‘My Beautiful England’
Ex-Servants songwriter returns extolling arcane Albion culture with an Orwellian case for English patriotism and British history. It’s mind boggling stuff, writes Neil Davenport.
Back in August, Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? by Nige Tassell was published. It was a great pitch for a book: to track down musicians from each of the twenty-two bands featured on the NME’s infamous 1986 compilation tape. Apart from Primal Scream, the class of ’86 had long drifted into obscurity and regular employment. The phrase ‘cautionary tale’ could summarise many of the hard luck endeavours found in Tassell’s book.
At chapter 16, there’s none more hard luck than that of David Westlake. His band back in 1986, The Servants, had talent to burn. Two classic singles, ‘She’s Always Hiding’ and ‘A Sun A Small Star’, and a treacle thick, reverb heavy John Peel session, signposted a potentially major songwriter. But The Servants and Westlake’s trajectory, of perennial label issues and legal woes, at times bordered on farce. Together with a pre-Auteurs Luke Haines between 1987 to 1991, The Servants became permanently in limbo. History was being made elsewhere and the pair became passive spectators.
A disillusioned Westlake retreated to academia and law before self-releasing Play Dusty For Me in 2002, a third Velvets album inspired set that re-connected him to the original Servants after the frantic art-rock of Disinterest, the unironically titled debut from 1990.
But Westlake’s songs were simply too good to languish in complete obscurity forever. Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch mentioned how he attempted to track down David Westlake in an effort to form a band with him. A 1987 Janice Long session with the Go Betweens on backing was often repeated on Gideon Coe’s 6Music show.
The biggest boost arrived from the good people at Cherry Red in 2006. At long last, a compilation of early Servants material was rounded up on the 21 track Reserved album. Finally, we had in our possession recordings of gems such as ‘Whose Calling You Baby Now?’ and ‘Loggerheads’. Six years later, Cherry Red issued the unreleased second Servants album, the also unironically titled Small Time. American Anglophiles were also taking notice, releasing versions of Reserved tracks as well as reissuing Play Dusty For Me on vinyl.
In between the re-prints of the past decade, Westlake tentatively revealed that new material would eventually be released. Now with Luke Haines back on board, the quasi-concept album My Beautiful England is Westlake’s first all new set in twenty years. It’s an extraordinary record, a contemporary update on George Orwell’s critiques of left intelligentsia found in England Your England (1941). It features a much deeper level of critical commentary than anywhere else right now. ‘The Age of Unenlightenment’ and ‘E is for Empire’, for example, demands a reading of British history that highlights the nations achievements as well as its atrocities. As Orwell will also tell you, when the past is politically controlled, so is the present and future.
This is high level stuff. Not since Malcom Eden’s old band McCarthy (but in a completely different historical context) has there been an attempt to intelligently challenge received wisdom. And not since Black Box Recorder’s England Made Me has there been an attempt to finger New Labour’s Third Way as a destructive force on the nations once stoic and resilient character. The haunting, opening title track asks ‘what have they done to you?’ about England, a recognition of the cultural vandalism that’s emerged since the late-nineties.
As My Beautiful England unashamedly nails its mast to a pro-Brexit position (see the Style Council flourish of ‘Au Contraire, Tony Blair’), the album is on a direct collision course with music industry Remainers and Blairite ideologues. Westlake is unlikely to be receiving Christmas cards from Stuart Lee anytime soon. But leaving aside ideological divides, My Beautiful England simply triumphs as a consistently great, 14-song guitar pop album. It’s packed with some of Westlake’s best songs. There’s a fierce and unexpected urgency here from a writer who normally trades in dimly-lit beauty. There are surprises galore.
‘Mallory Kept Climbing the Mountain’ proffers the spectacle of The Bunnymen paying tribute to Everest mountaineer, George Mallory, whilst pile driving through a stomping ska beat. The barrelling ‘War Memorial’ might recall the jovial heft of, dare I say it, Britpop, but it’s shot through with a ghostly atmosphere that pervades the album. ‘Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood’, a breezy run around on formative years, turns a June Brides trumpet into a delicious earworm. There’s more nostalgic localism on the glam-riffed ‘Hayes, Middlesex,’ tributing both The Sweet and The Ruts who first gigged there. It’s this optimistic and celebratory side of My Beautiful England that fleshes out the album’s broader conceptual themes. There’s a civic minded love of country here, an English version of that expressed by Scottish and Welsh bands and artists. ‘The Modern Ruins of Old London Town’ and the beautiful, hazy ‘English Parish Churches’ perfectly capture a sense of time, place and geography.
There’s a lot to take in here. Tributes to ‘queen of the music halls’ Marie Lloyd. Nineteenth century military history (‘General Gordon’s Last Stand’) and the marvels of pre-Victorian architecture (‘Regency Terrace’). Westlake is occupying the musty attic of British history last delved into by (British) Sea Power, but without the arched cosplay. He has a genuine fascination for arcane Albion and a true believer in stiff upper lip values.
Whatever happened to the C86 Kids? For this one, he’s only turned in one of the most idiosyncratic, political and blazingly tuneful guitar pop albums this year. There’s no cautionary tale to be had here.
My Beautiful England is out now on Tiny Global Productions