It’s a Thursday lunchtime in January. Earlier in the day I had received a tip-off. Can you get to Virgin Megastore by 1pm? Sure, but why? It transpired that BSP had been voted 'Best Live Band' by Time Out magazine and the awards ceremony, such that it was, was to take place in the basement of the record store in a few hours time. The room was laid out with tables and chairs and a deeply sardonic Rich Hall introduced the various accolades – best play, best actor, best stand-up, until, finally, best live band. BSP then proceeded to stun the esteemed audience of arty trendies and lovies by playing a few raucous live tracks. To quote from Time Out's report: "The event came to a close with a 15-minute set from Live Band of the Year British Sea Power, showmen to the core, who finished up with the guitarist held aloft above the crowd, another surfing the amps and a third swinging from the cable ducts". My main memory though is of Eamon leaping onto one of the tables, sending glasses and bottles flying in all directions. Not a bad way to spend your lunch hour...
Spring journeys and Czech ecstasy
In terms of proper gigs, the year had started with the rescheduled High Wycombe date in February (see the review here) – rescheduled because Hamilton had fallen out of a tree while collecting foliage. The set included the debut of a brand new song – 'Elegiac Stanzas'. It had been a long time since we'd heard any new material – and it sounded great. The rescheduled date meant The Killers were no longer the support band but they had won over quite a few of the BSP faithful on the late autumn 2003 tour (see Cath Aubergine's tour review) and we’d seen them play their first headline UK gig at the Camden Barfly just before Christmas. On Valentine's Day, they performed at the ICA and again 'the Third' were fully in evidence. Soon after it would be stadiums and world domination. I wonder if they remember playing a 30-minute slot at Lincoln Bivouac...?
A week after the High Wycombe show, BSP embarked on a 24-date North American tour (read the reviews of the Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Massachusetts dates here) followed by some gigs in Holland, including a return to the fantastic Paradiso in Amsterdam – this time in the main hall – for a Tombola showcase.
The now sizeable travelling contingent of fans were well represented in the Dam, but Spring 2004 was really about all things Czech. The band had collaborated with Czech outfit the Ecstasy of St Theresa on a re-recording of Hamilton’s song 'A Lovely Day Tomorrow'. The subject matter was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two British-trained Czech agents, Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš, and the Nazi's subsequent revenge, the death in a Prague church of seven members of the Czech resistance, including Gabcík and Kubiš. Heavy stuff, although I'd always interpreted it as an optimistic song, about looking to the future, to better times.
The collaboration led to the idea of having two specially-themed 'Czech Sea Power' nights – one in Prague and one in London. Prague seemed the perfect excuse to watch BSP in a beautiful location (read the review here) and a group of us again travelled over for the show (our small but perfectly-formed party included Gigi Chang, who had first seen the band while working as the cloakroom attendant at the Time Out Awards). On hearing that some fans were travelling over from the UK, we were generously told that all our names would be put on the band's guest list. Arriving at the venue, I noticed that most of the names had already been crossed off. But there were two Czech names on there which hadn't – and which would never be...
Back home, the UK tour kicked off at The Venue in Edinburgh (see the review here) – the gig preceded by an in-store slot at Avalanche Records, where they performed a short set of rarities including 'Out of Mind on Dope and Speed', 'A Strange Communication', 'Moley and Me' and 'Fakir'. The tour started late for me, though, and I didn't catch them until five days later when they played Sheffield's very hot and very narrow Club Zero (review). This show saw the debut of a new song called 'Chicken Pig'. It's fair to say it didn't go down too well - someone described it as a "cacophonous dirge"! Little did we know that it would soon be transformed into one of BSP's most beautiful and elemental songs.
After an overnight stay in Matlock, I got up early to catch the (very) slow bus to Manchester – via the Peak District – in the company of two French BSP fans who had made the trip over. The scenery was spectacular but the journey seemed to take forever. We were rewarded that evening with a stunning gig at the Academy (the headline for the review published in the Daily Telegraph a few days later read "Exit awesome band, pursued by a bear"). The next morning, I caught the train for the following night's show in Birmingham (review here). This time my surprise travelling companion was Martin Noble, who had somehow contrived to lose all his fellow bandmates.
Leicester University on a sunny Sunday saw a great turnout from the regular away crew and a magnificent performance by both the band, who performed a near-perfect set of songs, and a feisty Ursine Ultra, as he took on all-comers. Definitely my vote for best bear of the tour!
By all accounts, the following gig – at Norwich Waterfront – was a corker too (read the review here).
But next up for me was Shepherd's Bush Empire, the band's biggest show to date – and my local music venue. The previous evening I went past the Empire on the bus on my way home from work. 'British Sea Power' read the billboard outside, 'Sold Out'. It really did feel that this was a turning point for the band. Just a year ago they were playing in Northampton in front of 50 people, now they were selling out major 2,000-capacity London venues.
I had been given permission to film the gig (as had my friend De Lacey). While De L was in the balcony, my position was in the camera pit. A weird experience in such a large venue. With the band almost on top of you, you can also feel the massive force of the mosh pit on the barriers behind. I thought I would be able to film there without any problems, but as the set reached its climax several members of the audience dived over the barrier, one landing on my head! I was also shoved down the other end of the stage by a bouncer at one point, probably for my own protection. (Didn't do much good – during 'Rock in A', Eamon jumped off the stage, tin hat on head, and came maraudering menacingly towards me thumping his drum...)
The raucous response of the audience wasn't surprising given the nature the performance, but you wouldn't have known this when they opened with 'Something Wicked'. Perhaps the aim was to lull the crowd into thinking this was going to be the tone for the rest of the gig. Any such impression wouldn't have lasted for long – the band followed it with a storming 'Remember Me' and 'Bass Rock'. The next four tracks – 'A Wooden Horse', 'Fear of Drowning', 'Apologies' and 'Spirit of St Louis' – were classic Sea Power at their very best and provided evidence, if any were needed, that the band were perfectly capable of performing at the top of their game in larger venues as well as the smaller clubs we'd been used to seeing them playing. What was perhaps the highlight of the 70-minute, 14-song set (no new ones this time) came towards the end when Katerina Winterova and Jan Muchow joined the band – together with viola player Abi Fry – to perform on 'A Lovely Day Tomorrow', just as they had in Prague. You can watch my slightly shaky amateur footage here:
After the gig, it was a short stroll home for me (and for the fellow fans I was putting up that night) and then a day pottering around London waiting for the final night of the tour – the 'Czech Sea Power' night at the Cargo club, a much more intimate venue. There is a lot elsewhere on this site about that gig (see the Cargo page and the review), so I won't go on. Suffice to say, that both Shepherd's Bush and Cargo confirmed what we already knew – that British Sea Power are the best live band in the world. And none of us would have swapped those two nights for anything. It also really did feel like it was the end of a stage in the band's history. With no gigs coming up, apart from a festival date on the Isle of Wight, and rumours of a new album in the pipeline, it seemed like these shows were the last hurrah for the Decline era. What a way to go out.
A gloriously sunny Bank Holiday morning at the end of May: a small assortment of British Sea Power fans are meeting at Glynde station in East Sussex for the first ever BSP-themed walk. The route would take us past the Ram Inn at Firle, where the Decline launch gig was held, and then up and over the South Downs to Alfriston and Lullington Church ('the smallest church in Sussex', as commemorated in the 'Remember Me' b-side), through Friston Forest and, finally, to Cuckmere Haven and the sea. It was a walk I had done myself several times over the years – Lullington Church was already a favourite spot (I was there, by coincidence, in 1993 on the day the centenary photograph of villagers, which hangs inside the church, was taken). Accompanying us was 'The Secretary', who had made plans for the band to leap out of the bushes and surprise us with ale and sandwiches. This sadly never materialised, but a week or so later in Brighton, BSP opened what would turn out to be a brilliant gig at the Freebutt with 'The Smallest Church' in dedication to the intrepid walkers. Initially billed as a festival warm-up, this Freebutt show tellingly saw the band perform on a stage bereft of foliage. Playing in front of such a small audience gave BSP the chance to try out many of the new songs, such as 'Mother' and 'Leaving Here', that would soon become regular features of their live sets. The new era had begun.
Amsterdam photograph by Cath Aubergine; Prague by Gigi Chang; Leicester flyer by Mick Wright; BSP walk by Cindy George; all others @ brilliantine mortality