As a general rule of thumb the original version of a song is the best.

After all, the hard work has been done. The song has been written, produced, arranged and performed. Anything after that is like copying someone else’s homework and claiming it was all your idea.

Of course there are exceptions. Think of Pinky and Perky’s 1993 revival of Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite or Mike Flowers Pops’ take on the Oasis song Wonderwall. Ok, maybe not – but what about the Vanilla Fudge version of The Supreme’s chart topper You Keep Me Hanging On which stopped the Juke Box Jury (remember that legendary low budget programme?) panel in their tracks on a Saturday night and caused queues at record departments when the shops opened on the Monday.

And then there’s Shipbuilding which has three “this is the best version,” one “this isn’t too bad at all” and quite a few “well, at least they did their best with it” versions to its name.

Not bad for one of the most poignant and genuinely tear jerking moments in modern music.

It was written by Elvis Costello (lyrics) and Clive Langer (music) during the Falklands War of 1982 and manages to capture in its all too short running time the contradiction of the conflict bringing back prosperity to the traditional shipbuilding areas of Clydeside (Yarrow Shipbuilders),Merseyside (Cammell Laird),Nort East England (Swan Hunter) and Belfast (Harland and Wolff) building new ships to replace those being sunk in the war, whilst also sending off the sons of these areas to fight and, potentially, lose their lives in those same ships.

Lyrically it is honed to perfection. From the dilemma of such work buying “a new winter coat and shoes for the wife and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday” whilst at the same time echoing the World War One promise to young recruits: “dad they’re going to take me to task, but I will be back by Christmas.”

Work and war, life and death go hand in glove: “A telegram or a picture postcard. Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards and notifying the next of kin
once again.”

Ship builders and service people alike will be “diving for dear life” when they could be “diving for pearls.”

The best known version of the song is by the distinctively voiced former Soft Machine member Robert Wyatt.

According to Clive Langer, he had actually written the tune for Wyatt but wasn’t happy with his own words so played the tune to Costello at a party hosted by Nick Lowe, and within days the writer had produced what he described as “the best lyrics I’ve ever written.”

Wyatt liked it and his version was originally released as a single on Rough Trade records on 20 August 1982 (a few months after the Falklands War), but failed to chart. It was re-released on 22 April 1983 (on the anniversary of the conflict) when it reached number 35, marking the first ever UK Top 40 entry for Rough Trade.

Costello recorded his own version of the song for his 1983 album Punch the Clock, featuring a performance by jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.

Other versions have been released by Suede (for the Help charity album), Hue and Cry, Tasmin Archer  (whose version peaked at number 40 in 1994), Mark Mulcahy, Graham Coxon, Yael Naïm, Swan Arcade, June Tabor, The Unthanks, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Maura O’Connell, Passion Killers and The Bad Shepherds. 

So, about the best of those versions. Wyatt’s voice is uniquely suited to the song (remember he even made The Monkees’ I’m A Believer sound melancholic), Costello’s sneer always sound great – but it’s North East family folksters The Unthanks who beat everyone into a cocked hat.

Found on Songs from the Shipyards, Vol. 3 in their  Diversions series, it was released in November 2012. A studio-recorded album of songs from a soundtrack, compiled by the group, which was first performed at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Tyneside Cinema to accompany the showing of a documentary film by Richard Fenwick about the history of shipbuilding on the Tyne, Wear and Tees. 

In a four-starred review The Observer’s Neil Spencer described it as “a stark creation, using little more than piano, violin and voices” but said that its minimalism “lends poignancy to songs and poetry narrating the glory and grime of a vanished era”.

Or as the Costello lyrics say: “It’s all we’re skilled in. We will be shipbuilding with all the will in the world. Diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls.”

WRITERS: Elvis Costello and Clive Langer
PRODUCER: Elvis Costello, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley
GENRE: Folk Pop
ARTIST: Robert Wyatt
LABEL Rough Trade
RELEASED 20 August 1982
COVERS Elvis Costello