British Sea Power

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
Childhood MemoriesRough Trade RTRADESCD069
The Great SkuaDo You Like Rock Music?
A Lovely Day TomorrowRough Trade Bohemia RTRADSCD179
The South SoundMan Of Aran
ZeusZeus EP
A Wooden HorseGolden Chariot BSP 01
Like A HoneycombOpen Season
A Trip OutDo You Like Rock Music?
Cleaning Out The RoomsZeus EP
Spring Has SprungMachineries Of Joy

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Contributor: John Hartley

 

British Sea Power photo

British Sea Power (l to r): Martin Noble (guitar), Yan Scott Wilkinson (guitar, vocals), Neil Hamilton Wilkinson (bass, vocals), Matthew Wood (drums)

British Sea Power crashed into my life roughly about the same time that a red Honda automatic crashed into my living room. I say roughly; I can remember exactly when, just as I can remember the rear of the vehicle suddenly appearing through the side wall of my home just a dark, drizzly January evening before. It was probably a couple of weeks before I was in the right frame of mind to listen to the cassette posted to me from the beautiful North by an old school friend, but that C90 – long hailed as the killer of music – contained sounds by a band that would continue to entertain me from that day on.

It can prove to be quite challenging to describe British Sea Power in a way that accurately transmits their contradictory scope. They’re an indie rock band, in the wider sense of both terms, but they’ve just done a tour with full brass bands. Oh, and they’ve released instrumental soundtracks to a film or three. They talk of consuming illicit stimulants, but are equally invigorated by birds and wildlife. They sing of world wars, politics, apparent bestiality; but also namecheck skuas, a love of foliage, the wonder of the sky at night and the best tea they’ve ever had. I think The Quietus probably paid British Sea Power the highest compliment when they recently wrote that they are a band so unique that if they didn’t exist nobody would ever have thought to invent them.

With this as a backstory, it can be also therefore prove quite challenging to select the ten finest British Sea Power songs. Doubtless there will be readers who will question the inclusion of one, the exclusion of another and maybe wonderment that actually none of my selection would be in their Top 10. That is precisely what is great about British Sea Power, and this is my Top 10:

 

 

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES
This is the song that cemented my love affair with British Sea Power. It was the seventh track of nine on the tape that Mr. Postman posted through the letterbox of my hoarded up and evacuated home, but the one that stuck out most. “What happens if the radiation leaks? What happens if nobody knows for weeks?” Yan and Hamilton grew up in Kendal, not too far away from Sellafield and its nuclear plant. I grew up in south Lancashire but still amongst parental paranoia of leaks and the wind blowing in slightly the wrong direction. Maybe my close shave had brought my own memories of childhood flooding to my thoughts, or maybe it was just a bloody great song with a hook-laden guitar riff and a fever-pitched vocal culmination.

THE GREAT SKUA
Sometimes a band finds they have written a great piece of music but no lyrics seem to fit. Sometimes a band thinks it is just better off without a singer. They do crave attention, after all. Then sometimes a band finds that some of the music they have created speaks louder than any words could, and then they realise they are British Sea Power. They set their stall out early doors, as a football commentator would say; their first single for a record label contained three tracks, one of which was an instrumental entitled Birdy. Since then they have released instrumental soundtrack albums and continued to include standalone instrumental tracks on singles and albums. One of these is The Great Skua; the only song ever to bring tears to my eyes on the two separate occasions I have witnessed it performed live. As both sea bird and instrumental it beats Albatross hands down.

A LOVELY DAY TOMORROW
Telling the story of hope and optimistic defiance in the face of a fascist dictator, this track has been released in three different sung formats. In its original form the track was the B-side to British Sea Power’s Rough Trade debut single. It later manifested itself as the lead track on a limited single release which saw the band joined by little-known Czech folk act The Ecstasy Of Saint Theresa, jointly sponsored by the Czech brewery Budvar, and being promoted by a gig by the band at the Czech Embassy. A Czech-lyric version provided the B-side. It is the second of the three versions I rate highest, probably because of the dramatic pause at the end of the line “…and then the air goes quiet”. Writing about that pause does not do it justice however, and much as I love Hamilton’s breathy vocals, the sweet softness of the female singers on this version contrast even more with the lyrical theme of attempted murder.

 

 

THE SOUTH SOUND
A British Sea Power Top Ten wouldn’t be complete without a contribution from one of their soundtrack albums. The South Sound comes from the first of these, Man Of Aran. A classic Robert Flaherty silent black and white documentary from the 1930s, it was passed on to the band with the suggestion that they could write their own score for it, which they duly did. Not for the last time the band capture the majestic duplicity of the sea with apparent ease, and clocking in at over ten minutes long it is certainly a piece of music for which you get your money’s worth.

ZEUS
On first listen this could well be the fragmented ideas of about half a dozen songs all moulded into one. Given that the subject matter is the band’s trusty tour van, that might be quite metaphoric. The track could be memorable for name dropping Worzel Gummidge and Aunt Sally without a hint of irony, but even that is eclipsed by the opening lines apologising to Rick Stein about ignorance of his fame. After a few crunching gear changes and stalls at junctions, Zeus finally breaks into its stride as singer Yan asks, “What’s your maximu” and the lead guitar break flows like a downhill freewheeling exercise. I do not think it possible to accurately describe this song and do it justice: it is, just, Zeus.

A WOODEN HORSE
This track was one half of the band’s debut self-released single on their very own Golden Chariot label, and was influential in pricking the ears of Rough Trade. A newly recorded version brings The Decline Of British Sea Power – the band’s first album – to a close. What makes this song magic? Maybe it’s the Morse Code introduction. Maybe it’s the wobbling piano at the song’s culmination. Maybe it’s the lyrical dialect, “a token hare means nowt in the hills”. Maybe it’s the application of Greek history to more carnal matters. Listen and decide for yourself.

LIKE A HONEYCOMB
In the good old days, before Facebook and Twitter, band fans often relied on the website forums of their musical heroes for fact, gossip and general good humour. The British Sea Power forum was a vibrant community full of sharing caring individuals not averse to a little mischief. Like the celebrated day they hijacked the Razorlight forum en masse. Why am I telling you this? Because it was the forum that identified the precise points in this beautifully pastoral opus about the great British countryside at which a person unknown rings the studio doorbell to try and gain entry, before pressing increasingly furiously and frequently towards the end of the song.

 

 

A TRIP OUT
A good chunky rock song found on the band’s third album, Do You Like Rock Music?. Given the band’s own media confessions, the title could well refer to hallucinogenic experiences. In my blissful naivety however I still like to think it is a fitting ode to a pleasant day out. It’s probably about both: “No la dee da, no picnickers, just party party in a tweety land”. Upbeat, and easy to sing along to, A Trip Out was, along with The Great Skua, the highlight of the album for me.

CLEANING OUT THE ROOMS
Meanwhile, at the other end of the musical spectrum lies Cleaning Out The Rooms. Where A Trip Out is a lively romp, this track is a quite sedate affair, the sort of song that feels like a snuggle under a blanket as the rain lashes down outside. The outro of the track features a segment of the original piano demo recorded by Hamilton on the Isle of Skye. Apparently, if you listen carefully enough to the full demo (available on one of the band’s self-released bonus CDs) it is possible to hear the outside gale rattling the windows. There are not many bands who could get away with including the phrase “get the vacuum” in a song, and I can’t help but imagine Hamilton frantically trying to tidy the house before a visit from his mother, although it could be about colonic irrigation or something for all I know.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG
Last but not least in this Toppermost 10, which is written in no particular order, is this track from British Sea Power’s most recent studio album, Machineries Of Joy. The track encapsulates all that is great about the band. The sounds of wildlife peppering the instrumentation, a natural lyrical theme, a gentle meandering guitar introduction supporting lyrics describing a picturesque scene involving “golden gush cockerel crow” and “skipping and playing in the mud” before it all takes a much nastier turn – both musically and lyrically – as “you come up, dripping blood … better run before evil days come”. And, as a hunter capturing its prey, the song climaxes rather abruptly leaving the listener to wonder if what really just happened happened.

These are just ten songs from many. Ask me again next month and it could be a different selection. Give these a listen though. If you like them, delve deeper. If you don’t, delve deeper anyway: there is a great variety in the body of work.

 

 

British Sea Power official site

British Sea Power biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

TopperPost #459

3 Comments

  1. Esther
    Jul 19, 2015

    This was a joy to read! Your second paragraph describing BSP is exactly why I love them. I tend to favor Hamilton’s songwriting and OS is still my favorite album, but I’m happy to see Cleaning Out The Rooms on your list. I’d add Mongk II, but like you, it’s likely to change weekly. I’m lucky to have seen them twice in my corner of the world. Sorry about your crash!

  2. Peter Viney
    Jul 23, 2015

    I wanted to mention Victorian Ice, but it turns out my CD of “Open Season” won’t play at all. Still, it’s on YouTube.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 24, 2015

    The Decline… is one of my favourite debut albums ever, and as I said over at my blog, this band have the originality and therefore the longevity that other like bands who popped up ten or twelve years ago haven’t.

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