In 2003, I picked up an album simply because of its title and the design of the cover. That album was ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’ by ‘British Sea Power’. It has become one of my favourite albums and I’ve seen the band too many times to count.
The design of the album was understated and harked back to an earlier time, as if it has been screen printed. With its simple serif font. Mustard, black and grey colour with simple leaf icons and a quote.
“We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead.“
Inside the cover, if you still had concerns about the militaristic nature of their name, three guns had turned into a shovel, rake and hoe. The design looked like old albums from the 1950s. Not sure why. But it just felt to me that this band were going to be different.
Nearly 20 years on from their debut album, the band have decided their name is problematic and have just announced that their latest album will be under the moniker of ‘Sea Power’. They feel that ‘British’ has been hijacked by recent events like Brexit and the right of politics playing off nationalism. For a band with a pro-immigration song in ‘Waving Flags’ and a wistful look back, rather than wanting to turn back the clocks, that’s not them.
For the last few years, I have to admit, I sometimes had to think twice about wearing one of my many British Sea Power t-shirts. For me it hasn’t been ‘British’ that’s bothered me, but the whole term. ‘British Sea Power’. If Sea Power had kept their original name, British Air Power, I wouldn’t have had an issue. But each time I decided that by not wearing the t-shirt I would be giving up ‘British’ to the nationalists and I’m proud of much of what Britain and England are. So what is it about the term ‘British Sea Power’ that has caused me concerns?
The most obvious is that it was Britain’s power at sea that drove our expansion around the world and with it some reprehensible activity that we are still living with. Front and centre is the transatlantic slave trade was driven by the sea. Britain was centre of that trade for 200 years. Britain moved around 3 million Africans to our colonies in the Americas and Caribbean. While we didn’t start the trade and pretty much every country in the world has some history of slavery. The industrialisation of the trade, the wealth it generated for Britain, millions of displaced people, and the destruction of communities across Western Africa is a long lasting a legacy we are still living with.
The second area where ‘British Sea Power’ has been problematic for me was the Royal Navy was used to project British power across the globe. After reading about the Opium wars (something not covered in history at school). It was clear the vastly superior Royal Navy was used to throttle China, forcing them to accept immoral British terms. The term ‘British sea power’ was used regularly throughout the articles and made me feel extremely uncomfortable about the band’s name.
Now set against that and to some extent the mindset I had when I first bought the album, was the ‘decline’ of British sea power harks back to positive things we’ve lost. We aren’t that nation anymore. Maybe we can see the good as well as the evil carried out in the past when we think about the decline. For example, it was the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy that kept up supplied during WWII. Our country survives because of our then sea power. It also calls into mind the gutsy actions of the ‘tiny boats’ at Dunkirk. The great explorations carried out by the admiralty, such as Darwin’s voyagers (although, we’re now starting to view some of these in a different light). Possibly the biggest area where I take some weird pride is that in the end Britain stopped our slave trade and then went one step further and British sea power was used to stop the transatlantic slave trade. We did wrong. But unlike most countries with a slave trading past, at least seemed to learn a bit too late that our actions were immoral and tried to make stamp the trade out. But to be perfectly honest this has always been my way of rationalising supporting a band with a problematic name.
Britain is a nation that faces our legacy on a daily basis. Our Empire became the commonwealth and many came to help Britain to help rebuild after the war, often to a hostile reaction. In the last 50 years, racism had seemed to reduce, but it seems it just went underground waiting for a chance to rise again. As we’ve seen in the last decade. There has been a massive rise in nationalism and with it, unfortunately, racism is creeping back out into the open. With Nationalists trying to take ownership of Britishness and defining it in their twisted image. ‘British’ in Sea Power risks being a contaminated idea.
Talking to Shaun Keaveny, Yan reflected ‘we’d been considering on and off for a long time. We even considered changing our name after our first album…. for one thing our fans generally call us Sea Power anyway…. Over the years I gradually found British Sea Power quiet awkward at times’. (in terms of the length of the name). ‘But we’ve been around for 20 years as British Sea Power…. The world seems to have changed a bit since then. It does seem more of a loaded name than ever. The world seems to have, dare I say it, moved towards nationalism…. and that’s not what we’re about.. We’ve always been the opposite to that really. It just taken us 20 years to realise that the name can easily be wrongly interpreted.”
Now I wear a BSP t-shirt every week because it has the word British in it. I don’t like how the word has been owned by the right for the last few years. Wearing a t-shirt for a band who talk about a different Britain helps me feel like I have some ownership. I’m not willing to allow the nationalists tell me what Britishness is. So I have to admit, I’m sad to see the word British dropped from their name. But it’s completely understandable.
Sea Power aren’t the first artists to reflect on their names. There’s been a long history of bands and artists changing their names for various reasons, from Prince dealing with contactual issues, to Led Zeppelin, changing their name from the Yardbirds when the Yardbirds had basically split. But it’s surprising how many changes are self-inflicted. From bands with ungoogable names that return too many results, or using weird spellings that can’t be found so need to be simplified. To bands who haven’t checked for cultural issues. To bands who don’t appear to have googled to see if the name had been used before. It’s amazing how many bands still mess up their names.
The Slaves were criticised by Fader of appropriating the term. “Why would a band of white dudes name themselves slaves?” they queried in an article at the time. Laurie speaking to the NME commented ‘If you pick up an Oxford dictionary and look up the word “slaves”, there is no mention of any racial context. A slave is a person who is owned by another person and forced to work for free. In that manner, people who deem you a racist are being incredibly small minded because slavery has happened to every single creed, race and religion and it’s not a racist term.’ continuing. ‘There are days when we think, ‘Oh man, why did we pick this name?’ But now I look at it, it’s important. It says a lot about the time we live in that freedom of speech is so over analysed that you can’t even use words.’.
Maybe from a US perspective, slavery is intrinsically connected to the enslavement to African Americans. But I know when I studded history at school, slavery was covered in many different contexts, from Roman slavery right up to the 20th Century with Germans forcing 6 million civilians into slavery during the WWII and the death of 5 million Jews in the holocaust. Is slavery really owned by African Americans? Clearly not from a world-wide perspective. But it doesn’t matter. When they chose the name. They failed to think about the context elsewhere and had to deal with the fallout.
Another band who change their name were the Canadian band Preoccupations. Originally they were the ‘Viet Cong’. Not surprisingly, the name didn’t go down well in the USA. Eventually, after a year of negative press, they changed their name. But how do you come up with a name like ‘Viet Song’ without understanding that it might not play well in the USA?
Another common issue is bands choosing bands names that are taken. Joy Division made the mistake of calling themselves Warsaw which clashed with a punk band, Warsaw Pact. While the name Joy Division is now iconic. Even after changing their name, it didn’t end their problems as the name comes from a novel ‘The House of Dolls’ about Jewish women forced into sexual slavery in concentration camps called ‘Joy Divisions’. Luckily they learnt their lesson. After Ian Curtis’s death. They changed their name to ‘New Order’…. oh wait. Some people never learn.
I remember hearing hype for a band called Deers. On the way to their first UK gig, I heard they had to change their name as there was another band called ‘The Deers’ who had raised an objection to them using the name. It was fun seeing people turn up to the venue see the sign on the door saying ‘Hinds’ and wander off to to try and find the correct venue.
It must be difficult for new artists to consider how their name will be perceived down the line. How many bands honestly believe they’re going to be a worldwide hit or have a decade long career? I guess the best thing to do is google your ideas and spend some time checking that it hasn’t been used, is too generic so won’t be found in search results, isn’t a cussing or sexual word or phrase in a foreign language and that the name has no cultural baggage. You don’t want to have to change you name 20 years into your career.
Anyway, I’m off now. I have some duct tape and several
British Sea Power t-shirts to fix.