“This Band To Live For” Misunderstandings Of British Sea Power

British Sea Power tome Do It For Your Mum is one of the best books about rock and family you'll read. Its author Roy Wilkinson gives an update on the group and their parents, and attempts to put right some of the many misconceptions about the group

Roy Wilkinson’s 2011 book Do It For Your Mum featured many things beyond his young brothers in British Sea Power. Most of all there was the Wilkinson brethren’s eightysomething father Ronald, a World War Two anti-aircraft gunner reborn as an octogenarian fan of indie-rock, from the Butthole Surfers to all things BSP. Here, as Do It For Your Mum is published as an e-book, the book’s author (and BSP’s former manager) gives an update on what this peculiar family firm has been up to in the meantime.

Rough Trade Books published my rock / family / forestry narrative Do It For Your Mum – their first book, my first book. Unbelievably, The Guardian, in their Xmas books-of-the-year round-up, called it, "The year’s finest memoir." What were was all the other memoirs like? Did Alan Bennett or The Fightin’ Roy Keane have anything out? Since then a fair bit has happened in the world of British Sea Power. The usual really – a gig at the CERN atom-research labs, another beneath the hull of the Cutty Sark, and a bit of busking atop the Great Wall of China. There have been songs about American rocket pioneers and the indigenous peoples of Greenland. Lyrics from the BSP song ‘Carrion’ were installed in big sculptured lettering on the wall of London’s National Maritime Museum, as a permanent fixture alongside lines from Coleridge and Shakespeare.

But before considering what BSP have been up to and how our dad, now 90, continues to ask for updates on Pere Ubu and Einstürzende Neubauten while remaining BSP’s most wild-eyed acolyte… Before that, a question: British Sea Power, a band more rooted in urban deprivation than Happy Mondays? On their 2011 album Valhalla Dancehall BSP have a song called ‘Living Is So Easy’, which mentions the Dame Vera Lynn Celebrity Clay Pigeon Shoot and also "HLM". The latter (pronounced ash-el-em) is Habitation à Loyer Modéré – French social housing, including the tower blocks and sometimes troubled banlieues of the urban fringes. To a passing observer such rock commentary might have a certain ethnographic aspect – student types singing about the poor; singing of which they know nothing. But not in this case. BSP – or at least my two brothers – have some familiarity with blighted estates, with the bracing swathes of council housing on the western edge of Carlisle in Cumbria.

I’m currently reading Simon Spence’s fascinating new Happy Mondays biography. In the book Spence contradicts the idea that Shaun and Paul Ryder grew up in skip fed only on spam, Monster Munch and temazepam. Clearly the Ryders weren’t going to the same schools as, say, Tony Wilson. But their dad Derek was a hard worker who bought a tidy family home in the mild-mannered Salford suburb of Worsley. Today Worsley is being considered as a possible World Heritage Site. Ryder senior also had surprising showbiz connections. Alongside his job as a postman he was part of a musical/comedy double act playing around the UK. He contributed to scripts for The Two Ronnies and the family went on holiday in four-star hotels in Bournemouth.

Probably best to not get too much into a battle of the built environments – Top Trumps: Britain’s Roughest Estates. But our Carlisle council estate could be pretty tough terrain. Last time I saw this place was about 15 years ago. There were broken, rusting kids’ roundabouts and boarded-up houses – giving that enticing suggestion of Londonderry circa 1977. In actual 1977 me and my pals would roam the estate and the surrounding countryside. There was petty vandalism. Chickens stolen from local farms, giving them an exciting new free-range existence in our back gardens. We were preoccupied by a particular grail-quest: a nail gun we could nick from local building sites. Maybe we weren’t listening to quite as interesting a musical brew as the Ryders (whom pals, relatives and the TV introduced to anything from Bowie to U Roy to Motown). But what did we care – we were obsessed by Queen’s A Night At The Opera album, a fascination augmented by crazed Dansette singalongs to Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ single and the Sex Pistols’ ‘Holidays In The Sun’.

At about 13 me and my pals, lucky lads, moved on to mass snogging jamborees with a gang of three local girls. These were invigorating pass-the-parcel-style slurp-ins, boy to girl to girl etc. There was no carnality beyond that for us lads. The girls, however, moved on. One of them, plus another female accomplice, told us how they’d whacked off 15-year-old hard-case Baz Robber in a garage (some names have been changed here, but only slightly). One of the girls matter-of-factly told us, "What should have come out would have gone in a thimble, but you would’ve needed a bucket…" So, that was the 13-year-old girls. We would see dads fighting in the street in daytime. It was horrible, sickening, to see a friend’s dad getting socked by another adult. But it wasn’t all bad. There were cheap treats unbound. One family, where the adults worked at the big Carrs Biscuits factory, would openly sell liberated stock from their front door. Knock, knock and p-p-p-pick up some Penguin biscuits, practically FOC.

This was the environment, circa 1980, that my youngest brothers were born into – future BSP singers Yan and Hamilton. Eventually Dad got a star transfer to a rural council house just outside Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District (having six kids helped in this kind of rooms-for-the-masses lottery). Emboldened by both Carlisle urban grunk and rolling Lake District wonder – and abetted by my record collection, including Bowie and U Roy, plus Queen – my brothers began formulating a rock scheme of impressive scope. Perhaps this varied background has allowed BSP to maintain their non-sliced-white agenda. As I write, the band have been touring the UK playing big venues accompanied by 25-piece, competition-standard brass bands. There are music stands and a score – quavers and all, created by Peter Wraight who has arranged selections from BSP’s five-album, three-soundtrack back catalogue.

What I’m attempting to get over here is a suggestion that BSP are a sometimes misunderstood band. On the one hand it would really be churlish to complain. The vast majority of UK print media have consistently celebrated the band. BSP’s celebrity fanbase now includes Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. Peter Capaldi came to see a recent BSP show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and sent the band the below drawing by way of thanks. Daniel Radcliffe has talked in some detail about his plan to get a BSP tattoo (featuring the 2002 BSP T-shirt slogan ‘Bravery Already Exists’). We also have it on good authority that Benedict Cumberbatch is partial to a bit of BSP. But, on the other hand, many people are constrained by a few BSP clichés: nice bookish types / post-punk journeymen / history-obsessed, bird-watching rockers in military uniforms. A slight modulation on the latter will feature in 80 per cent of off-the-peg BSP reviews and previews. Admittedly the band did once feature a British Army tin helmet, circa 2002-04. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing etc. In light of all this the band seriously considered calling their fourth album Now That’s What I Call World War One Joy Division…

There was one reporter who had a particularly mad take on BSP. Writing in a leading UK newspaper they made the 2008 BSP album Do You Like Rock Music? the Turkey Of The Year – the worst album of the whole past 12 months. This reporter often wrote things along the lines of "BSP are clearly virgins… they have to been in bed by 10pm… and are obviously massive fans of Philip Pullman." WTF? Philip Pullman may be well be great, but they are essentially kids’ books. My daughter used to read them. BSP may read many things, but they don’t read kids’ books. The closest I recall is viola player Abi buying some Moomins sticking plasters in Finland. As for the rock virgin-soldiers aspect… In the early 21st century my brother Hamilton and the glorious BSP marching-drum nutter Eamon cut a pretty amazing trajectory of wacky amour across Europe, the Americas and Asia. It’s a history at odds with notions of frightened chastity. Eamon conducted a particularly vivid tryst with a female member of a US rock quartet – enacted over two days at Reading and Leeds festivals on the dodgems, waltzer and big wheel. For anyone who has observed BSP at close quarters accusations of goody-two-shoe-ism will make little sense. 

Until recently, BSP tours were often awash with blood and booze. Unhinged stage callisthenics meant crutches were a regular part of the touring set-up. One night keyboardist / cornet player Phil Sumner ended up with a face full of stitches and some replacement false teeth. He’d leapt from a concert PA stack, cornet in mouth. At the time Kevin Keegan had been reinstated as Newcastle United manager. In tribute Phil had decided to paint his face in black and white stripes, and also cover his clothes in stripes of black gaffer tape. The blood-soaked Geordie zebra made for an interesting spectacle at A&E. When BSP supported the Manic Street Preachers on tour their frontman James Dean Bradfield seemed amazed and delighted at BSP’s booze intake. At the second show James turned up with a present, a massive box of beer and whisky. At Brixton Academy he raised a salute on stage: "Thanks to British Sea Power, one of Britain’s best drinking bands…"

To date BSP have only physically intersected with the Mondays fleetingly. At Glastonbury circa 2006 BSP were preceded by a low-ebb Shaun Ryder, on an off-piste stage celebrating old-school socialism. At this point Shaun was looking bloated and bleary, like one of the Sontarans off Doctor Who. He didn’t seem to be able to access any of his own wonderful lyrics – even with the assistance of an auto-cue machine. BSP once had more substantial interface with Ryder’s great Madchester peer Ian Brown. In 2005 Badly Drawn Boy invited BSP to play at the Eden Project in Cornwall. The bill was BSP, Brownie, Badly Drawn Boy. By the time Brown took the stage BSP’s Martin and Yan were well Tango-ed. Advanced dietary supplements rendered the world vivid and full of suggestion. 

The BSP pair decided they wanted to pay loving public tribute to Brownie. They’d stripped down to long johns and knocked up a couple of pro-Brown placards: BROWN LOVE! KING MONKEY LIVES! During Ian’s set they ran on to the stage from the wings. They briefly flourished their placards and then attempted to stage-dive into the crowd. It was all meant as joyous – albeit mind-mangled – celebration. Yan made it into the crowd, but Martin slumped down into the pit area. An irate Brown stagehand attempted to throw Martin off the site, clearly oblivious to the BSP man’s Greater Mancunian origins and his legendary collection of autographed Ryan Giggs Volkswagen GTI sun-strips. After his set Brown threatened BSP’s Hamilton (who was oblivious to the placard fun-spot). But Brown’s warning that martial arts were about to be deployed dissolved when Hamilton responded with confused laughter. The BSP tour manager had to trawl long and hard across the Eden site to find wandering BSP frontman Yan. Suffice to say Yan was out long after 10pm that night. 

As Ian Brown famously advised us all, it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. Clearly the rural Cumbrian idyll that occupied the majority of my young brothers’ youth is a long way from the urban Mancunian action that Happy Mondays increasingly became part of (Bez’s father may well have been a detective inspector for Manchester CID and also head of security at Manchester Airport. But, then again, he did once find himself arresting Bez at the very same airport…)

Where British Sea Power are now, in 2014, seems an interesting if slightly frustrating place. Former BSP support bands including The Killers and Feist have massively outstripped BSP commercially. But BSP now have a longer association with Rough Trade Records than any other artist. The band’s most recent release with Rough Trade was their soundtrack from the film From The Sea To The Land Beyond. This poetic, impressionistic 73-minute documentary was compiled from a century’s worth of maritime footage from around the British Isles. Meanwhile, BSP’s tour with brass bands has been exhilarating. 

Dad is now 90 and Mum 80, so our parents don’t get to see BSP as often as they once did. But they did come to the recent night at Gateshead Sage in Northumbria – with BSP up on the big stage alongside the massed metalwork of teachers’ union ensemble the NASUWT Riverside Brass Band. Dad grew up in Sunderland just down the coast. Before the show he wandered the backstage area, offering repeated pep talks to the BSP party. He also asked the brass band what they reckoned to The Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band – the Yorkshire brass band who appeared on Top Of The Pops in 1981, accompanying Tony Capstick on his number-three novelty smash ‘The Sheffield Grinder / Capstick Comes Home’. The next day our parents was tired but happy. "It makes it worth sticking around," said Dad. "We’re lucky – we’re lucky to have this band to live for…"

It’s a delight to see the infusion that our parents still get from BSP. But there’s also a wider BSP community. Among the audience at Gateshead Sage were some BSP regulars from the great north-eastern massive. Until recently Deborah Atkinson, along with husband Michael, oversaw a herd of Holstein-Friesian cows, which roamed the hills just outside Kendal. But Deborah is from North Shields – adjacent to the place where she witnessed her first ever concert, Newcastle City Hall, where she saw Roxy Music in 1979. Mark Elliott lives on Tyneside and, as he says, has had more occupations than Mr Benn: butcher, taxi-driver, milkman, oil-rig worker, driving-instructor for forklift trucks… Mark’s first ever concert was T-Rex, supported by The Damned, also at Newcastle City Hall, in 1977. It feels hugely encouraging that people with such interesting musical perspective now spend their time and money coming to see British Sea Power

Sometimes British Sea Power seem like a kind of secret society, a hanging mist of ideas and associations existing slightly parallel to the rest of the world. I sometimes go birdwatching in Northumbria with Mark. On a couple of occasions I’ve stayed with Deborah and Michael at their farm. For me BSP have been a portal to people and places. This summer I was invited to a remarkable wedding in Bavaria. This splicing involved a woman from Blackpool, Den (Denise) Farnworth, and a man from rural Bavaria, Mikey Breyer, who, as it happens, used to be the drummer with Art Brut. Without British Sea Power I would never have known Den. Without British Sea Power I would never have been to a wedding in Bavaria. Numerous other connections and felicities shimmer and scintillate among the BSP audience – little things things that build into something bigger. This discreet constellation of connectedness is out there somewhere, deep in a corner of the cosmos, glowing largely undetected, but glowing nonetheless.

While writing this – and checking how to spell Habitation à Loyer Modéré – I came across some Wikipedia content on the subject. There was information on French hip hop artists: "Rohff is known for his songs portraying life in the HLMs. The Tryo hit ‘L’Hymne De Nos Campagnes’ begins: ‘Si tu es né dans une cité HLM…’" The Wikipedia entry goes on: "British Sea Power also references HLMs in their song ‘Living Is So Easy’." Ah, an interesting context, and one also perhaps ripe for misapprehension. But, to some degree at least, these kind of places really are where British Sea Power come from. And on they go, still here, still, as another BSP T-shirt slogan once had it, "Exceeding the national average."

The book Do It For Your Mum is available as e-book here. Details on British Sea Power’s Sea Of Brass dates can be seen here

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