British Sea Power are modestly successful suppliers of “high-church amplified rock music” – Top Ten albums, a Mercury Prize nomination, admiration from both David Bowie and Bill Oddie. But they’re also an odd and unwieldy family firm. The band are fronted by two brothers and managed by a third, the author of this book. They’re also the all-consuming passion of Ronald Wilkinson – World War Two veteran, ex-shipping clerk and self-instructed expert on alternative rock from Blur to the Butthole Surfers.
British Sea Power spring from Natland, a small village on the edge of the English Lake District – a place previously best known for its mythical treacle mines and a strange man on a bike. This band aim to create sounds that will speak to the whole world. Often they can’t speak to each other. Neil Hamilton Wilkinson, singer and bassist, is charming and boyishly handsome. He’s also mystically mute and likes to walk home after gigs – 40 miles across country. Yan Scott Wilkinson, singer and guitarist, is self-possessed, remote and, like Stalin, given to composing odes to icebergs. Ringing in their ears come the interjections of their family elders. Manager and narrator Roy Wilkinson veers wildly between determination and self-doubt, excitedly invoking both Field Marshal Montgomery and Freddie Mercury. Their dad, meanwhile, won’t shut up. Reborn as octogenarian teenage acolyte, he’s ready to stop strangers in the street and ask them if they’ve bought the album they need – the album by British Sea Power.
From a collective childhood amid the wonder and idiosyncrasy of the Lake District, the band is born. Yet, while British Sea Power’s support groups motor to multi-platinum success, they themselves navigate bewitching B-roads. In one week, they make a single with Somerset novelty hit-makers The Wurzels and collaborate with German avant-garde legends Faust. The latter ends in an energetic fist-fight. Other faces line the route: Ronnie Corbett, Nick Cave, Prince Charles, Jarvis Cocker, John Betjeman, Joanna Lumley, Mussolini and Ursine Ultra, a ten-foot stage-bear with previous in Hammer Horror.
This is a tale of dreams, debt and disco-dancing with Oswald Mosley’s granddaughter – a story that sets an idyllic rural youth and the eternal imponderables of family life beside the brute mechanics of the music industry. In this cautionary tale of human fallibility and musical misadventure, there is bathos, there is pathos, there is Kate Moss. Behold as Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie is led into unholy union with AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie. Against the odds, the two parties get on rather well.
“Often having too many ideas isn’t the best idea. But not always… British Sea Power, your country needs you!” – Jarvis Cocker