Confined to a wheelchair following an accident in 1973, former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt made for an unlikely candidate as a protest singer: when he was first approached by Madness producer Clive Langer with a song written by Elvis Costello he claims his first reaction was “What makes them think I can do this?”
On the surface Shipbuilding was the antithesis of a rabble rouser, Wyatt’s vocals thin and occasionally sounding stretched to breaking point, the naked piano and brushed drums seeming almost scared to be there. There were no slogans there, no polemical jabs at politicians or Generals, just the quiet resignation and profound sorrow of loss during war, a grief usually borne by women with all the dignity they can muster.
On first hearing Wyatt’s take Langer has revealed he was moved to tears. Shipbuilding is an anti-war song in the grandest sense, with it’s roots deep in the desolate reality far away from any front line, real or imaginary. That it is still so relevant today is testimony to man’s ignorance, and society’s inability to use democracy to keep those addicted to conflict from power.