Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.

Advertisements

Gang Of Four, 5.45 (1979)

Entertainment!

Artist: Gang Of Four
Title: 5.45
Description: album track, Entertainment!
Label: EMI
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1980

Libraries gave me power.

I suspect I first heard this song in 1980, and not in its year of release, as I know for a fact that I borrowed it from Northampton Record Library, an Aladdin’s cave for audiophiles I first tapped into around this time, and which granted me access to a whole range of exciting vinyl long-players, which I hungrily and methodically borrowed from this glorious, state-run, municipal resource: XTC’s Drums & Wires, In The Flat Field by Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs’ eponymous debut, The Crack by the Ruts, so many thrilling new wave platters, each one stamped out at a desk, just like a book, except with records, you took the disc out of the sleeve and compared its scuffs and scratches to a card wherein any such imperfections and blemishes would be logged in biro. (A bit like the illustration of a rental van with the scratches drawn in – although I couldn’t have known this at 15.)

Through this route did I come upon Entertainment!, whose most-likely-to single, At Home He’s A Tourist, had crossed my radar via its lyrics in Smash Hits the year previously, but which – as is now legend – had been denied its Top Of The Pops shot because the band refused to amend the lyric about “the rubbers you find” and had thus failed to breach the Top 40. Never mind. Gang Of Four were a band designed to exist outside of the mainstream. I might not have fully understood their Situationist influences or Marxist politics at 15, but I sure liked the idea of what they were saying about consumerism and war and whatever linked guns to butter.

And I sure loved the way they were saying it, with their minimalist arrangements, atonal duets and all that white space which ran through their white funk. Having been intoxicated at the right age by the guttural, inclement fury of punk rock, it was head-turning indeed to hear the elements in Gang Of Four’s sound so clearly separated and slotted back together: the twanging bass, the precise drums, the sparing guitar, and of course, Jon King and Andy Gill’s arresting vocal symbiosis, perhaps never bettered than on Ether, in which King croons about digging “at the root of the problem” and “father’s contradictions” and Gill simultaneously barks out “H-block! Long Kesh!”

Entertainment! turned out to be my favourite album of all time. I loved it in 1980 when I taped it and played the cassette until the magnetic coating was worn off. I loved it again in the mid-80s when, as a student, I finally purchased the LP I’d previously been loaned by the public sector. And I loved it all over again on CD soon after. It literally never fails to excite me. I never saw Gang Of Four the first time around (and have never seen them in revived form), so the music’s hold on me is purely aural. And intellectual and political, obviously. And I think the reason that 5.45 always rises to the top is that it rose to the top 39 years ago. And lodged there.

It may not have the urgency of Damaged Goods, nor the squalling audacity of Anthrax, nor the sensual throb of Tourist, but 5.45 has a simplicity and directness that’s almost a capella. And it has a melodica; perhaps the most effective and beautiful use of that remedial wind instrument in all of post-punk. Of course it begins – as so many of my favourite songs do – with a bare drum beat, typically unshowy and literal from Hugo Burnham, and easy for an aspiring teenage drummer to copy with two rulers on a stool, as I diligently did. Then that polite, wheezy melodica from King. And when Dave Allen’s bass grumbles in, the shooting match begins.

King wonders aloud, “How can I sit and eat my tea with all that blood flowing from the television?” Even as a kid, I understood this. I was not one for the news at that age, but mainly because it all looked so grey and severe at the end of the 70s. When King paints pictures of dead men lying “flat on their backs” (echoing the “beetle on its back” from Anthrax), assassination “down on the street”, and a “blood war” on a “bourgeois state”, it’s no leap to the footage of “guerilla war struggle” that will have filtered into my brain in that decade from unknown zones in Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala and, closer to home, Northern Ireland (whose troubles were more specifically addressed in Ether). This was vivid stuff. And he said “eat my tea.”

Repetition is a weapon in the Gang Of Four’s best work – honestly, it’s like The Teletubbies, except with Sandinistas – and so it proves with the mantra, “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is a new personality.” King and Gill sound like they cannot stop singing this until a ceasefire is called, at which we can all get back to the fried egg we have for our “tea”. And it’s called 5.45 – “quarter to six” – could it be any clearer if it was titled After Noah & Nelly?

I wrote recently about how literate pop music was in the 70s and 80s. Gang Of Four may have not quite made it into the charts, but their debut LP did much to rouse me from my apolitical slumber, aged 14 going on 15. Let’s not post-rationalise; it did not “politicise” me on the spot (I wouldn’t become a Neo-Marxist until I’d left school), but from Entertainment!‘s attention-demanding sleeve, with its “red” Indian and its “white” cowboy shaking hands (“He is glad the Indian is fooled – now he can exploit him”), to the unequivocal chants of “H-Block torture!”, it provided a running buffet of food for thought.

I shall remain forever grateful to Gill, King, Allen and Burnham for the factory reset they gifted me. (And I owe a lifelong debt to Northampton Library and its recordings wing, the sort of place the new government in 1979 would have considered surplus to requirements – glad those days are behind us, right?)