Before the Internet hype machine became all-encompassing, before album artwork became an incorporeal arrangement of pixels, in the days when people frequently had physical encounters with a record sleeve or a CD case before they’d even heard – or heard of – any of the music contained within, there was a time when album cover art really mattered. When there were still record shops for us to walk in to and physical records for us to chance upon, artwork was an advert, a statement of intent, even a manifesto.
I can still remember the first time, almost ten years ago to the day, that I picked up British Sea Power’s debut album The Decline of British Sea Power in York’s now sadly defunct Track Records. I can still remember the momentary consternation it caused my tiny 14-year-old mind, with the artwork’s declaration that this new release from a young band was “British Sea Power’s Classic…”; I remember feeling almost affronted by such confidence. That confidence spread, of course, to the album’s title, a title that felt destined to become an ever-more tedious joke as it was rolled out with the advent of every subsequent BSP release. The mysterious quote, “We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and there is a land for the dead” which sits below the title, attributed to no-one, seems with hindsight to echo the atmosphere and themes of the band’s music (elegiac, enigmatic, harkening back to a mythologised past). At the time though, it was just as enticing and inscrutable as the rest of what I was looking at. This was, defiantly, artwork as an advert, a statement of intent, and a manifesto.
That year I bought two copies of The Decline of British Sea Power, the second after destroying the first by sitting on my Sony Discman with the CD inside, because I took that album everywhere with me, physically and figuratively. It soundtracked the summer and probably most of the winter too, it tapped into my consciousness. When you’re 14 years old, albums come along every other month that change your life, that leave an indelible mark upon you. The Decline of British Sea Power was, undoubtedly, one of those albums. It is hard to believe that I have now lived with it for a decade, that it is ten years since that bizarre openingtrack, forty seconds of Gregorian chanting, made me wonder just what the hell it was I’d bought.
In the present, my tiny 24-year-old mind is trying to deal with the fact that on the other end of the phone line is Martin Noble, one of British Sea Power’s four founding members. “I’m still in Brighton, just at the shop, collecting some supplies,” Noble tells me. “We’re out on tour tomorrow so I’ve got a bit to sort out before then.” I can’t help but laugh at this homely image. The first ten years of British Sea Power have seen festivals at the highest pub in Britain, a live performance from the Great Wall of China, a US stadium tour with The Killers, an attack from a Geordie in a bearsuit wielding a broken bottle strapped to each paw, and drunken motorboating on a Norwegian lake. I imagine their lives as a crazy rock’n’roll sitcom; I don’t picture them pottering down to the shops while taking phonecalls from over-eager journalists.
“We certainly like to live it up, and that dramatic, crazy side of things is part of what we love about being in this band, but as we’ve grown up with it, we’ve kind of been forced to become normal,” Noble says. “The first time we went on tour to the states, I think we were all drunk for three months before we even realised how long it had been. At some point we had to stop that and slow down to an extent, or I don’t think there’d have been a ‘decade of BSP’ article being written about us.”
The rock’n’roll sitcom image was partly gleaned from the band’s portrayal in the excellent semi-biography Do It For You Mum, which was written by Roy Wilkinson, the elder brother of lead songwriters Yan and Hamilton. The book deals candidly with the trio’s youth and their relationships with one another, which is another factor Noble attributes to the band’s stability. “We’ve never really had any major fallings out. Obviously there’s two brothers in the band, so they argue, but the thing about that is they can say what they like to each other but they’re always going to make up. I think that’s sometimes helped diffuse any tensions we might have had, because they end up taking their little frustrations out on each other rather than on the rest of us. We just keep our heads down,” he says with a wry smile.
Anyone who has ever seen British Sea Power perform live will be well inclined to believe Noble about the band’s relative placidity. It’s not that they are placid on stage – far from it – but that few bands look as overwhelmed with happiness at the sheer exhilaration of performing their songs, few bands create such an intimate connection with their audience.
Likewise, few bands celebrate the launch of a new album in quite such style. On a freezing April evening, I crammed onto a boat on the Thames with British Sea Power and about one hundred of their biggest fans, including Gavin and Stacey actor Matthew Horne, to listen to a Bulgarian a cappella band, followed by a “quiz” hosted by 6Music DJ Shaun Keavney (which consisted of him shouting a mixture of real and made-up German words in an incredibly bad accent and BSP member Phil Sumner playing French horn versions of ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘The Boys are Back in Town’). We then all shuffled off the boat and onto an old fashioned red London ‘Routemaster’ bus where the ticket inspector was mad performance poet Jock Scot, and the bus’ terminus was the 100 Club on Oxford Street, where we played ping-pong and had a raffle and watched some girls dressed as Julius Caesar dance. Then British Sea Power played a set and were joined on stage by Jehnny Beth from current Best Fit favourite Savages and their customary giant polar bear friend, and then only after the headline act did the support band, Bo Ningen, come on to play. One day in the future I will tell people this story, and they will insist that it was a dream, or that I have gone mad. But it was not a dream, and I have not gone made; British Sea Power made it happen. Like I said, few bands launch their records so brilliantly. The whole night feels like an example par excellence in what has made this band so special across their first decade.