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Elegiac Stanzas: Literary references in British Sea Power’s early discography

I’m a big fan of the local library
I just read a book
But that’s another story

So declares Yan Wilkinson in Who’s In Control, the first song on British Sea Power’s fourth album, Valhalla Dancehall. And as the very name of that album suggests, British Sea Power are a band more than comfortable with a literary reference. In fact, from just classical mythology alone they’ve drawn upon Zeus, Hercules, and the Trojan War. Listening to British Sea Power, isn’t just listening to music, it’s an education in the arts. Like reading a truly great book, it’s fun on its own, but when you dig into what it’s drawing on, you get something truly meaningful.

One of the reasons I love BSP, and maybe the reason they get a bit overlooked, is that they pick unusual things to sing about. When most bands are singing about love and relationships, BSP have sung about the history of artificial illumination, the smallest church in Sussex, and the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. You know, standard fare. And throughout these explorations, they pepper eclectic references. And if GCSE English taught me anything it’s that lots of references = very good. Or at least, it makes the songs richer than your standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus affair.

Which brings us to this. For years I’ve wondered about collecting the references I’d unearthed. And finally, I’ve actually got round to doing it. I’m focussing on the first album – The Decline of British Sea Power – mostly because I know it best, but also because I think it has the highest density of these references. And I’m grateful to various contributors across the internet for helping me to fill in the blanks on some of this, especially the folks at SongMeanings.net, the Salty Water BSP fan site, and the stark-raving mad bunch on the BSP forum.

TDOBSP is also a masterpiece of an album from start to finish, musically as well as lyrically. It’s broadly about…. remembrance?  At least, that’s my interpretation. As the quote on the front of the album says (from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey): “We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead.

The album cover of The Decline of British Sea Power

Angular guitar riffs meet Russian literature

The album opens with forty two seconds of gregorian chanting. Because why not. But after that, the first line – spoken, not sung – is:  “Oh Fyodor you are the most attractive man”. Oh hello, Russian author FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, on this nondescript 2003 indie rock release, what are you doing here? The song is Apologies to Insect Life, and the song supposedly draws inspiration from Dostoyevksy’s Notes from Underground – but I don’t know enough about to get the specific references.

It’s a Pixies-inspired clangy anthem that builds with frenetic energy that spills over to the next song Favours in the Beetroot Fields, supposedly an oblique reference to the dispensation Field Marshall Montgomery gave his troops to seek ‘favours’ while stationed out on the front.

BSP & Betjeman

The title of Favours in the Beetroot Fields partially echoes The Licorice Fields at Pontefract, by former poet laureate John Betjeman. Is it a deliberate reference? Possibly not. But we know it’s at least knocking around in the BSP subconscious from their appearance in the BBC documentary Betjeman & Me, in which they perform a reading of Pontefract and discuss Betjeman’s penchant for larger ladies.

Betjeman’s roots spread throughout BSP’s work, but more in tone than outright content. Betjeman’s playful poking at sensibilities pops up in a lot of BSP lyrics. And I have a strong suspicion that the song Lucky Bicycle (which you’ll be lucky to find anywhere) is a reference to the line from Myfanwy. where the poet writes of how his beloved rides around the city on a bike and he cheekily declares: trace me your wheel-tracks, you fortunate bicycle!

Shakespeare and sci-fi

The fourth song on the album, Something Wicked, is probably the best example of the album’s themes. It compares and contrasts various symbols of nature that have been co-opted by mankind for military purposes (the Oak Leak Cluster as military award, the use of camouflage) concluding that “your works of nature are unnatural”. The title is an almost-too-obvious reference to the witches of Macbeth, who foretell the bloody events to come in their warning to the king-to-be.

Something Wicked features some of my favourite lyrics on the album, with a couple of my favourite lines being:

And the lake was clear as crystal
The best tea I’ve ever had

There’s no such thing as a filler lyrics for BSP, and I choose to believe that these two lines are a reference to The Shining Levels by John Wyatt – a book about a man who ends up living in isolation in the Lake District (the shining levels of the title being the lakes themselves). That BSP apparently almost named their album after the book is also a strong indication. A highlight of the book is when the protagonist adopts an injured baby deer and nurses it to back to health. The same little lost roe deer from No Lucifer from their third album? Probably!

But as well as the Shakespearean allusions, Something Wicked could also be a reference to Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Again, we know that BSP are fans. Their song Georgie Ray off Valhalla Dancehall, is loosely based on Bradbury – as well as George Orwell – and their fifth studio album Machineries of Joy is the namesake of a collection of Bradbury’s short stories.

The idea of British Sea Power being science fiction fans may seem odd, so let’s acknowledge that. So far we’ve brought up mythology, Shakespeare, poets, and nature – none of which suggest an interest in either science or fiction, particularly. But there’s an interesting link here, which gives some more context to other parts of The Decline Of…

Remembering Geoff Goddard & Joe Meek

At university, BSP were friends with a chap named Geoff Goddard. Despite working in the catering department at the University of Reading, Goddard had a celebrated past in the music industry, working with artists like The Tornados and Heinz. Most notably he worked with the producer Joe Meek. Meek’s album I Hear A New World is one of the most incredible (viz. weird) half hours of music you’ll ever listen to, and has been cited by BSP as an influence on their own work. And together, Goddard and Meek created hits like the chart-topping Telstar and Johnny Remember Me. So is it any surprise, then, that the fifth track on TDOBSP is called, simply, Remember Me?

Before moving on, take a moment to appreciate the video BSP made for Remember Me, where they bring to life iconic London statues to belt out the most anthemic track off the record.

The Lonely & Larkin

The seventh song on TDOBSP – The Lonely – might also be the saddest. Hauntingly beautiful, it paints a picture of isolation, of long evenings spent hunched over a keyboard playing music. Just look at how beautiful the chorus is:

I’ll drink all day and play by night
Upon my Casio electric piano
‘Til in the darkness I see lights
But not candelabra
But things from other stars

Oh, did I mention that the song is about the late Geoff Goddard? Yup! It’s a tribute song to the friend-of-the-band, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching. As a portrait of a genuine person by someone who deeply admires and respects them, it’s deeply moving and genuinely poetic.

And there’s a touch of another poet at work here. Compare Philip Larkin’s Aubade:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:

It’s not so much a paraphrasing as an out-and-out reworking of Larkin’s original. But it’s far from plagiarism. BSP use reference as the basis for originality, not as a substitute. And I like the idea that BSP are Larkin fans. There’s something a bit punk about Larkin and the idea of a bunch of angry young men studying his works and then blasting them out on stage seems fitting.

See also “it deepens like a coastal shelf” as Larkin’s description of misery in This Be The Verse. I think Larkin was talking about the shallow portion of a continent that is submerged underwater (thanks Wikipedia), but I can hear it ring in Oh Larsen B, from BSP’s second album, an ode to Yan’s “favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf”. (A song about the collapse of the Larsen-B ice shelf, of course).

Now That’s What I Call World War One Joy Division

We need to talk about Carrion, the 8th song on TDOBSP, and my favourite British Sea Power song of all time. I think it’s about a shipwreck, judging by some of the lyrics and the fact that the British Maritime Museum had some of the lyrics up on a wall for a bit. It name checks Scapa Flow and Rotherhithe, has a bit about the devil in it, and the refrain is about hair pomade. So basically a perfect song.

As well as being a piece of poetry in itself, I think Carrion has some interesting war poetry allusions in it. In early live shows, the song was preceded by clips of the classic war film A Matter of Life and Death or the audio of “Returning, we Hear the Larks” by Isaac Rosenberg. There used to be a great clip of this on Youtube but I’m having real trouble finding it – if anyone out there has it I’d be truly thankful!

Returning to the text itself, as it were, the line “Can stone and steel and horse’s heels / Ever explain the way you feel?” seems to me to be a TS Elliot reference. His Triumphal March is an inventory of the instruments of war, beginning with “Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels”. Oh, and there’s those oakleaves again from Something Wicked.

Do you like my historic rock?

Let’s march on to the end of the album then. At just under 14 minutes, Lately is the climax of the album. The lyrics require close interrogation, and a lot of it I can’t place at all. The song breaks down both lyrically and musically to the end, with Yan just screaming variations of the same line:

Do you like my megalithic rock?
Do you like my prehistoric rock?
Do you like my teutonic rock?
Do you like my priapic rock?
Do you like my neolithic rock?
Do you like my sterile rock?
Do you like my megalithic rock?

We’d see this again in the title of their third album – Do You Like Rock Music? But the song begins a lot more sedately:

Lately, you seem like another language
Are you in trouble,
Are you in trouble again?
And you know how they say,
The past, it is a foreign country
How can we go there,
How can we go where we once went?

Very typical BSP; themes of memory and isolation. And of course “the past is a foreign country” is a quote by LP Hartley which in full reads: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But it’s interesting that BSP would explicitly call this out as a reference (“you know how they say…”). Reference itself as a form of remembrance.

I really like this verse too:

Replacing Hercules, with the heroic sounds of Formby
Remove the tunics touch, stood aside from the putsch,
Stood aside from history

There’s the Greek mythology, with the heroic athleticism of Hercules ironically displaced by the saucy northern entertainer George Formby. Then there’s a bit I assume is a Hitler reference with the Putsch.

But BSP could never stand aside from history. They’re too obsessed by it. The ringing from ten minutes of guitar feedback has barely dissipated when the final song of the album begins. A Wooden Horse may be the closest that BSP come on the record to writing a traditional love song. “When wooden horses were in use / I would have built one / And left it for you” sings Yan. But even this sentiment is framed within the context of Greek mythology and history. They just can’t help themselves.


Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Just because BSP have written an album densely packed with literary references, both oblique and obvious, does that alone make it any good? Well, of course not. Other bands have drawn upon history and literature in their music; The Decemberists deserve an honourable mention here for being particular great.

But the way that BSP have done it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen any band do. And it’s not just the scale of it, or the way it’s made me obsessively crawl over every word, and spend hours researching this essay over an entire Easter bank holiday weekend.

What makes the album great is the way that these references reinforce the theme. As we’ve said, this is an album about remembrance, of looking back and appreciating. The album is called ‘The Decline Of…’ for a reason. We look back with fondness at things in the past, but we also displace the old with the new. We reject old myths for the modern, we reject the natural for the mechanical, we forget people and things.

In referencing the obscure and the forgotten, BSP make us remember. Geoff Goddard died in 2000 but he lives on in the music he left behind, and in our remembering him through BSP’s music.

Returning back to the quote that adorns the cover of the album..

We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead