Unofficial Anthems 5 & 6: Shipbuilding & Pills & Soap

When is an anthem not an anthem? If it says something profound and isn’t upbeat, is it an anthem? Ferry Cross the Mersey, Swing Low, even that terrible Elgar mess are all slow and meaningful and they’re anthems? (well maybe not the rugby ones, unless actions are also conferred LOL).

I think Shipbuilding, written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer for Robert Wyatt is an alternative anthem. Apparently Elvis was out in Australia touring when the Falklands War kicked off, and he wrote it about the contradiction that the same towns where the ships are built (and war is seen as good for business), the local young men also go off to be killed in those very ships. As with John and the Suez, I remember the Falklands War distinctly – the 9 O’Clock News reports, sinking of the HMS Sheffield, etc. It all seemed so pointless, and was just a convenient excuse to bolster Maggie’s image – she was waning in the polls until the war came along. I wonder what came first?

I didn’t know there was a video for this song til I found it recently on YouTube…the song was on Top Of The Pops though. I mentioned about diva producers before – the story goes they wanted to put Robert in a wicker chair to hide his wheelchair. He refused, and the producer said something like ‘you’ll never appear on TOTP again!’ – amazingly the appearance had record complaints over the wheelchair from the public – a record probably only beaten by Manic Street Preachers many years later. Just to show you, as Ian Dury proved, the public weren’t ready for visible disabled in their ‘normal’ TV shows. And probably still aren’t.

Really this song goes side by side with Pills & Soap by The Imposter aka Elvis Costello again…released the same time as the more successful re-release of Shipbuilding, I missed this at the time and only knew about it recently in a post on the excellent No Record Shops Left blog. I’ve just found the TOTP appearance – I am astounded that they even put it on there, just goes to show they did put a few of the odder/leftfield tracks onto TOTP – even if they had to leave the wheelchairs at home :-/ It makes for a rather odd appearance for ol’ Declan and the swaying tune zombies of yore. At least it’s better than the out-and-out boredom of German music shows (for fun myself and Kirk when drunk google old german disco performance to see the true meaning of blank generation).

This is almost like Shipbuilding Part 2 – not just about the war but about the class divide that was widening in the UK at this time. The Tories were basically saying ‘on yer bike’ to workers and acting as if indeed “we’re going to melt them down for pills and soap”. This ‘let them eat cake’/’let us snort coke’ attitude led to the miner’s strike and the stand-off of ’85 as amazing, buoyed by the war and the shambling disaster that was Michael Foot, Maggie Thatcher got in again.

The scary part is bits of it still applies to Dear Dave (who adores Maggie) and co. and reality culture – for instance

They talked to the sister, the father and the mother
With a microphone in one hand and a chequebook in the other
And the camera noses in to the tears on her face
The tears on her face
The tears on her face

…could be written about the horrors of Hackgate and mobile phone hacking, and News International as what I’m guessing then was the Falklands War.

The sugar-coated pill is getting bitterer still
You think your country needs you, but you know it never will
So pack up your troubles in a stolen handbag
Don’t dilly-dally boys, rally ’round the flag
Give us our daily bread in individual slices
And something in the daily rag to cancel any crisis

Love the modern rewrite of ‘Pack Up Your troubles’ and ‘My Old Man’ – this is what you do with such wartime retro nostalgia: you don’t turn it into cupcakes, posters or war film sample remix songs on Radio 6, you question it. You prod it. You bayonet it. Within an inch of it’s life because it contains nastiness from a previous age.

And I’m sure as I’ve said before Billy Bragg must’ve been green with jealousy over Good Morning Britain, but Shipbuilding and Pills & Soap would qualify too 😉

Relatio Clash

Tim B Written by:

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