There is a genre of song that is about a general sense of place but that each listener can relate in their own mind to a more specific time and place. Songs about the countryside, perhaps, or mountains or woods. Possibly the most extensive examples are about the sea, which lends itself to song lyrics as it did to poetry. I don’t mean so much those songs about events that happened at sea - like Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog or Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - but just about the sea itself, the best of which enable the listener to identify with something in their own memory.
There is the classic La Mer, by Charles Trenet, which for some reason –possibly I heard it playing at the time on someone’s transistor radio –I always associate with Weymouth sea front: blue sea, sand and sandcastles with paper flags in them, ice-creams, Punch and Judy, donkey rides. The original words, apparently written on toilet paper on a French train, are actually a lot more lyrical –‘The sea, that one sees dancing along the clear gulfs, has silver reflections’ – than the much more chirpy English version that became Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea. Or there is the song Sailor by the American group Hem, which could be taken as a love song or a child’s lullaby. Listening to the words –‘over the ocean, pearls in the sky strung round the moon, pointing to you’ – the rich musical backing and the soft, almost murmuring, voice of singer Sally Ellyson, and the sea becomes a picture in a book of nursery rhymes. You can almost imagine Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing past in their wooden shoe.
As someone who grew up on the south coast, the sea was part of my childhood, something always there on the landscape and marking the edges of my world. Most of the time it was a backdrop to the sort of scene described in Morrisey’s Every Day is Like Sunday, with the trudging back over wet sands and the tea and chips in the seafront cafes. There were times however, as on Portland Bill or Chesil Beach, where the storms, the undercurrents and the breaking waves on rocks, made the world of the seafront seem pretty irrelevant. It is for associations like this that a different sort of song is more fitting
The song here- by Fotheringay, the short-lived group built round Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention for the first time - is also just called The Sea but it paints a very different picture. It came from their 1970 album titled after the group and though some of it now sounds dated – file under Folk-Rock, early 1970’s – The Sea, fittingly given its subject matter, is timeless. The musical backing is one of those moments when words and music provided a perfect complement for the subject matter. Cymbals crash gently like waves, the bass carries the listener forward as an undercurrent and the guitar solo by Jerry Donahue sparkles like splashing droplets in the sun. There is a feel of the Fleetwood Mac instrumental, Albatross, at times.
The mood, however, is deceptive. The sea here is not wild but is certainly not the millpond calm of Sailor or the poetic horizons of La Mer. The lyrics, penned by Sandy Denny, paint the sea as something relentless, even slightly sinister at times, with the power to bring human effort to nothing- ‘Fall and listen with your ears upon the paving stone, Is that what you hear? The coming of the sea’ There are also not many lines like this – ‘Sea flows under your doors in London town, And all your defences are all broken down’ – that could have come from a song any time in the last 2000 years.
Whether Sandy Denny based the song on a view from a particular piece of coastline or not doesn’t really matter, for the listener will bring to mind their own place to fit it. For me, the association is with being on Brighton Pier one dark wintry evening, with stars bright in a clear sky. The sea wasn’t particularly rough but it crashed endlessly against the pier supports, with spray rising to splash my face, so that the whole structure felt fragile and the blackness below was a reminder that the whole facade of a seaside town can be pretty vulnerable. The coming of the sea.
Link to song