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It's all we're skilled in/ We will be shipbuilding
March 5, 2008 1:58 PM   Subscribe

"I can't imagine Americans writing a song like this. It has a grim beauty. It feels pessimistic in one breath and optimistic in another." The Guardian asks musicians about the songs that define what it means to be English. The Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish each get an interview too.
posted by patricio (67 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
English bands have ideas and manifestos, while American bands are more professional and play the game.

Uh....
posted by rtha at 2:09 PM on March 5, 2008


I can't imagine Americans writing a song like this. It has a grim beauty. It feels pessimistic in one breath and optimistic in another.
Have they never heard Tom Waits or Randy Newman?
posted by joaquim at 2:11 PM on March 5, 2008


I almost didn't want to read it when I clicked on it and saw a picture of the Sex Pistols. Apparently, though, it's just that one of the musicians picked "God Save The Queen". One of the others picked The Smiths' "Panic", and others picked songs by The Kinks, Faces and Beatles, so it wasn't as worthless as I thought it would be.

Can we please put to rest the myth of the Sex Pistols? They were fake. They were manufactured. They were a fucking boy band with bad teeth and ripped clothes. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood imported the look and attitude from New York City (the Dolls, Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, The Ramones, etc.) and sold it to spoiled English art students with the Pistols as spokesmodels. It was no less fake and trendy than New Romantics. The UK didn't get any real punk bands until Buzzcocks, Crass, Sham (who were somewhat fake themselves, but in a different way), etc. were inspired to form bands by the Pistols (which was the only thing preventing them from being totally worthless) without realizing they were fake and manufactured. Rotten himself realized this, and if you want to hear a band that's everything the Pistols pretended to be, listen to PiL.

My opinion of The Clash is only slightly higher, and only because they had some good tunes, but I'm not going to start a holy war and the article didn't mention them anyway.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:13 PM on March 5, 2008 [8 favorites]


Or James McMurtry?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:14 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


...or Scott Walker, or, hell, Johnny Cash? Any of our great singers?
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:14 PM on March 5, 2008


But Eliza Carthy picked Half Man Half Biscuit: A Country Practice which makes up for all the other choices. HMHB have spent the last two decades describing England perfectly.
posted by itsjustanalias at 2:16 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


..or really the entire genre of American music called Blues.
posted by vacapinta at 2:19 PM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


Your favorite band's country sucks.
posted by anansi at 2:22 PM on March 5, 2008


English bands have ideas and manifestos, while American bands are more professional and play the game.

Uh....
That's particularly hilarious in reference to the fucking Sex Pistols.

Bee's Wing and Waterloo Sunset are both in the top 15 most-played songs on my iTunes, though, so maybe I'm secretly English.
posted by craichead at 2:25 PM on March 5, 2008


They were fake. They were manufactured. They were a fucking boy band with bad teeth and ripped clothes.

And yet it still worked.
posted by Artw at 2:27 PM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


Your favorite band's country sucks.

The judges would also have accepted "Your favorite country's bands suck."
posted by lord_wolf at 2:27 PM on March 5, 2008


Your country's favorite band sucks?
posted by davejay at 2:34 PM on March 5, 2008


"Can we please put to rest the myth of the Sex Pistols? They were fake. They were manufactured. They were a fucking boy band with bad teeth and ripped clothes."

You know, getting over this is one of those things that allows you to not be a tiresome bore on the internet.

And yeah, I got the feeling that a lot of these musicians had never been outside of England, or never understood another country. While The Smiths are British for talking about failed industrial towns, that's the same thing that makes 'em resonant in the Midwest.

For this Yank, what always sounds the most "British" are those music hall wanks that the Beatles did (along with all of the novelty Christmas albums). I think the problem is that for a lot of this, the musicians wanted to pick something that was cool and influenced them, rather than pick something that actually sounded like the sine qua non of England.
posted by klangklangston at 2:35 PM on March 5, 2008


Trust a Glaswegian to act as though warhols factory/seattle was on the banks of the Clyde.
I seem to remember Kurt Cobain playing impromtu gigs in Edinburgh pubs, such was his affection for all things Glasgow - the centre of anything thats ever happened in Scottish culture.

Anyway, the definitive scottish song is, was and always will be -

Allys Tartan Army
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:41 PM on March 5, 2008


Your favourite country band sucks.

Also: No Billy Bragg? Surely, A New England, or Waiting for the Great Leap Forward, or There is Power in a Union?

Sheesh.
posted by armoured-ant at 2:42 PM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


klang: It's a subtly different question from what sounds British - it's what they think should "define Englishness". The quote I used at the top actually really annoys me, particularly because the Young Knives are one of the more intelligent bands out there at the moment.
posted by patricio at 2:44 PM on March 5, 2008


There's a lot of whaaa??? in the article, but I'm with them on Richard Thompson and Kate Bush.
posted by rtha at 2:45 PM on March 5, 2008


Is this their way of overcompensating for all the Harry Potter filk bands? "English music is gritty, real, badass, grrr. All those songs about Ron and Hermione weren't us."

A few of these descriptions are borderline hilarious because they don't really explain what English means. They just use it repeatedly as an adjective. You could substitute anything in there. Seriously-- what makes a guitar-playing style English? They must mean some specific methods and sounds.
posted by Tehanu at 2:49 PM on March 5, 2008


I'm amused that the "Northern Ireland" article spends so much time dithering over the 32 County Issue and the definition of "Northern" Ireland..

This is what it means to be Irish in 2008.
posted by meehawl at 2:54 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I can't really see an American writing something like Shipbuilding, not even Tom Waits.
posted by Artw at 2:59 PM on March 5, 2008


I am so f--king bored of the whole "What it means to be English" thing. I am English and at the moment my Englishness is manifesting itself a strong desire to punch the next person who asks this tedious question in the face. And I haven't even been binge drinking.
posted by rhymer at 3:07 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Your band's favorite country sucks.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:12 PM on March 5, 2008


Your favourite country band sucks.

That's Johnny Cash you fuck! And he's dead!
posted by Artw at 3:15 PM on March 5, 2008


I'm still waiting for someone to apologize for inflicting the Bay City Rollers on the U.S. In return, we'll apologize for The Captain and Tennille.
posted by mosk at 3:15 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


No Slade? That's just crazee.
posted by jtron at 3:27 PM on March 5, 2008


Slade is kind of a Christmas time thing in England. For the rest of the year we just forget they ever existed.
posted by Artw at 3:32 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


George Orwell covered Englishness...but failed to discuss the music. Shucks.
posted by Atreides at 3:33 PM on March 5, 2008


I am from Bellshill (the town mentioned in the Scottish article). The best thing that happened to me hailing from the town that was smothered in cloying, jangle-crap, half-arsed, terrible Beach Boys wannabes in the early 90s was hearing Ziggy Stardust at aged 15 and getting away from that crap. When I got Low for 2 quid at a record fair two years later I never wanted to hear another Bellshill band again.

Having said that, it was pretty cool living next door to a Soup Dragon and buying Marathons from Norman (Teenage Fanclub)Blake's mum's newsagents whilst Bandwagonesque was NME's album of the year.

I'm still waiting for someone to apologize for inflicting the Bay City Rollers on the U.S.
mosk- that would be Sgt Serenity and old Edina then....
posted by ClanvidHorse at 3:48 PM on March 5, 2008


Yeah, on the one hand this is kind of stupid. On the other hand you have "Beeswing," which English or not, is one of the few songs capable of reducing me to tears.
posted by Rangeboy at 4:03 PM on March 5, 2008


Well, The National Anthem, of course.

I can think of other suitable example from Radiohead's oeuvre. Otherwise, The Clash, I think.
posted by WPW at 4:13 PM on March 5, 2008


Clanvid, the Fannies have that name for a good reason. I'll give you the Soup Dragons, though. After bitTorrent failures, I've bought some cables specifically to transfer This Is Our Art from LP to mp3.

I am a little surpised that the Bard of Barking didn't make the list as, love him or hate him, he has had plenty to say about Englishness in the last decade or so.

I'll throw in Morrisseys' National Front Disco, just for the sake of discussion.
posted by Jakey at 4:26 PM on March 5, 2008


What's the english equivalent to Born in the USA? also I was expecting really old traditional songs, not rock n roll. god save the queen is the #1 english song to my ear.
posted by MNDZ at 4:35 PM on March 5, 2008


According to all these mucisians, Kurt Cobain, Guided by Voices and Low must all be English. And no one thought to mention anything by John Dowland, Queen, or Radiohead?
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:37 PM on March 5, 2008


Actually, Pulp had some outstanding state-of-the-nation stuff - Common People, for instance.
posted by WPW at 4:44 PM on March 5, 2008


I am neither British, nor a famous musician, but I would have gone for Ghost Town or Turn The Page. Yanks don't make music like that - evar.
posted by doublesix at 5:22 PM on March 5, 2008


I had to go to Itunes to hear it, but...ahh. Bee's Wing is haunting. I'd never heard of it before this thread. Thanks for that.
posted by misha at 5:29 PM on March 5, 2008


Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights

I can't imagine this song going down well anywhere apart from England.


It went down pretty well on this side of the pond too, didn't it? Although Kate Bush seems more like someone who people who aren't English imagine the English are like.

Reading the article did inspire me to load up my ipod with Kate Bush this afternoon, and I dug it hard. I was still a dirt-under-the-fingernails tomboy in Bush's heyday, and her overpowering femininity was just too much for me back then. Now, listening to her best songs gives me those wonderful chills up and down my spine, and I sing along even though I really can't.

If I were to have written the article, it would have read in its entirety: "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. That's all we need to know. Now let's have a nice cup of tea and a sit down." That's probably why I'm only reporting $600 worth of music-writing income for all of 2007, but that doesn't make me any less right.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 6:03 PM on March 5, 2008


Paul McCartney's Mull of Kintyre was a massive hit in every commonwealth country across the globe, I believe it was for a time his best-selling single of all time, yet it is virtually unknown in the United States. In fact, I would bet (without any empirical evidence whatsoever apart from my own opinion) that if you asked a dozen random British-type folks and a dozen random Americans to name three Paul McCartney songs, all of the Brits would include "Mull of Kintyre" and none of the Yanks would.

I don't know if that qualifies it as the "definitive" British song or not, but it is something.
posted by yhbc at 6:13 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Northern Irish essay (by Tim Wheeler of Ash) and the Welsh one (by Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers) actually manage to be simultaneously passionate and sensible.

I loved how Wheeler touched upon a certain gerneal, permeating "Irishness" - and the "Irish-in-exile" in the guise of Morrissey and Lennon & McCartney - before returning to Ulster proper and contrasting Northern Irish bands with their visiting American cousins (the Nirvana anecdote is great).

My nominations:

Northern Irishness: Therapy? - Potato Junkie (James Joyce Is Fucking My Sister)
Welshness: Stereophonics - More Life in a Tramp's Vest
Scottishness: Idlewild - Live in a Hiding Place
Englishness: I Am Kloot - Twist

(Ask me again tomorrow, and they will all be different.)

Now let's do this for American states, shall we?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:28 PM on March 5, 2008


gerneal general
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:32 PM on March 5, 2008


COUNTRY BAND SUCK YOU!
posted by jonson at 7:30 PM on March 5, 2008


For what it's worth, I can't really see an American writing something like Shipbuilding, not even Tom Waits.
Is that because it's about the Falklands war, which the US didn't notice in time to participate in? It's interesting that they say an American couldn't write a song like that, but then they don't even pick the version done by the songwriter.

Like MNDZ, I was expecting some traditional songs. I mean, the Welsh could have stopped making music after "Men of Harlech" (pre-poptart or full Zulu accompaniment) and they'd still be in the top ten ever.
posted by forrest at 7:31 PM on March 5, 2008


Beeswing was the best call of the bunch, but I'm not sure how you can have a discussion about Englishness in music without it practically centering around Andy Partridge. Towers of London? Paper & Iron? Chalkhills and Children? Yacht Dance? Love on a Farmboy's Wages? Rook? Harvest Festival?

The man oozes Englishness.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:55 PM on March 5, 2008


I like this one:

England Awake.
posted by meehawl at 8:26 PM on March 5, 2008


Okay. It's just weird to have this conversation without jonmc.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:30 PM on March 5, 2008


He would have already moved on to quintesssential Detroit songs and whether or not the Ramones were really just another form of surf music.
posted by yhbc at 8:36 PM on March 5, 2008


Extra 's's are fierce.

Congratulations, Christian Siriano! Yes, I watch Project Runway, and I don't care who knows. So there.
posted by yhbc at 8:45 PM on March 5, 2008


Fuck knows if they define Welshness, but let's just mention the mighty Anhrefn anyway - Cornel done live. Like itsjustanalias, I was pleased to see Half Man Half Biscuit get a mention.
posted by Abiezer at 9:32 PM on March 5, 2008


I'm still waiting for someone to apologize for inflicting the Bay City Rollers on the U.S.

Come on. Johnnny Thunders and the Ramones were garage bands that were but weak imitations of the Bay City Rollers, desperately stealing their influences from the Scottish Invasion of the early 70's.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:36 AM on March 6, 2008


Also: thread needs more Wylie, Fat Les, and Lightning Seeds.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:50 AM on March 6, 2008


Finally, I think the thing that best sums up Englishness for me at the moment is actually the opening title to a TV programme. The show has actually gone to shit, but the season 5 opening is some kind of awesome:

Imagine Britain without Chatsworth's buccaneers,
Who'd come on your face for the price of a beer,
Make poverty history, cheaper drugs now,
Make poverty history -- cheaper drugs now!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:11 AM on March 6, 2008


Listen, peasants and colonials... This Is England
(oh that something so subversive sits in the heart of the establishment)

Oh you want some actual pop music? This is England (well one is Scottish but what the hell) and this is England and this is England and this is England (very much NSFW for the last one).
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:31 AM on March 6, 2008


And for those who wanted traditional.... here's Bellowhead being all modern about english folk music.
posted by itsjustanalias at 4:07 AM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Heh, the Macc Ladds. To this day the only band to count in their songs with "fuck, cunt. fuck, cunt, wank, shit".

Possibly there's a reason for that.
posted by vbfg at 4:08 AM on March 6, 2008


I'm still waiting for someone to apologize for inflicting the Bay City Rollers on the U.S.
mosk- that would be Sgt Serenity and old Edina then....


lets do a deal where i apologise for the rollers and the west coasters apologise for gun,del amitri, simple minds, wet wet wet, sheereen nanjiani, John Toye, Arthur Montford,Garnock way, Take the High road, Taggart, Now you see it, quizball,jobfinder, THINGUMYJIG (with or without the laird of Cowcaddens), those goddam annoying musical hall actors that think theyre legends because they sold out the alhambra during panto season, charlie nicholas's new romantic look, ally mccoist in general, the daily record, the sunday mail, the daily record again (just to make sure), any tiresome former gangster who now is a sculptor/painter/mime artist/owner of the ubiquitous chip and many many more, including that advert that used a version of nutbush city limits to advertise tires with mrs sqwauk from the taggart theme tune going .... " nobody beats budget !" deedle - doo dee - do ! "for british made remoulds !" -

more shocking glaswegian culture

the only city where the shopping malls are closed on tuesdays.

a typical working class Glaswegian.

i'm away for a lie down now.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:25 AM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh and This Is Scotland
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:01 AM on March 6, 2008


Not enough Welshness so far (audio nsfw).
posted by Gratishades at 5:18 AM on March 6, 2008


It's a shame they didn't ask Gruff Rhys to do the Welsh bit. At least he would've mentioned the mighty Datblygu.
posted by ceiriog at 6:12 AM on March 6, 2008


"Paul McCartney's Mull of Kintyre was a massive hit in every commonwealth country across the globe...I don't know if that qualifies it as the "definitive" British song or not, but it is something.

posted by yhbc at 6:13 PM on March 5 [+] [!]

Mull of Kintye? MULL OF F*CKING KINTYRE?

*weeps*

Good god, McCartney should've had his fingers broken and his ear drums punctured for that song.
posted by fatfrank at 6:50 AM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a long way to Tipperary.
posted by breezeway at 7:39 AM on March 6, 2008


Extra 's's are fierce.

Congratulations, Christian Siriano! Yes, I watch Project Runway, and I don't care who knows. So there.


Hey! I Tivo'd that.

*stares daggers*
posted by malocchio at 7:43 AM on March 6, 2008


I'd never heard the Wyatt version of Shipbuilding. It's one of my favorite Costello songs - that's the only version I knew. Still like it best, I think. (I suppose it doesn't do to mention that Mr. MacManus was actually from an Irish family.) I'd put Springsteen up against Elvis as the US equivalent in capturing the angst and despair.

And there should be a bit more of a Tom Jones shout-out for the Welsh music.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:31 AM on March 6, 2008


Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights

I can't imagine this song going down well anywhere apart from England.

It went down pretty well on this side of the pond too, didn't it? Although Kate Bush seems more like someone who people who aren't English imagine the English are like.


I think for much of her career - at least until the Hounds of Love - she was ignored by the US but loved by the commonwealth countries, Europe and Japan.

Personally, I think she totally transcends nationality as well as all musical genres. You can't watch this clip and be any doubt that she plays very well in Japan.
posted by Summer at 8:41 AM on March 6, 2008


fatfrank: I didn't say it was a good song.

malocchio: sorry, couldn't resist.
posted by yhbc at 8:55 AM on March 6, 2008


Heh, I'll manage...though I was rooting for Jillian myself.
posted by malocchio at 9:10 AM on March 6, 2008


It went down pretty well on this side of the pond too, didn't it?

Pat Benatar covered "Wuthering Heights" on her Crimes of Passion album.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:54 AM on March 6, 2008


I'd have gone for Goldy looking Chain for the Welshness, myself.
posted by Artw at 2:37 PM on March 6, 2008


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