Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Sound Affects – an occasional foray into the non-human ingredients in music (part one)

          This morning I was shaving, as I tend to most days, when a phenomenally large gull (a Herring Gull since you ask) landed on the outside windowsill mere inches away from my face and fixed me with cold raptor eyes. (I should explain that I refuse to have frosted glass in my bathroom window, on the grounds that it’s pretty much the first thing I look out of once my eyes have focussed in the morning and I want to enjoy the rather special view. Either that or I’m a voyeur and/or exhibitionist – take your pick…). Now I have nothing in particular against gulls but the sheer fearlessness and rapaciousness of the ones around here is startling sometimes. You can see where Daphne Du Maurier got the idea for The Birds – she didn’t live that far away either…..

          Anyway it got me thinking – there’s that ‘what’s the soundtrack to your life’ question which comes up now and again and I always struggle to answer, there’s just too much to choose from. But this morning it struck me like a ton of feathers, the soundtrack to my life – at least for the last twenty five years – has been the sound of gulls. They rarely stop. They squeal, they wail, they yodel, they caterwaul, they mew and they do a call and response that Ray Charles would be proud of. Everything seems to set them off. I used to particularly like it when the lifeboat maroons went off at night – that always got them up in the air to add a whole new level of alarm, I’m sure more lifeboatmen were woken by them  than by the preceding dual explosions. During the eclipse a few years back they went absolutely crazy as the sun disappeared and even last night in the midst of this sodden excuse for a summer they screeched at the merest hint of late evening sun (mind you so did half the population, its been so rare down here).

          So, a constant soundtrack – It’s even more obvious that it’s become integral to my life when I realised that I can hear the absence of gulls. Yep, when they do stop, or when I venture inland, I notice it – it’s like the coast has been switched off.

          Anyway, all this started me thinking (as I do) about the role of the gull in popular music – And I don’t mean A Flock Of Seagulls, but that they’ve probably been on more tracks than any animal I can think of apart from maybe dogs. And what’s more they’re on some pretty good ones too. If a song needs that bit of a seaside air, a hint of desolation or maybe some lonely yearning then they send out for the Session Gulls – tearing them away from their relentless pursuit of other people’s leftovers to lay down some atmosphere. I’m sure that people will tell me it isn’t just gulls on records and there’s an equal amount of rockin’ robins, blackbirds in the dead of night and nightingales singing in Berkeley Square, but it’s gulls that I always hear.

           Exhibit Number One – (Remember) Walkin’ in the sand, how would those Queens, New York girls The Shangri Las have ever made so many dumped teenagers feel like they were the only ones on the shore if it wasn’t for the gulls ?

          Exhibit Number Two : Otis on the Dock of the Bay, what else to say about the Southern gulls there ?

          Exhibit Three – Lazy Sunday – Not the best Small Faces song I’ll grant you but the best bit of it is when Stevie stops coming over all Artful Dodger and gets soulful to the backing of swirling gulls….

          Then there’s Sunny Goodge Street by Donovan, Procul Harum’s A Salty Dog, and there might even be some on Flux of Pink Indians' Tube Disasters although I'm suspicious that they might be anarchocrows instead. I also seem to recall Joni Mitchell using them on roughly half her songs (tho I’ll admit I don’t share most people’s opinion of her so won’t go and listen to them again….ever).

           As for absence of gulls – The Jam’s English Rose so perfectly leaves them out in favour of a ship’s foghorn that I’d swear I can hear them anyway !

          So as I stared into the unblinking yellow eye of the monster on my windowsill my heart softened a bit and I briefly forgave him and his kind for dragging the contents of my bins across the garden, for smashing mussel shells on the roof at five in the morning, for blocking my gutters with seaweed and for stealing lunch straight from my eight year-old’s hand one holiday. Without them some small but significant pieces of musical treasure just wouldn’t be the same…. (and I hope you appreciate that I resisted using the phrase ‘everything but the gull’…).

          So in admiration here’s a couple for you Larus argentatus

The Shangri La's - Remember (Walkin in the sand)

Small Faces - Lazy Sunday Afternoon
(though now I listen again I'm not so sure that they're gulls....damn !)

1 comment:

  1. What an inspired post! I find the sound of gulls very evocative, and even though we don't get them much round here, on the occasions that they do come a little bit inland - usually when the fields are being ploughed - I get quite excited just to hear their calls. Being small garden bird crazy I might not appreciate their daily visits and voracious appetites, but they're still birds and for that alone I gotta love 'em. And they are so mesmerising to watch, catching the breeze, bobbing on the waves or strutting about on the land.
    As for songs - wow, you've started something there. One that immediately springs to mind that I've liked for a long time is the Hollies' 'Postcard'. The sound of the waves and the (albeit fairly quiet) gulls is the perfect start and finish to a pretty much perfect pop song to my ears.
    (I also have it on fairly good authority that they are indeed corvids - no doubt anarchrows as you say, or perhaps rooks? - on FOPI's Tube Disaster/Neu Smell EP...)