On 11 February 2019 I set myself the challenge of reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (ed.) and following the book’s advice to the letter. I’ve previously read 1001 Films… and started 1001 Albums… but felt 1001 Songs… would be a sensible place to start for what I have in mind here.
My challenge is to read about one song per day and listen to it (YouTube and Spotify, I need you tonight!) before sharing my own thoughts. Some songs I will love, others I’ll hate, and I’m sure there will be those that leave me perplexed but listen to them I shall.
I’ll also try, and most likely fail, to pinpoint the best song from the 1001 on offer but I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Instead of one song, I’m predicting I’ll have about 100 favourites by the end and may have to resort to a Top 10 so far to maintain any semblance of sanity.
So long as I post every day (including Christmas) then this challenge should come to an end on Wednesday 8 November 2021. Staying with the Barney Stinson theme I am hoping that the whole experience will prove to be… legendary!
Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding (1982)
We’re remaining in the UK today, dear reader, but leave Newcastle behind and make our way southwest and head all the way down to Bristol. Here we find Robert Wyatt who was a member of two bands – Soft Machine and Matching Mole – but band work became too much when Wyatt had a terrible accident in 1973 which left him paralysed from the waist down. He continued as a solo artist and when we join him in 1982 he has been approached by Elvis Costello (the lyricist here) and Clive Langer (the composer). They had written a song called Shipbuilding and although Costello had recorded a vocal the writers wanted Wyatt to have a stab at it. The result was what is considered the definitive version.
Shipbuilding was written at the time of the UK’s involvement in the Falklands War which lasted 10 weeks (April – June 1982). The conflict was considered divisive with some critics accusing then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of using the war as a means of distracting the public from the Conservative Party’s failing domestic policies back home. In Shipbuilding Wyatt sings of how the war is boostings the UK’s failing shipping industry. One needs ships to get to the Falklands and with this boom to shipping the workers can buy nice things for their wives and children, but then someone else’s children are being enlisted to fight in a distant land and some are coming home in wooden boxes. The song seems to balance the importance of life with the acquisition of material gain and dares to ask which should have priority. A world of capitalism will often answer that money supersedes human life. Sadly.
My knowledge of the Falklands War is hazy and it was a conflict that began before I was even born though, from my reading here, it turns out my first day of life had come prior to the war’s end. I know it was considered a controversial war but it would boost the Conservative Party to a comfortable election victory the following year in 1983. Shipbuilding asks questions of the war’s value and need but is more subtle in its anger than Pink Floyd’s 1983 album The Final Cut which also targeted this conflict in the Falklands. Such messages did resonate with the public but the same government remained. A similar picture has played out in the UK with a divisive Conservative government easily holding onto power late last year despite mistakes at every turn. As for Robert Wyatt, he had no expectation of Shipbuilding when he recorded his vocals but his version remains the most loved. Wyatt retired from the music business in 2014 not wanting to outstay his welcome but his music lives on.
Favourite songs so far:
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun (1964)
Simon & Garfunkel – The Sounds of Silence (1965)
The Doors – The End (1967)
The Beatles – A Day in the Life (1967)
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell (1977)
Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now (1978)
The Police – Message in a Bottle (1979)
Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980)
Ultravox – Vienna (1980)