We first saw British Sea Power supporting The Strokes at Alexandra Palace in 2003 and they stole the show. Three weeks later, we saw them play a stunning New Year’s Eve show at Highbury Garage and have continued to be wowed by their albums, gigs and festivals for almost two decades since.
Over the course of lockdown, British Sea Power have been joining in with Tim Burgess‘s Listening Parties (#TimsTwitterListeningParty), telling stories and revealing all kinds of tidbits about their extensive back catalogue. Following positive feedback to our Top 5 features and to accompany the band’s final Twitter Listening Party for their 2003 debut ‘The Decline of…’, we thought we’d ask our close friend and British Sea Power superfan Matt Phelps to talk through his Top 5 BSP songs.
This proved a very difficult challenge for Matt so he decided to highlight his favourite songs from each of the band’s releases instead – and it really is a phenomenal body of work. We imagine compiling this playlist led to some painful decisions for Matt…
Words by Matt Phelps
As anyone who knows me will testify, I bloody love British Sea Power. Though my musical taste is more eclectic than ever now, in my late thirties, BSP have been a mainstay of my listening and gig-going for the best part of two decades – ever since I first heard ‘Carrion’ on Mark & Lard’s Radio 1 lunchtime show in 2003, in fact.
As such, I must confess to feeling a bit daunted when considering a ‘top 5’ of my favourite Sea Power songs. With six studio albums, four soundtracks and the Sea of Brass live/studio collection in their back catalogue, choosing my favourites feels like an ever-moving target.
So instead, in keeping with their recent appearances on Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties, I’ve picked what feels right now like my standout song on each record, in the non-chronological order in which they were played for the listening parties.
‘North Hanging Rock’ (‘Open Season‘)
I remember the band saying they wanted to capture the sound of an English springtime when they released their second album in April 2005, and ‘North Hanging Rock’ was the song which arguably best achieved that ambition. Partially recorded outside in the Sussex countryside, and featuring the piano played by Freddie Mercury on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (yes, really), it starts with a Blackbird singing softly along with the acoustic guitar intro before Yan whispers the wonderful “drape yourself in greenery, become part of the scenery” couplet, seducing us into the most perfect four and half minutes of music imaginable. It’ll knock your socks off.
‘The Great Skua’ (‘Do You Like Rock Music?‘)
As an avid birder, any song named after a bird is always going to stand a good chance of being a hit with me, and luckily BSP surpassed all expectation with this extraordinary instrumental on their third album. The band have described their sound as “High Church amplified rock music” and the goosebump-inducing choral singalong bit at the end of this is arguably one of the highlights of any Sea Power show; a kind of post–rock version of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, if you will.
‘No Man is An Archipelago’ (‘Man Of Aran‘)
Am I allowed to choose this one? Yes, it’s basically ‘The Great Skua’ again, but longer, shinier and with more guts. Re-recorded for the band’s soundtrack to the 1934 film ‘Man of Aran’, BSP really pulled out all the stops on this one, with the rousing horns and strings from newer members Phil and Abi given more prominence. In fact, the live performance of TGS these days owes a lot more to this version than the original recording. Wonderful stuff and, as a fellow fan tweeted during a recent Twitter listening party, TGS in its various guises must surely be the most recorded BSP song? And rightly so, it’s magnificent.
‘What You Need The Most’ (‘Machineries Of Joy‘)
With the band’s sixth album named after a Ray Bradbury collection of short stories, it was only fitting that the centrepiece of the record be a woozy, space age synth-drenched ballad which, when played live at the time, was accompanied by grainy footage of space exploration projected behind the band. Appropriately, the song fades out with a delicate, lullaby-like combo of swirling violins and twinkly toy piano, and if you close your eyes you can almost imagine you’re floating off into the cosmos, the ‘pale blue dot’ of Earth disappearing slowly behind. Also, “you were my Pyrex baby, made entirely out of glass/You were at your most beautiful when you were getting smashed” might be one of their best opening lyrics to date.
‘Who’s In Control?’ (‘Valhalla Dancehall‘)
‘Valhalla Dancehall’ is a long and eclectic affair which gets off to a rip-roaring start with this one. Never known for being overtly political, tending instead to favour more obscure song subjects, this represented a notable change of direction for the band (not to mention a NSFW video!). “Over here, over there, over here, every-fucking-where!” shouts Yan, before the refrain of “I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”. Well, here we are nine years later, now rudely shaken out of the political stagnation of the late 90s and early 2000s, and this song feels even more appropriate as a rallying call for the disenfranchised.
‘Once More Now’ (‘Sea Of Brass‘)
This was always going to be a particularly tough one as the alternate versions of various existing songs the band chose to include in the Sea Of Brass project were all beautifully realised. I’m going to plump for ‘Once More Now’ though as it was my very close second choice favourite from ‘Valhalla Dancehall’, and it’s arguably one of younger BSP brother Hamilton’s finest creations, here made even more wonderful thanks to Peter Wraight’s brass arrangement. Another successful ‘what if Turner paintings had soundtracks?’ experiment by the band which takes the listener on quite a journey, even though this version lacks the extra five minutes of instrumental weirdness and Hamilton’s delightful little “fuck ‘em” at the end of the original.
‘Praise For Whatever’ (‘Let The Dancers Inherit The Party‘)
BSP’s most recent studio album is a truly fantastic piece of work, deftly exploring the anxieties of the world today, at times wandering further than ever towards pure pop, but never sacrificing their own inimitable sound, as demonstrated by the brilliant Praise For Whatever. As I wrote in my review of the record on this very blog back in 2017…. “There is a brooding undertone to the whole six minutes with swirling keyboards and ghostly backing vocals setting the mood as Yan sings ‘it’s a comedy of errors between the nights and all the terrors/we’ve added all the numbers up and we’re ready to go/and in a world made of allegories tell me what are you supposed to be?’. Halfway through, a pulsing drum beat, distorted synths and a crunching bassline signal the transition into something altogether darker as the refrain of ‘here comes the prize, here comes the reward’ loops round and round over perhaps BSP’s most Joy Division-esque soundscape yet”. Enough said!
‘From the Sea to The Land Beyond/Be You Mighty Sparrow/The Islanders’ (‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond‘)
When it came to providing the soundtrack to Penny Woolcock’s beautifully edited collection of archive footage documenting Britain’s relationship with the sea, there really was only one band fit for the job. Given that they were faced with the challenge of providing music for everything from fishing to Blackpool holidaymakers to the violence of warfare, the band exquisitely reworked various songs from their back catalogue, along with newer material, to complement each section perfectly. ‘The Land Beyond’ from ‘Open Season’ is one of my absolute favourites (only just pipped as the best on that record by ‘North Hanging Rock’) and here they reimagined it as three separate movements, turning what was a four-minute song into over ten minutes of music, providing the recurring theme that holds the whole collection together.
The simple and softly sung chorus melody of the original becomes the most gorgeous, affecting horn line, and at times the whole thing is stripped back to just piano and sea sounds. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s wistful yet hopeful lyrics are made all the more poetic by the accompanying images; “We’re not going home, and we are not alone/No we’re not going home, from the sea to the land beyond”.
‘Lately’ (‘The Decline of British Sea Power‘)
‘The Decline Of…’ is an astonishing record and I could honestly choose any of its eleven songs to perfectly represent how great this band is. As I mentioned in the intro, I bought the record based on hearing ‘Carrion’ but hearing the whole thing for the first time remains one of my most memorable musical experiences to date, and ‘Lately’ in particular just absolutely floored me. An audaciously epic fourteen-minuter, which singer Yan once said was inspired by the imagined experiences of a soldier in WWII, along the way it drops in the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’, references to the Kategaat, Hercules and George Formby, before a giddy escalation to the absolute best kind of wig out ending.
Indeed, what with the various references to megalithic and prehistoric rock, and the tectonic screeching and grinding guitar feedback at the end, I remember feeling after that first listen as if I’d just experienced some kind of seismic event. For many years this was the band’s choice of closer for live shows, often segueing straight into the anarchic ‘Rock In A’ which would usually see various band members diving into the crowd, climbing various parts of the stage set or venue architecture, or sometimes a combination of the two!
I’d like to dedicate this to the memory of my friend Alan, who I never would have met were it not for British Sea Power, and who sadly passed away last week.