on 1 December 2012
If you want an alternative history of the so-called British Isles, a journey with the epic soothsayers Haines and Coughlan, then you have come to the right alley. Who knew that these music leg-ends knew each other in the first place? Their songs flow seamlessly and touch on the dark side of the underground , an upside-down terrain where Gomez go mad in Broodmoor, Chris Evans is a saint and religion and politics coem unstuck.The timeline poster in the CD packaging puts it all in place and is outrageouslly funny.
Originally premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011, this is the studio recording of The North Sea Scrolls - a re-imagining of the history of the UK by singer-songwriters Luke Haines & Cathal Coughlan and writer Andrew Mueller. Here's how Haines sums up the concept:
"It's about some hidden information that's become known as the North Sea Scrolls that have come to our notice. This information fundamentally would redefine the way we view our entire history as a nation, and possibly as a planet. It's no small change, this North Sea Scrolls business."
Amongst their re-imaginings, Joe Meek is appointed the Minister of Culture by Lord Protector Oswald Mosley, DJ Chris Evans is burnt at the stake and Enoch Powell, the former "excitable Secretary of State for Death", is now the Poet Laureate. They name check almost everybody from Charles Bronson, Sid James and Gazza to wannabe Princess Anne kidnapper Ian Ball and his namesake (the guitarist from Gomez!) and Tony Allen (a bit-part actor from The Sweeney and Minder).
A concept album, the first disc features a couple of narratives and 13 songs - six written and sung by Haines, six written and sung by Coughlan with the final track being a collaborative effort. The second disc consists of 'The Whole Show', where the exact same songs from the first disc are preceded by a narrative written and performed by Mueller where he informs the listener of the contents of The North Sea Scrolls. Each narrative is between 1-2 minutes in length and the subject matter of each one is followed by a reinterpretation in song form by either Haines or Coughlan. It's an absolutely absurd, insane and mad concept and it probably shouldn't work, but it's exceptional!
The music is, for the most part, acoustic and features piano, guitar and cello and it never veers into comedy territory. However, a lot of lyrics and all of the narratives are hilarious and surreal. Haines and Coughlan are on top form here - the songs are immediate and, despite the subject matters, utterly gorgeous at times. Cathal Coughlan, with his rich baritone voice, brings to mind Scott Walker and Nick Cave both vocally and musically. Master wordsmith Luke Haines brings to mind ...Luke Haines, carrying on where he left off on his previous solo album (a superb concept album about the British wrestling scene of the 1970s).
A serious contender for album of the year, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Housed in a gatefold cardboard sleeve, this 2CD set is a good idea by the label - the narratives don't lend themselves well to repeated listens and get in the way of the songs.
The track list:
1. Preamble (Intro)
2. Broadmoor Blues Delta
3. Mr Cynthia
4. I'm Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I'm The Actor Tony Allen
5. Witches In The Water
6. I Am Falconetti
7. The Papal Pagan
8. Ayatollah Cornelius
9. The Morris Man Cometh
10. Tim Hardin MP
11. Enoch Powell - Space Poet
12. The Australian IRA Show
13. My Mother My Dead Mother
14. Narration (Outro)
15. Anthem Of The Scrolls
1. Preamble (Intro)
2. Scroll 1
3. Broadmoor Blues Delta
4. Scroll 2
5. Mr Cynthia
6. Scroll 3
7. I'm Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I'm The Actor Tony Allen
8. Scroll 4
9. Witches In The Water
10. Scroll 5
11. The Papal Pagan
12. Scroll 6
13. Ayatollah Cornelius
14. Scroll 7
15. I Am Falconetti
16. Scroll 8
17. The Morris Man Cometh
18. Scroll 9
19. Tim Hardin MP
20. Scroll 10
21. Enoch Powell Space Poet
22. Scroll 11
23. The Australian IRA Show
24. Scroll 12
25. My Mother My Dead Mother
26. Narration (Outro)
27. Anthem Of The Scrolls
Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan's re-writing of 20th century British Isles history in the story of The North Sea Scrolls provides a truly delightful (and, of course, a darkly satirical) set of musings. With the accompaniment between 'songs' of journalist and author Andrew Mueller's dulcet explanatory monologue, the pair of songsmiths have surpassed themselves, certainly purely in terms of witty levels of invention.
Mixing fact and fiction at will, the Scrolls' cast of characters is wide and varied and at various points each of Joe Meek (Minister of Culture), Oswald Mosley (Lord Protector), papists, Sid James, Ayatollahs, Hawkwind, Morris Men, Enoch Powell (Poet Laureate), Steve Hillage, On The Buses, Plastic Bertrand, Gazza (not the strip) and all things Australian come under scrutiny - the latter in one of Coughlan's finest moments, in which Australian tribute acts are taken to their (logical?) extreme in the form of (Coughlan's song) The Australian IRA Show (inspired by an Irish musician named Corr).
The North Sea Scrolls comprises 2 CDs - one with (essentially) just the 12 Scrolls songs, plus (one of the album's highlights) The Anthem Of The Scrolls - and the second with Mueller's full narration betwixt (oh no, they've got me at it now!) the songs. I must admit to a definite preference for Haines' compositions - for me, some of these are right up there with the best Auteurs' songs (and likewise make excellent use of the cello, in this case played by Audrey Riley). The parody of Mercury Prize-winning Gomez ('So hard to classify') in The Broadmoor Blues Delta is hilarious, whilst the inventiveness of the acerbic scribe in recasting obscure actor as cultural provocateur in I'm Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I'm The Actor Tony Allen' is sublime (and the album's standout for me). Similarly, Haines' vibrant vocal turn on I Am Falconetti sadly concludes with the burning at the stake of radio DJ Chris Evans, who (as Mueller narrates) is, 'a pringin' ginger nitwit, as disposable as he is irritating'.
That is not to say that Coughlan's songs are without merit. On the contrary, his deeper singing voice becomes almost mesmerising at times, and each of Mr Cynthia, Witches In The Water and Ayatollah Cornelius are beautifully dark and lyrical.
An original, funny, tuneful and (largely) successful piece of (essentially) musical theatre.
The North Sea Scrolls is a concept album and academic lecture by Luke Haines (The Auteurs, Baader Meinhof, Black Box Recorder, and fine solo albums) and Cathal Coughlan (Microdisney, The Fatima Mansions, and fine solo albums), and with narrations by Andrew Mueller, that presents an alternate history of Britain in song and spoken word.
The version I bought has two versions of the album in one lovely double CD package. CD1 is just the songs (15 tracks), whilst CD2 is the same songs with excerpts from each of the North Sea Scrolls between each track (27 tracks). The album's narrative makes more sense on CD2 but realistically most listeners will probably not want to hear the full version after getting a handle on the concept. The album's premise is that the North Sea Scrolls were discovered stashed in an East Anglian boarding house and the scrolls contain a hidden history of Britain.
50% of the songs are sung by Cathal Coughlan, and 50% sung by Luke Haines. The listening experience suggests that each artist worked independently on the songs - as each style is so distinctive. I find that Cathal Coughlan's songs are harsher and angrier, whilst Luke Haines' are a bit more accessible and immediate.
Luke's tunes continue his usual obsessions, and throw in a few new ones too, and the album's concept is typically Haines-ian. After a preamble about the Scrolls we're off and running with a classic Luke Haines song "Broadmoor Blues Delta" which embraces Gomez (the Mercury Prize winning band of yesteryear), a Vauxhall Astra, the man who tried to kidnap Princess Anne, Berkshire, a sing song in a psychiatric unit to Robert Johnson, the "MTV blues" courtesy of The White Stripes, and so on. How can anyone not love this man? Wonderful.
Next up is Cathal Coughlan's "Mr Cynthia". A maudlin tune with more obtuse, less literal lyrics. Then comes "I'm Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I'm The Actor Tony Allen". Unquestionably one of the album's highlights. Who else but Luke Haines would find inspiration in the actor who famously (well for this Sweeney fan anyway) played the part of Bill The Driver in many episodes of The Sweeney)? Needless to say all is not what is seems. Allen is in fact responsible for the paintings of Francis Bacon,is the secret lover of Sid James, a patient of RD Laing, and a Northern Soul obsessive - so much so that he incessantly plays Dean Parrish's "I'm On Way". Now then, as a man who has actually seen Dean Parrish play live (well sing over a backing tape), and who loves "I'm On Way" and has huge affection for Bill The Driver, this song could just contain feedback, a la Metal Machine Music, and I'd love it. As it turns out it's another Luke Haines classic. Every line is a delight. One example, "the children of Haw Haw are blogging out at sea". Marvellous.
"I am Falconetti", Scroll 5 sung by Luke, is another favourite. It is a ditty about Chris Evans the DJ: "I am Falconetti and God spoke to me, he said cry no more for Jimmy five bellies, save your tears for Billie" and "Hospital radio to the breakfast show, the flames kissed the golden curls.."
I'm not going to work through each track, however the basic message is that everything you know is wrong. What the Scrolls apparently tell us is that history is very different to what we have all previously believed. For example, Ireland actually successfully invaded and conquered Britain in 1948; Sir Oswald Mosley led two successive British governments as the nation's Lord Protector in the 1960s, and - most wonderfully - Enoch Powell joined Gong having reinvented himself as a Space Poet. These are the kind of earth-shattering epiphanies this album gives the listener.
The final song, or scroll, is "Anthem Of The Scrolls" and is a rousing way to end this wonderful album: "Evans has gone and Baker has gone, he's a latter day saint and a seer, but Gazza's got plans for Britain's most wanted man, bring him KFC and a beer". This tune, as well as referencing Gazza and Raoul Moat, also echoes Mott The Hoople's "All The Young Dudes" with Luke Haines referencing Ian Hunter's call to bring up an audience member wearing glasses..."hey you with the fishing rod, come up here...".
It's hard to imagine anyone else other than Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan who could come up with such a bizarre and quirky concept - it's a triumph of ingenuity, language and storytelling. Well worth it for anyone who likes either artist - or who has the patience to embrace an amusing and quirky concept with a wealth of brilliant lyrics and some memorable tunes.
I have also seen the album performed live too - an experience I would also recommend.
on 21 April 2013
The concept is great, a kind of modern Bonzo dog doo da band.
But, the sound recording is atrocious. It seems to have been recorded with the levels right at the top of the scale and sound quality was poor. Many of the tracks were badly 'clipped'.
It improved somewhat after being rerun through soundforge, but I can't help wondering what it should have sounded like.