The cover Elvis Costello believes surpasses his original version: “Mine is the cover”

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Cover songs can be tricky for musicians to master. What might start out as a noble homage or well-intended reimagining can often come across as an uninspired cash grab or an outright embarrassment. For all the terrible cover songs that exist in the world, however, there are a select few that—shock horror—might even surpass the original versions. One such instance occurred when art rock pioneer Robert Wyatt decided to take on Elvis Costello

Costello is certainly no stranger to the world of cover songs. Rising to prominence in the wake of the punk generation, the young songwriter even spent time doing production work for groups like The Specials, whose revolutionary 2 Tone sound featured various covers of old-school ska classics. Conversely, within his own material, Costello placed a vital importance on profound lyricism and political activism – hardly the kind of music you’re likely to belt out at a karaoke session.

The songwriter achieved his magnum opus in 1982 with the release of the stunningly uncompromising single ‘Shipbuilding’. Telling the story of communities rejoicing at the return of shipbuilding to their towns, only to find out that it is as a result of war, ‘Shipbuilding’ was Costello’s defiant protest against the regressive policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government, particularly her decision to lead Britain into a violent war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Costello’s song reflected a growing number of people disenfranchised by the Conservative government and the conflict in the Falklands. 

While it was Costello who provided these hard-hitting lyrics, the musical track was actually written by producer Clive Langer, intended to be sung by Robert Wyatt. Having helped to establish the Canterbury sound during the 1960s with his group Soft Machine, Wyatt is perhaps most notable for his celebrated solo career, which began in 1973 following an accident which left him confined to a wheelchair. Despite his clear musical excellence, Wyatt could not seem to find the lyrics to fit the tune that Langer had provided. 

So, it fell to the hands of Elvis Costello to write the ‘Shipbuilding’ we all know and love today. Following his recording of the song, Wyatt recorded his version with the full backing of Costello, who featured on vocals. Upon its re-release in 1983, the version went on to reach number 35 in the UK singles chart.

Wyatt’s version is often viewed as the definitive version of the song, not least by Costello himself, who once argued, “Robert’s is the original and mine is the cover, because it was written for Robert to sing”. His decision to hand over his greatest lyrical composition to another singer is a great encapsulation of Costello’s character in general; he was not concerned with commercial success or ego, he just wanted his lyrics to be heard.

Aside from Robert Wyatt’s version of ‘Shipbuilding’, Costello has been the subject of various other cover versions throughout his career. “Oddly enough,” he shared to The Guardian, “my most covered music is The Juliet Letters. There’s an incredible Polish cabaret version, a piano version, string quartets, all sorts”. Costello’s 1993 album might seem an odd choice for artists to cover, but none of them could hold a candle to Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’.

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