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Sunday, 27 July 2008

Written in granite: Swan’s Way

Some of you will be wondering how I've managed to get through more than four months of Written In Granite without a piece on The Wild Swans. The truth is that I felt that I'd said my pieces in the sleevenotes I wrote for Renascent Records' magnificent Incandescent double CD set collecting material from the original band's Zoo single, BBC sessions, etc. and for Korova's Magnitude set, comprising the two albums recorded by the Mark II band for Sire in the mid to late 1980s. Pretty much anyone out there who's been paying attention ought already to be aware that their one single for Zoo Records, 1982's The Revolutionary Spirit/God Forbid 12", is my favourite single of all time, and what I think of staggering pieces such as No Bleeding or Flowers Of England (hint: I rather like them).

However last week saw the uploading of a new Wild Swans song called English Electric Lightning to the band's MySpace site. This is an early demo version recorded in Wales back in June and I think it's fair to say that this is the first major work from the new Mark III band. Some of the earlier demos posted have been very fine indeed, of course, but the thing about this band was always that the shorter, sharper, simpler songs made far more sense when you heard intermingled with the epics, and Lightning is the first new WS epic for a very, very long time. Wild Swans leader (or should that be "Leda"?) Paul Simpson is working on a concept album to be entitled The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, and even at this early juncture this song sounds like a centrepiece, something worthy of having a concept album built around it. Now admittedly I probably can't offer an entirely unbiased view: I'm a known Swan fan and associate; aside from my involvement in the re-releasing of the band's back catalogue over the last 5-6 years, I played on Simpson's unreleased solo album The Wickedest Man In The World a few years ago (a possible subject for a future Written In Granite piece), together with former WS keyboard player Ged Quinn who is now a very well-known painter and the artist responsible for the landscape which adorns the top of this very page - the original hangs in my living room. Paul and Ged are both very good friends of mine and I speak to them regularly so yes, I suppose I do have to declare an interest here. But having got that out of the way make no mistake about it: English Electric Lightning is utterly thrilling – and you don't have to take my word for it, go and visit that MySpace page and judge for yourselves. As I say, this is an early version and the arrangement isn't final but already there are some of those trademark moments when the whole sound just takes wing and soars towards the sun. Limited copies of the original 12" Zoo single had a painting of Icarus and that was no coincidence. If I remember my Ovid rightly, Daedalus urges his son neither to fly too low for fear of the froth from the waves making his wings too heavy and dragging him down nor to fly too high, lest the sun melt the wax which held the wings together. Well, the Wild Swans failed to avoid either fate, they flew both too high and too low, but what a flight it was, for the short time it lasted. Even the second time around, when they returned with new corporate wings held together by cement made – to quote Paul slightly out of context – from "cocaine and crushed teenagers", the results were still far better than might've been expected and the Bringing Home The Ashes LP was actually a succès d'estime on US College Radio - deservedly so; it perhaps does lack the epic reach of some of the earlier material but it still has some gorgeous songs and a lyrical cogency some years ahead of its time.

If the music manages to set the propellers spinning for take-off then lyrically Lightning is an even finer piece of work. It opens with Paul surveying the kingdom (Britain today) and finding, to his disgust, that all is quiet on the (north-)western front, although "darkness binds my way". Next we come to the first in a sequence of references to some of this country's most emblematic (what the French call "identitaire", although we don't really have an equivalent adjective in English) literature: "voyagers, pilgrims, rebel angels..." – I think we can assume that the Pilgrims are on a Progress and that the rebel angels are looking for a Mislaid Eden (a later reference confirms that these are indeed "Milton's angels resurrected"). This first verse also name-checks Shakespeare's Sonnets and ends with a wonderful line about "William Blake in Cash Converters". The chorus comprises a series of allusions falling broadly into two categories: matters martial (Airfix Spitfires, Douglas Bader, Skinheads, Drake defeating the Spanish Armada, knights in armour, Trident submarines, Thatcher sinking the Belgrano), and the country's animal and tribal fauna, (skinheads, urban foxes, mods and rockers, bulldogs), there's also a link back to Paul's own hometown through an allusion to Meccano, which was invented by Frank Hornby, a Liverpudlian. Although a great British invention, since 1980 Meccano has only been manufactured in France and in China, further reinforcing the point being made. Then the second chorus continues the theme with some choice rhymes and yet more images both bellicose and tribal:

"Sun reporters, New World Order

Johnny Rotten, Geoffrey Chaucer

Bargain Booze and Robert Wyatt

Happy slappers, Toxteth riots"

And, with the reference to Toxteth, we're back in Liverpool again, it's 3 a.m. and Paul's having one of his long dark nights of the soul. Like Knut (or, if you prefer, Canute), he can't stem the tide alone. It's a striking piece, and of course the music ebbs and flows like the tide that can't be held back. If we now go back and listen to Liquid Mercury, another song demoed in Wales earlier this year, in the light of Lightning (so to speak) it makes so much more sense, talking as it does about the poisoning of the River Mersey.

There's always a danger in attempting to return to the scene of past triumphs, of course, but because the Wild Swans were such a fleeting formation in the firmament both the first and the second times around, there is still so much left to say and do and I, for one, can't wait to hear more of the material for Coldest Winter. Perhaps this time they'll manage to steer that middle course which Daedalus (whose own name was famously borrowed by James Joyce for the surname of the [Stephen] Hero of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and the Telemachus figure in Ulysses) commends to his son in the Greek myth. Although somehow I doubt it, as that's probably not in the nature of the bird.

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