Do It For Your Mum. By Roy Wilkinson
Review by Luke Turner.
The traditional rock biography is often a dispiriting affair, either dry analysis from a critic outsider, or vainglorious preening from the artist themselves. Do It For Your Mum, by contrast, is one of the finest books you will ever read involving the need to transfer the narrative of lives playing rock & roll onto the printed page. This is, in part, because Roy Wilkinson’s book is not really a mere rock memoir at all – as the subtitle of One band, one dad, one world war – a story of British Sea Power, rock dreams and family farce informs.
Wilkinson is the older brother of British Sea Power’s singer Scott and bassist Neil. A music journalist, he spotted their emerging musical talent, and managed the band from the late 1990s until 2005. Their father, born in 1924, served as an anti-aircraft gunner in the Second World War, before, in his later years, becoming obsessed with indie rock (favourite group, The Butthole Surfers). It is his father’s life and wholehearted desire to see British Sea Power triumph that provides Wilkinson with his narrative and thematic framework. Indeed, some of the finest passages in the book deal with Wilkinson’s seniors’ time in uniform, during which he never fired a gun in anger, but did inadvertently cause the destruction of a Spitfire in a cycling accident: “Dad seemed to have experienced the Second World War as a vast repository of ennui, absurdism and loneliness,” writes Wilkinson. There are hints here of Spike Milligan’s war memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall. This unusual upbringing in the Natland Valley by parents two generations above suggests that BSP’s use of fatigues, 40s barbering, and lyrics of heroic oddness in a time not quite of our own time is further evidence that they are not mere nostalgists, but have simply inherited a worldview far removed from that of their musical peers.
Just as the onstage foliage and knack of pulling off concerts in unusual places has always been integral to British Sea Power’s aesthetic and modus operandi, so Wilkinson’s use here of the odd piece of historical or scientific enlightenment is never laboured, and his colourful but never garish prose shines. There are lovely linguistic touches, such as the poet Jock Scott (who recorded BSP’s one radio advert) being described as a “heroin enthusiast”, or the wonderful passage in which Wilkinson remarks on his dream for a festival hosted by the group in “the gorgeous forest of the Cesky Raj” where, as well as concerts by Kate Bush and a talk on Scandinavian seafaring from Julian Cope, “Iggy [Pop]’s headlining set would be presaged by a flypast from Team Iskry – an air-display formation consisting of gleaming red-and-white Cold War-era Polish jets, the retro-desirable Moog synthesisers of aviation”. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
Of course, that longed-for meeting of rock and pre-Glasnost aeronautics never came to pass, and it’s in his brutally honest appraisal of his own (perceived) shortcomings as a manager that Wilkinson most effectively pops the egoism of the standard rock memoir. There was the time when, en route to give the band their vinyl copies of their debut album, he left them behind on the bus; an unfortunate and expensive encounter with corrupt Russian coppers, and the simple truth that, despite (or more likely because of) all their inventiveness, charm, and crackers aesthetic, the bands who had once supported BSP – The Strokes, The Killers, The Libertines – soon far outstripped them in terms of commercial success. Yet, as our 87-year-old hero would surely tell all comers in the Natland Post Office, BSP remain the superior group. It’s not just in the story of their brilliant albums and innumerable demented and unusual gigs that the inner workings of this most criminally underestimated of our groups are revealed here. As Wilkinson muses, “sometimes it seems BSP exist as much in a hanging mist of ideas of ideas and mutual joy as in the band’s music.” Do It For Your Man is a fine distillation of those rich and wonderful vapours.