"Shipbuilding" by Elvis Costello

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Written by Elvis Costello & Clive Langer (1983)
Performed by Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Music

In 1982, British producer Clive Langer was working on a song to pitch to singer Robert Wyatt. Inspired by Wyatt’s take on Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit,” Langer wrote a moody, minor key melody. Stuck for suitable words to his tune, Langer played it for his friend Elvis Costello. Within a few days, Costello had written a poetic and emotional lyric about the Falklands War.

Costello has said that he came at the song from the perspective of workers in British naval yards during the build-up to the war. The early 80s was an economically depressed time for Britain and the idea was that, while people in small harbor towns would be glad for new shipbuilding jobs, it was all at the expense of the boys who were being sent off to die in battle.

Robert Wyatt recorded the song in 1982, but Costello’s version, released a year later on his Punch The Clock album, is better-known. Costello’s “Shipbuilding” is also remarkable for being one of the last recorded performances by legendary jazz trumpet player Chet Baker.

The History

At the height of its imperialist reach, the British Empire controlled India, Australia, several African countries, and over a dozen islands around the world. Hence the old expression, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

But by the early 1980s, there were only a few territories left that hadn’t fought and gained their independence from the British. The Falklands was one of them. A tiny collection of islands off the coast of Argentina, with a population of just under 3000, the Falklands had been under British rule since 1833.

But in the second half of the 20th century, Argentina made a claim on the Falklands. There were a few failed incursions in the 1960s and 70s. Then, in early 1982, President Leopold Galtieri, the head of Argentina’s new ruling military junta, started beating the drums of war. Newspaper articles spelled out a plan of attack. Galtieri gave speeches to stoke patriotic fervor. And on April 2, 1982, he sent troops to the Falklands. As with many declarations of war, this one was designed to whip up national pride while drawing attention away from serious domestic issues—in this case, human rights and economic problems.

Within two days, the Argentine army had overpowered a small troop of British Royal Marines and seized the Falklands capital of Port Stanley.

The British Response

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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried diplomatic pressure on Argentina, but when that failed, she ordered a naval task force to take the islands back. Led by aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible at sea, with Sea Harrier fighter planes providing cover from the air, the British army moved into the Falklands in mid-April.

The war lasted about two months. It wasn’t much of a contest. After the British sank an Argentine submarine and a light cruiser, the Argentine fleet remained in port for the duration of the war. And because the runway at Port Stanley was too short for modern fighter planes, the Argentine air force had to fly from the mainland, which put them at a disadvantage.

As the British advanced onto land, their troops outmaneuvered the Argentine commandos, defeating them in several key towns. By mid-June, British forces had the islands blockaded at sea and encircled on land. Attacks on Port Stanley lasted a week before the Argentine army surrendered.

In the war, Britain suffered 258 dead and 777 wounded. Argentina lost 649 and had 1068 wounded.

Though the Falkland Islands remain under British control, a recent open letter from Argentinian President Cristina de Kirchner to British Prime Minister David Cameron stirred trouble, calling for the islands to be returned. The British have rejected the idea of any negotiation, saying the Falkland Islanders have chosen to be British. Their statement said, “There are three parties to this debate, not just two as Argentina likes to pretend. The Islanders can’t just be written out of history.”

The Islanders will hold a referendum in March 2013 to determine their political status.