Wednesday, May 14, 2014

UK Indie Hits: 1980-89 (No. 14)

I'm counting down my top 50 singles from the golden age of the UK Independent Charts.

14. Robert Wyatt - "Shipbuilding"

Other Contenders: There were many hits, but this was the only song I considered.

Chart Entry: Oct. 9, 1982

Peak Position: No. 1

Comment: I heard Elvis Costello's version first, right when 'Punch the Clock' came out, and I thought it was wonderful. I was especially enamored with the appearance of Chet Baker on trumpet because I was really into him at the time. Not too much later I caught up with the Wyatt take (released nearly a year earlier), and I couldn't really ever listen to E.C.'s version again. Interestingly, to this lad's ears, the song's subject matter didn't really hit home until I heard Wyatt sing it.

Wyatt's delivery gets me a little misty, and the overall atmosphere has an organic feel that's missing from the slick Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley production on 'Punch the Clock.' Still, we have to thank this team for Wyatt's version. Costello considers this "the best lyrics I've ever written," and Langer composed the music. Costello and bandmate Steve Nieve both contributed their talents (uncredited, however) to Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" and, humorlessly, this was called "A Clangwinstello Production" on the label.

There were four different sleeves, and all of the art was taken from sections of the brilliant eight-panel painting "Shipbuilding on the Clyde" by Stanley Spencer. The 7" version I own has the cover seen above, and that's the one I see most often in secondhand record shops.

Buy "Shipbuilding" on 'EPs' (5xCD).


Echorich said...

I love this track and it deserves it place in the countdown. But for me Robert Wyatt's most impressive moment came when he recorded Chic's At Last I Am Free in 1980 for Rough Trade. I first heard it on the Rough Trade US compilation Wanna Buy A Bridge. I could listen to this song over and over and hours would go by.
As a related aside, Wanna Buy A Bridge is probably my favorite label compilation of all time. Slits, Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, Delta 5, Scritti Politti, Young Marble Giants...and that's not even half of the acts.

Brian said...

At Last I Am Free is eligible for this list as it peaked at No. 18 in, as you said, 1980. Inspired choice on your part. As for Wanna Buy a Bridge, I think this deserves a nice long post when my countdown is over. Thanks for the inspiration.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dirk said...

Mind you, I never understood why this record is always mentioned when it comes to "Indie". Wyatt back then could easily have been classified as nothing else but a clapped out old hippie, if you're honest to yourself. What he wasn't, because he wrote this great song.

Nevertheless, at least in my eyes, this doesn't make it (or him, if you'd rather) "indie", at least not in comparison to what I understood to be "indie" back in 1982 ...

Brian said...

Yes, Wyatt wasn't the typical '80s indie act, but the only criteria for charting was based on sales and the complete independence of the label. Wyatt had several hits during his time on Rough Trade. There were quite a few examples of acts that found themselves on the UK Independent Chart during the decade that wouldn't fit your tight definition of indie. Here are just a few:
Robert Cray
Mel Brooks (for Good to Be the King Rap)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Julie London
Kylie Minogue
Nuclear Assault
Queen (Live at the Beeb)
Richard Thompson
That's what I have to defend the pick. Hopefully that makes you feel better about a protest song penned by Langer/Costello and sung by a "clapped out old hippie."

Séamus Duggan said...

One of my all time favourite singles, forget indie labels. Better than the Costello version and considering how much I love the Costello of that era that's some achievement. Had forgotten At Last I am free. Thanks Echorich!