I first became aware of Brighton-based band British Sea Power in 2004 whilst working on an essay about the type of masculinity constructed in particular men’s magazines for my Rhetoric of Gender class. In the #9 issue of Upstreet: A Lifestyle for Men, I stumbled across an article called “Spirit of British Sea Power” wedged between articles on Robert Wyatt and on the electro-ethnic trend, along with fashion ads dripping in sultry, vacant androgynes. I suspect that the crucial paragraph that intrigued me in the BSP story described how the band arranged meetings with journalists by using ordinance survey coordinates and could range from Charles Lindbergh to Iggy Pop in conversation. It was also rather apparent that they didn’t take themselves terribly seriously, cultivating a sense of irony and surrealism. These ideas hooked me, and eventually led me to purchase their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, and of course, the next four. And, naturally, I had to buy a BSP t-shirt that has “Heron Addict” emblazoned on it, and I will likely one day purchase a British Tea Power mug. After reading Roy Wilkinson’s compelling band biography, Do It For Your Mum, which was published by BSP’s label Rough Trade, I realized that this popping up in an odd place to ambush and then entice fans was a habit and a useful tactic.
Wilkinson, the older brother of band members Yan (Scott) and Hamilton (Neil), managed the band until 2006, and remains The Secretary of their emailed “newsboosts.” The inscription on the book cover, beneath the sticker of an abstract graphic of a deer (perhaps a little lost roe) on a mountaintop, reads: “One band, one dad, one world war – a story of British Sea Power, rock dreams and family farce.” Throughout his book, Wilkinson traces a convincing path through time and space, shifting from descriptions of sublime landscapes to those of the mundane, yet stressful, realities of running the day-to-day business of a rock band, and easily comparing his father’s atypical experience of World War Two to the atypical experience of his brothers’ band, much of the experience as about being apart from and disengaged with the outside world. Demonstrating that this fruitful sort of detachment runs in the family, he treads a careful balance between heartfelt belief and messy human frailty, and between Vaudevillian shenanigans and superhuman resilience, successfully turning delusion into a plausible career move.
I think it’s highly significant that Wilkinson is a music journalist by trade. Music journalists are the primary proponents for music mythology; the best of them have to write as though music and its creators are matters of life and death, writing as though music can mean something more. We fans take these pronouncements to heart whether they’re adulatory or scathing. It’s all part of the grand drama of music fanaticism; this kind of culture, encompassing music press, radio DJs, and independent record shops, allows us to pontificate and debate the merits of trivial aspects of song-writing and performance, bartering and bantering about cultural capital and making a plethora of lists. Excellent music journalists can create a captivating narrative from the music they review and from the bands they interview. Wilkinson is one of the excellent music journalists, writing his brothers’ band into transcendence.
Whether he’s describing how his brother Neil would attend PE classes in a “mildly homoerotic Smiths t-shirt,” how they couldn’t persuade Jarvis Cocker to accompany them into the forest to watch nightjars, or how one band member sawed off the tree branch he was sitting on and subsequently fell into injury, Wilkinson is as self-deprecating as he is self-aggrandizing. He was clearly not the best choice financially for band manager, a fact of which he reminds us at every turn, but he was a brilliant marketer and imaginative storyteller, using all of the innate quirks of the band to their advantage. He may lose thousands of pounds of the band’s money to corrupt policemen in Russia, but he exemplifies how one goes about becoming the perfect cult band.
Wilkinson’s biography ends up being more about music fanaticism than it does music creation. In addition to the Wilkinson patriarch’s ardent fandom and impassioned indie music research, a large part of the book is dedicated to describing the devotion of the myriad BSP fans, several who have seen the band play 150 to over 200 times and followed them up and down the continent in spite of full-time work commitments. They are fans with a particular sense of community, arranging pre-gig picnics on traffic islands. I wouldn’t believe there to be many casual BSP fans.
Despite this fanatic devotion, they’ve struggled with breaking through to the mainstream. The band’s encounters with other musicians and celebrities, along with Wilkinson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music trivia and apt descriptions and anecdotes, add colourful context to the plot and provide much of the farcical comedy and pathos as Wilkinson and British Sea Power watch their contemporaries, including The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and The Strokes, soar ahead of them in popularity. Wilkinson’s style is often delightfully understated and playful as in the passage where he cites his father’s description of their labelmates, The Libertines: “Dad had seen The Libertines in the NME: ‘Not sure about them. The tall one looks like a spiv. You can imagine him playing a jailbird in an Ealing comedy.’ Dad’s analysis held odd insight. Pete would indeed end up in jail—and, at least on one occasion, he would be sentenced at Ealing Magistrates’ Court.” I also feel as though I have to be a bit self-indulgent and reveal one of my favourite descriptions from Wilkinson. Referring to Mick Jagger on the cover of his Goddess in the Doorway album, Wilkinson paints him as a “half-finished animatronic rock mannequin from a fairground ride in France.” It is the underdog quality of British Sea Power that adds to their allure – I always believe in watching the underdog for the most interesting, obsessive-worthy art. It’s rewarding being a fan of a band that makes you work at being their fan.
In my mind, British Sea Power is one of those bands with extensive and eclectic influences from places well beyond music, making them much more interesting and unique than their peers. Their music draws from history, nature, science, literature, mythology, film, and current events. They are fans of Betjeman and alcohol. They can utilize Czech politics just as effectively as bird species. They put on bone-breaking shows with elaborate props in unexpected places, write obscure lyrics that require some excavation to make meaning, give even more obscure interviews, and provide interesting juxtapositions in the way so many of my favourite artists do, smuggling subversive and witty themes into popular anthems. Despite describing the events that formed the band and formed the Wilkinson family itself, the book still retains the aloof, sometimes enigmatic, quality of British Sea Power. Wilkinson writes quite emotionally and candidly about his own dreams and failures, and crucially, about their father’s competitive hopes and commitment to the band; however, his younger brothers and their bandmates seem to hover in the taciturn middle distance, completely unflappable and rather impenetrable. They don’t appear to get fussed over anything, still giving rather vague or seemingly superficial quotes when they actually do speak in the book. Of course, this only sustains the band’s mystique and allows fans to fill in the gaps. The members of British Sea Power clearly haven’t minded being different their entire lives, which adds an unpretentious honesty to their character.
There are ostensibly only 2011 copies of the limited edition of the book (mine is hand-numbered with a neat “306”), so please hurry to the Rough Trade site to purchase yours. It is exactly this kind of inventive rarity that works so well for the British Sea Power brand.
British Sea Power makes you think. Their art form is crunchy and perhaps the only truly revelatory thing about them. I think the world needs more bands willing to put themselves out there as a lifestyle choice. Do It For Your Mum also makes you think. Roy Wilkinson empowers you to believe that music fans can will themselves into an extraordinary lifestyle and choose to put their oars in less trammelled waters, pulling upstream for the perversity of it.