The North Sea Scrolls
Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan devise a new occult history of Britain in this 'startling and truly unique' album
Anyone fancy a double concept album that details an alternate, occult history of the British Isles written by two of the greatest songwriters in the world?
If so, you're in luck. First unveiled at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, and now finally being released as an eponymous album, the Irish songwriter Cathal Coughlan (Fatima Mansions) and his English counterpart Luke Haines (The Auteurs) have come together with the journalist Andrew Mueller as The North Sea Scrolls to explore a Britain and Ireland where recent history isn't quite what it should be.
A concept album, you say, that most reviled and distrusted of formats that many see as one of the worst residual follies of 1970s rock? But Haines and Coughlan have little time for what is fashionable. In fact they actively embrace the out-dated and disparaged, electrifying the corpse for their own devious ends.
So here we have a song-cycle exploring, over 14 songs and various spoken-word premables from Mueller, a British Isles where Ireland invaded Britain, where Oswald Mosley is Prime Minister, where the witch trials have returned, and John Lennon and Chris Evans are dangerous heretics. So far, so obscure.
But what might be dismissed as a sixth-form in-joke are the stunningly crafted songs that give weight to the conceit and, through repeated listens, build into a thoughtful, engaging and poignant record.
Sharing seven songs apiece, this alternate history is introduced by Haines on the glorious ‘Broadmoor Blues Delta’ which sees – bear with me – Ian Ball, the man famous for a kidnap attempt on Princess Anne in 1974, selling his soul to the devil (in the guise of Jimmy Savile, no less) and becoming the lead singer of an indie band, the first of many weird and unlikely transformations.
Later, Haines’ nemesis, the DJ Chris Evans, is brought to justice and burnt at the stake during the new Witch Trials sweeping England, whilst the ‘The Morris Men Cometh’ imagines that particular group transformed into a vengeful, armed militia under the guidance of 1960s pop pioneer, Joe Meek.
The North Sea Scrolls have, so far, only performed four times and escaped the lens of YouTubers and their kind, though samples of the Haines and Coughlan back catalogue are out there if you want a feel of how this album sounds.
While Haines’ songs are fuelled with a poppy dynamism and his trademark eye for a very specific kind of English griminess, Coughlan’s songs are knottier and less willing to please.
His songs examine the more political aspects of this alternate timeline where Cynthia Lennon is a right-wing demagogue, and Martin Cahill, the Dublin criminal portrayed by Hollywood in The General, an all-powerful diplomat with a shaky hold on power (‘Have you met my anorexic chefs / My senile historians?’).
Best of all is ‘Tim Hardin MP’, a sinewy, jumps-all-over-the place stomp that only Coughlan could write that stands at the centre of the album and imagines how a folk-singer drug addict would fare at the heart of government (not well, it turns out).
Lastly we see even the darker periods of history reduced and commodified with the exploits of the IRA packaged into an Australian theme park, the past put to use for commercial purposes alone. Confronted with this – hardly the typical terrain of pop music – the listener may ask what point the men are trying to make?
While the bitterness and sarcasm of some of the lyrics might weary some, there is a brilliantly argued and profound message here, of the lies that become truth as the past is distorted (‘time’s not a line / its course predefined’ as Coughlan sings on the gorgeous ‘Mr Cynthia’), the manner in which vested interests seek to control how certain periods are remembered, of victim culture and the legacy of colonialism.
Like Alan Moore with his The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, hidden truths are reached by simply imagining how the world might look if people and events hadn’t mingled in the way they did, and the bizarre juxtapositions and unlikely bedfellows that result when the kaleidoscope is shaken.
Lofty ideas, but The North Sea Scrolls somehow pull it off, distilling their bizarre story into a clutch of three-minute songs, including some of the prettiest things both Coughlan and Haines have ever written, and making for a startling and truly unique record.
The North Sea Scrolls is out now on Fantastic Plastic.