Do It For Your Mum
By Ben Myers.
Do It For Your Mum, Roy Wilkinson, Rough Trade Books 2011
No decent band biography should solely be about the band – and heaven forbid that they should ever be all about ‘the music’. Music is for listening to; books are for telling stories. Really a good music biography should be about everything but the music. They should be about that which surrounds the band. Where they come from. Why they have chips on their shoulders. The freaks they attract. The drugs they take. The mistakes they make. The bones they break. Which Travelodges to avoid. Why they matter.
It is for these reasons that characters as disparate as Julian Cope, Ian Hunter and Motley Crue are responsible for some of the best rock reads; because they jettison the boring muso stuff – the who-wrote-what, and which key it was played in guff – to instead channel the vibe. The vibe is important. As important as haircuts and footwear.
Roy Wilkinson understands this. Roy steered the good ship British Sea Power through the choppy waters of their early career, from their formation and on through various globe-hopping trips to Mercury nominated-success. But his role was much greater than this. The oldest of six children, he entered into music journalism at a young age and by the time he was into his twenties was flying off to the US to give The Pixies their first UK press coverage, and sending cassettes of all this great new music he was hearing back up to the ex-council house in the village of Natland near Kendal, to his youngest two brothers, Scott and Neil Wilkinson.
Roy had a dream and when he saw Scott and Neil learning Jesus & Mary Chains songs and sneaking into Iggy Pop gigs while in their early teens he realised his brothers might just be the people to help him realise it. “What if a band could take shape in this Lakeland village?” he wonders. “And what if they were to draw inspiration from the world around us – not just form the music playing in our home, but also from the mountains on the horizon and the people and places that surrounded Natland? What if there could be a band from the back of beyond that would also play the most out-of-the-way-places?”
Yes, Roy is a Romantic and an eccentric and if Do It For Your Mum teaches us only one thing it is that Romanticism and eccentricity are sorely missing in UK pop music right now – and precisely why British Sea Power, with their epic voyages to play far flung places including Czech forests, Arctic islands, the Great Wall of China and exuberant sense of wanderlust and Baden-Powell-esque resourcefulness are beloved by both the music and broadsheet press and those music fans who strive for something more from music. British Sea Power are one of few bands who offer up more than sound: they are about ideas, freedom, travel, history, the natural world. They are about regarding everything in historical context and appreciating the magic in the details of the planet. They are a way of life and much of what makes them special was fed to them by Roy.
But it’s not just the author and his brothers who are the Romantics either. An unpublished writer, their eighty-odd year old father Ronald – a World War II veteran and a man of no discernible job description (“I never knew what Dad did….I got the idea that our parents might be smackheads,” says bassist Neil) – soon channels all his energy and enthusiasm into his sons’ musical endeavours, starting with a crash course in the the history of alternative rock (Swans, Bad Brains, The Fall, Butthole Surfers) while always being on hand to dish out advice to rouse the pastel-toned troops and fire out barbed put-downs of lesser bands like U2, and all delivered with evangelical zeal. Ronald is a dude and this book – which has the sub-title ‘One band, one dad, one world war – a story of British Sea Power, rock dreams and family farce’ – is as much about him as anything else. It’s proof, as mentioned, that the best band biographies aren’t just about the bands. They’re about the context. And the best bands aren’t just about music. They’re about life – or escape from it.
With a father and older sibling this devoted to the cause, and the members of British Sea Power an agreeable combination of dreamy outsiders, graduates, ornithologists and all-round 21st century adventurers, their output was always going to be memorable and leftfield, and this book mirrors the band’s career. It took the beautiful wild remoteness of Cumbria – a place with almost zero rock previous – to produce such a band. (An aside: interestingly, Kendal has since produced Northern Gothic devotees Wild Beasts, perhaps the only other current British guitar band worth devoting your life too). The Lake District shaped BSP, just like the glaciers of the Ice Age shaped the cliffs, crags, ridges, rocks, escarpments, peaks, precipes, parapets, bluffs and chimneys of the Lakes. Ian Brown was wrong: it’s not where you’re at, it’s where you’re from. Partly.
Take for example, Wilkinson on an early aural influence around their native Natland:
A big-red brown bull stood in the field, a surly monument to fecundity. The animal’s lowing drone gave a bass underlay to other sounds – the mournful cry of the curlew, the eerie howl of vixens in the breeding season. All these, in their various ways, told of their carnal imperatives gathering in the wood and in the fields. It felt like everyone and everything was implicated.
It’s not exactly “Growing up, we all loved The Beatles” – and thank Christ for that. Wilkinson writes with similar such clarity and humour throughout; he appreciates the tragedy and absurdity of a music as a career option, almost revels in the £220,000 debt that BSP manage to accrue after only one album. Because in the end it doesn’t matter. The mission is more important. You can’t put a price on freedom.
It says something of the current epoch that British Sea Power are destined never to be as huge as many of their contemporaries and former support bands, many of whom have already burned out, sold out or bored us to tears. But Do It For Your Mum elevates its young charges to the status they deserve, and Roy Wilkinson invests as much time in describing the birds he spots or the mountains he climbs while out on the road rather the tedious hum-drum to be found in lesser biographies. Above all else it’s an adventure story that reminds that amplified rock music can still be magical, and life is for living.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 26th, 2011.