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Why So Good? - "Shipbuilding"

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  • Why So Good? - "Shipbuilding"

    Two months ago I posted this:

    Some years ago I read a magazine article interviewing songwriters about their favorite songs (i.e., songs, not recordings). A few songs came up again and again, and none of them were songs I was really super familiar with, or which were major 'hits.' I thought I'd ask the group 1) if they agreed that these were "great" songs, and 2) if so, why?
    Last time, Randy Newman, this time, Elvis Costello and "Shipbuilding." This is not a song that growing up in the US in the 80s you heard on the radio (heard plenty of Elvis Costello, though) - I was totally unfamiliar with it until the article. It's a lovely track (though awful 80s piano sound), interesting melody, and a weighty lyric about the impact of the Falklands on the UK home front. But best-written song ever?

    (On a side note, how poor is our culture that we have no great songs about what over a decade of war in the Middle East has done to us, and the Falklands lasted, what - a season?)

    So...what do you guys think?


    Is it worth it
    A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
    And a bicycle on the boy's birthday
    It's just a rumour that was spread around town
    By the women and children
    Soon we'll be shipbuilding
    Well I ask you

    It's just a rumour that was spread around town
    Somebody said that someone got filled in
    For saying that people get killed in
    The result of this shipbuilding
    With all the will in the world
    Diving for dear life
    When we could be diving for pearls

    It's just a rumour that was spread around town
    A telegram or a picture postcard
    Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
    And notifying the next of kin
    Once again
    It's all we're skilled in
    We will be shipbuilding
    Last edited by mbfrancis; 07-09-2014, 05:40 PM.

  • #2
    Yeh - Maggie's war. It lifted her ratings just like she hoped it would.

    Beautifully understated song - but we were raised on understatement in this wet little country. It's second nature.
    'Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn'.


    • #3
      This is a "I Love The Song....but" in my book....I really dislike that choppy, melodramatic, overplayed piano part. And the tag line "diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls" makes me cringe a bit. But yeah, always liked the song a lot in spite of...not a best ever 'tho.

      From this side of the pond, the big flap over the Falklands was hard to understand - at least for me. The level of acrimony was white hot, and I couldn't get from point A to point B understanding that. I have no particular opinion on all this, just a newspaper reader's level of understanding which is to say very very little understanding......but wow, does (or did) E.C. ever hate Ms. Thatcher as per this tune....nothing understated here:

      I saw a newspaper picture
      From the political campaign
      A woman was kissin' a child
      Who was obviously in pain

      She spills with compassion
      As that young child's face in her hands she grips
      Can you imagine all that greed
      And avarice coming down on that child's lips?

      Well I hope I don't die too soon
      I pray the Lord my soul to save
      Yes, I'll be a good boy
      I'm trying so hard to behave

      Because there's one thing I know
      I'd like to live long enough to savour

      That's when they finally put you in the ground
      I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

      When England was the whore of the world
      Margaret was her madam
      And the future looked as bright and as clear
      As the black tarmacadam

      Well I hope that she sleeps well at night
      Isn't haunted by every tiny detail
      'Cos when she held that lovely face in her hands
      All she thought of was betrayal

      And now the cynical ones
      Say that it all ends the same in the long run
      Try telling that to the desperate father
      Who just squeezed the life from his only son

      And how it's only voices in your head
      And dreams you never dreamt
      Try telling him the subtle difference
      Between justice and contempt

      Try telling me she isn't angry
      With this pitiful discontent
      When they flaunt it in your face
      As you line up for punishment

      And then expect you to say "Thank you"
      Straighten up, look proud and pleased
      Because you've only got the symptoms
      You haven't got the whole disease

      Just like a schoolboy, whose head's like a tin-can
      Filled up with dreams then poured down the drain
      Try telling that to the boys on both sides
      Being blown to bits or beaten and maimed

      Who takes all the glory and none of the shame

      Well I hope you live long now
      I pray the lord your soul to keep
      I think I'll be going before
      We fold our arms and start to weep

      I never thought for a moment
      That human life could be so cheap

      'Cos when they finally put you in the ground
      They'll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down

      nat whilk ii
      Last edited by nat whilk II; 07-08-2014, 06:17 PM.


      • #4
        That's powerful - I think he might have needed to get it off his chest.
        Maggie devastated Britain with her neocon ideology. Loathed by the common man.
        Eventually it was her own party that ditched her.
        'Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn'.


        • #5
          Agree with Nat - good song but.... From that period Almost Blue is a better cocktail jazz song and Pills and Soap is a better political song.
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          Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.

          -Coco Chanel


          • #6
            Good song. I'm unclear on something: has someone classified this as "the best song ever?" Or even "the best Elvis Costello song?"

            I'd much rather listen to "When Green Eyes Turn Blue" or "I'm in the Mood Again," but they're not available on YouTube.
            Last edited by LCK; 07-08-2014, 08:49 PM.
            “Good Vibrations” was probably a good record but who's to know? You had to play it about 90 bloody times to even hear what they were singing about. What’s next? Rock opera? —Pete Townshend, Melody Maker Interview, 1966.


            • #7
              Originally posted by LCK View Post
              Good song. I'm unclear on something: has someone classified this as "the best song ever?" Or even "the best Elvis Costello song?"
              In the article they just asked what the songwriters' favorite "song" was - i.e. not recording. So best-written song I guess.


              • #8
                Well... That was a Clive Langer cowrite and production. As I recall, Langer was big on that bright sparkly punchy British sound at the time. Madness and their hits then. For me, being a huge Elvis fan at the time, that sound was a bit of a shock. But I was also a huge Chet Baker fan then too. He was out of fashion and Elvis brought him back in. I was drawn in as much for Baker as for Elvis. Best song ever? I can't even entertain that sort of concept. Great song? Absolutely. It's just a rumor that was spread around town... Really? Is that not great? Or that melody? Langer's. Somebody said understated? Once again, absolutely. That is Langers melody. And what a great melody. A lyric that may not speak to Americans but somehow I don't understand why not? Great song? Yes. For me anyway. And once again, for me, war is a horrible, unfortunate tragedy. The song speaks to that beautifully and tragically. That is a great piece of art.
                Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
                Dad is great and all but he never could sing -


                • #9
                  Nice, great stuff.

                  I think I'm with Lee on one thing - the music+lyric from "it's just a rumor that we spread around" through "the result of this shipbuilding" is flawless, and creative/unexpected.

                  I think the rest lets it down. "Take me to task" feels off. So does "diving for dear life"/"diving for pearls." And the music is too jazzy, or not jazzy enough. Hard to articulate: I think The Blue Nile nailed the vibe much better with From A Late Night Train.

                  I guess on this one I don't understand why it had such an impact that people would rate it *so* highly. This is one I would put on "I love this but" the "just a rumor" bit, the rest leaves me cold.


                  • #10
                    Never heard it before, but I'd be proud if it were part of my catalog.
                    Don't listen to Justin.
                    LCK - 2/21/2012