Caught by the River

From Cabaret Voltaire to Curlews

Roy Wilkinson | 13th June 2008

New Order’s Bernard Sumner once explained the inspiration behind his songs: “It’s all about birds isn’t it?” He wasn’t talking about the song thrush or semipalmated sandpiper. It’s difficult to imagine the inspirational but hugely lazy Manc picking up some binoculars and trekking through the woods. But some pop songs really do deal with the feathered mass. Edwyn Collins has hymned both the blackcap and black-headed gull in his songs. Bert Jansch named an album Avocet – after the elegant pied wading bird of the RSPB logo. Noble, the guitarist with British Sea Power, gave the name The Great Skua to his soaring instrumental on the band’s recent album Do You Like Rock Music? (The great skua, of course, is a ferocious seabird also known as the bonxie and robber bird). But no musician has moved from rock to birdlife quite as impressively Chris Watson. He was once part of the Sheffield avant-dance group Cabaret Voltaire, but Watson has long since moved on to become one of the world’s foremost wildlife sound recordists. In an excellent free birdwatching supplement from The Guardian and Observer, Watson has selected his 10 favourite bird songs:

click here to hear

When Watson talks about the spectral in-flight ‘drumming’ of the snipe and the gorgeous song of the ubiquitous blackbird, it’s perhaps clear this is a man who has surveyed all rock can offer – and found it wanting beside the wonder of the avian world. Anyone who has witnessed the courtship dance of the Slavonian grebe will know that here is display, drama and vocalisation to shame anything you get in the concert hall. With its fierce red eye and outrageous mustard-yellow tufts, the Slav grebe could’ve been the template for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane period. But the grebe didn’t have to daub on red slap or resort to hair dye – and, as far we know, Bowie hasn’t performed while walking on water (or, indeed, learnt to fly). Read Chris Watson on the melancholy minimalism of the golden plover or the swallow’s “freeform jazz” and it will perhaps become further clear why musicians from Billy Fury to Elbow’s Guy Garvey have been smitten by the music that fills our skies – all around us, unamplified, astonishing.

Roy Wilkinson