyatt was also keen to address how Britain was perceived internationally. As a Spanish resident, he saw how the British were regarded as 'homicidal maniacs' much of which was to do with the rise of football hooliganism at the time stating that 'It's sad...we don't want this image' . As with much of the art of the 1980s, 'Shipbuilding' is also a note of defiance. There were other cultures, other beliefs, and other points of view to be expressed other than that of the dominant media.
As he presented the Festive Fifty in December 1982, John Peel may have just been being sardonic when he said about 'Shipbuilding' that it would be the only song that people would remember from that year, maybe he was taking a swipe at the short shelf life of the escapist pop that his colleagues at Radio One played. But I'd like to think that there was something in what the DJ had said: 'Shipbuilding' is a song that will endure for generations because of the truths that it exposes. Truths that show no sign of ending. Maybe Peel was right.
Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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