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Marching Into Europe

Driven by the spirit of the Smiths and Joy Division, British Sea Power have brought wit and grandeur back to pop. Andrew Perry joins them in Prague.

Most British rock music, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones onwards, has looked towards America for its inspiration. But last summer saw the arrival of a young band from Brighton whose very name, British Sea Power, implied a staunch adherence to indigenous influence.

Their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, was a wonderfully vibrant collection of songs and images, a declaration that rock music has become lazy and one-tracked, that it can be more than a routine celebration of American values.

Its title quite hilariously cut against the culture of hyperbolic self-promotion into which groups habitually pitch themselves these days, while also implying an almost illicit interest in militarism and history.

The band make music of wit and grandeur, regularly compared to such lofty alternative Brit-rockers as the Smiths, Joy Division and, thanks to singer Yan's gravelly yearning, the Psychedelic Furs.

I join them on their first trip to Prague. The former Eastern Bloc is another of their interests, it transpires, one celebrated in a new single called A Lovely Day Tomorrow, which they've recorded in both English and Czech.

The latter version is sung by Katerina Winterova, the Bjork-esque vocalist from Prague-based group the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, who are to support BSP at their concert in the city.

When I arrive at check-in at Heathrow, I am handed a large plastic owl to carry - one of the many bizarre props familiar from the band's stage set.

On the plane, I sit next to guitarist Noble (all the members go by a single assumed name). Between reading up about potential tourist attractions and gulps of premium-strength Czech beer, he points out that Wesley, credited on the new single, is his dog. "I had to get him in a headlock to make him bark," he says.

"It's funny that you end up doing something like this, just because someone read a book," Yan tells me, when we arrive in the city centre. The book in question was The Good Soldier Schweik, the First World War comic odyssey by Jaroslav Hasek, which was duly passed around for all members to digest.

Their reading list would soon incorporate The Bad Bohemian, Sir Cecil Parrott's biography of Hasek, plus the works of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka.

According to bassist Hamilton, who wrote the song, A Lovely Day Tomorrow had a rather scrappy genesis.

He wrote most of the music and lyrics, which lay around for a while, until he saw a documentary about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's chief lieutenant in the SS, by Czech resistance fighters, who were trained in Leamington Spa and parachuted back into Czechoslovakia by the British Army.

"It's a classic story of good and evil," says Hamilton, "heroes triumphing over the human version of the Devil. They ended up holed up in a church, and shot themselves.

"Afterwards, Hitler retaliated by massacring thousands of Czech Jews. So it's hard to say whether it was a good thing or not, but that's why it's interesting."

If this hardly seems the stuff of frothy chart pop, British Sea Power have effectively killed their chances of having a hit by releasing the single in a limited edition of 1,942 copies (commemorating the year of the above events), to be sold only in the Czech Republic and on the band's current UK tour.

"There's often been a lot more to the rock vocabulary than is used nowadays," says Yan. "What we're doing is an alternative to singing about your girlfriend leaving you. It gets a bit boring, that."

"The biggest acts in our country are Coldplay and Dido," adds Noble. "What they do is just a general moaning, without any content. They've got nothing to say. If you look to be a great band, then you want to sing about great things, like Charles Lindbergh flying over the Atlantic, or the Heydrich story."

Yan points towards a new crop of British originals, including the Libertines, the Streets and Dizzee Rascal. "They're trying to be less general, talking about specific things rather than trying to appeal to everybody on this bland universal theme."

Yan and Hamilton, who are brothers, and drummer Wood all grew up in Cumbria. The band was formed when Yan met Noble, who hails from the other side of the Pennines in West Yorkshire, at Reading University. When their studies concluded, the group convened in Brighton.

That was four years ago, but they still have the slightly inscrutable air of smalltown country folk.

As they gather for photographs by Charles Bridge, they stop to watch three pigeons mating atop a wall - not guffawing drunkenly, but observing with keen ornithological interest. When half of them walk off and get lost in the tourist throng, their recently joined keyboard player and percussionist, Eamon, summons them back by clasping his hands together and making an elaborate owl call.

Continuing this rustic thread, at the splendidly seedy ex-cinema where the band are to perform, the Roxy, the stage is bedecked with all manner of boughs, branches and sprigs, procured locally by their manager. And there, I'm pleased to see, is my plastic owl.

As their version of the Czech folk song Fakir blares from the PA to palpable confusion in the crowd, I wonder if British Sea Power's peculiar sensibilities might get lost in translation here.

During Apologies to Insect Life (only the second song), Eamon, clad in infantryman's fatigues and Somme-era tin helmet, rampages through the audience banging a marching drum. Such inclusive tactics rarely fail to erode the language barrier.

Something Wicked, Remember Me and Carrion, beefed up to near-anthemic proportions on the live stage, provoke a feverish response. At the end, they're joined by Katerina Winterova, plus their own viola player, Abigail, for a moving rendition of A Lovely Day.

Eamon once again goes a-roving, this time held aloft on the shoulders of a game local.

With the Czech Republic set to join the EU on May 1, it's good to see Anglo-Czech relations, culturally at least, on such a firm footing.

Author: Andrew Perry
Source: Telegraph
Date: 22nd April 2004

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