ZorbingBeachcomber's Windowsill
You Don't Know AnythingYou Don't Know Anything
You Take Me As I AmTales From Terra Firma
Get LowBonxie
On The RocksBeachcomber's Windowsill
(A Belated) Invite To EternityTales From Terra Firma
Love Song Of The Beta MaleBonxie
The Road You Didn't TakeBonxie
The Bigger PictureTales From Terra Firma
Fuel UpBeachcomber's Windowsill



Stornoway photo

Stornoway (l to r): Rob Steadman (drums), Jonathan Ouin (keyboards), Brian Briggs (vocals, guitar), Oli Steadman (bass)


Contributor: John Hartley

“Dmm-D-Dmm, Dmm-D-Dmm …”

The tines of the fork sink into the stone-laden soil of what is slowly but surely becoming a flower bed in the back garden of my latest – and hopefully – final home. Sometimes I have felt like Mr. Biswas in V.S. Naipaul’s novel describing the search by the story’s hero for a home that he can finally call his own. This is my eleventh residence – permanent or medium term – in twenty one years; some people move more regularly, I know, but prior to the commencement of this period I had moved home but once in eighteen years. I need some stability. My last home was a two bedroomed flat housing a family of five. The one before that was wrecked by a bizarre car-through-living-room-wall incident that will rear its head again later. When Biswas builds his own home it burns down within days; he walks around the village trying to sell people charcoal. I don’t always have such resilience. In fact, at this stage in time, I have everything that I could ever have hoped for. But something is not quite right. Not right at all.

“Conkers falling on the ground, the air is cooler …”

Hang on a minute. This is spring, not autumn, but yes, the air is cool; crisp, even, in the early spring sunshine as I tend the area in front of the honeysuckle-smothered apple tree. The wires from my earphones entangle themselves between the fork, my jumper and the brambles that also protrude from the foliage ahead of me. I am listening to Zorbing, the first track on Stornoway’s first long player Beachcomber’s Windowsill. A friend copied it illegally onto a CD for me: home taping didn’t kill music and neither did the recordable CD, for without this I would never have encountered a band who would become so important to me as I entered my forties.

“…and I feel like I’ve just started Uni”

Uni? Uni?? I hate the word ‘Uni’. I loathed it when it first entered the English vocabulary thanks to Plain Jane Super Brain in “Neighbours”. Until then people went to University (or Polytechnic in my case, until the sods had the last laugh and converted it to a University before I had finished my degree). Still, Stornoway are made of younger bones than I, and I can’t begrudge them this slight lyrical faux pas, especially when the music is so good. It’s like nothing I have heard before yet simultaneously reminiscent, in part, of early James. I think it might be folky, but acceptable folk. As I close my fourth decade of life I still have not fully come to terms with liking musical genres other than indie despite evidence that suggests otherwise.

Never mind; on with the gardening. Zorbing is a great song, by the way. I’ll listen to it again straight away. And again once more. What brilliant lyrical imagery – brewing storms observed from attic windows leading to wistful regret that the sharing of a large sphere through the streets never did materialise, yet managing to somehow survive in this imagined bubble. Zorbing, side one track one on album number one could well be Stornoway’s best ever moment. Luckily for us, it’s not!

Sometimes we don’t quite know what we’ve got until it’s gone and, six years on from that April morning, Stornoway are no more. I didn’t realise quite how important they were to me until the sudden announcement of their imminent demise left me in a stunned haze of reflection. Formed in 2006 in Oxford, the core line up of Brian Briggs, Jonathan Ouin and brothers Oli and Rob Steadman was augmented at regular intervals by other musicians including Briggs’ own brother Adam. Eleven years later, the band completed a farewell tour of the UK.

Most of the period that Stornoway were a functioning, developing, progressing band I was inadvertently doing a very good job of almost being the complete opposite, when depression reared its ugly head. Just like the narrator in You Don’t Know Anything, eponymous track from a six-track EP, I invariably will have a “mind full of emptiness” and “less energy than a stick of celery”. It is easy to pick out lyrics like this, but they are only half of the joy of listening to Stornoway. Certainly no two songs ever sound the same, three and four-part harmonies abound and the range of instruments used within one song – let alone an album or EP – is vast. Some are, I am sure, instruments that didn’t even exist before the band invented them. Here, the acoustic guitar strum that introduces the three-layered vocals reminds me of the sort of song I wish I could write. Stornoway write them with ease.

The You Don’t Know Anything EP was released shortly after the band’s second album, Tales From Terra Firma. The latter’s opening track, You Take Me As I Am, is where we head next. As much a statement of intent as Zorbing, the song begins with a raucous drum, whirling organ and plinky piano introduction before a breathless tale begins of imminent marriage and the nerves that I presume go with such an event. And the best bit of the story? Well, as the title suggests, the narrator is taken as he is and I listen, wishing I could only accept myself for who I am and wonder whether, when those around me take me as I am, it is as I am now in a foggy befuddled mental state, as I was before and can still be on a good day, or whichever way I happen to be on any given day. And I will wonder this over and over again, whilst taking solace from the uplifting tunes of hope emanating from Oxford’s finest ever band (yes, including Radiohead).

If an answer to the ever decreasing circles within my brain can be found in one single song, I later reflect, then that song is surely Get Low. For here is a song that tells me that everything is ok. I can keep dreaming of better things, of things that may well even be out of my reach, because if I don’t have aspirations I won’t ever get anywhere (hey Maslow, does this sound familiar by the way?) and even though sometimes I might fall, fail and ‘get low’, it won’t be the end of things. “Got to play to be in the game” begins the message; “When you’ve got a plan don’t let go there’s still time for another roll” of the dice, it continues. In the summer of 2002 my nascent family and I were caught in an outer London private rent trap, subsidised by a Housing Benefit that decreased every time my wages rose: quite rightly, but hardly an incentive to work harder to earn more money when the rent would just keep rising regardless. We could see no way out of the trap. In the murky dregs of an early January evening a few months later a car was reversed into our living room, right before our eyes.

The house was rendered uninhabitable. The car didn’t fare too well either. Neither did we, but it was to be about a decade later that I realised how much of an effect those events had had on me. Because now, through a combination of struggle and fortune, I had what I had hoped for in nascent adulthood: a family, a good stable job, and a home (well, a mortgage) I could finally call my own. So why wasn’t I happy? Why was I, as the song title went, On The Rocks? “So caught up in the swirls and eddys” of making sure everything was okay for everybody else that I “never saw where [I] was heading”, having previously swung the door closed on the circles of support I relied on? Maybe. On The Rocks is perhaps the most James-y song in the band’s canon, all fractiously jangled guitars, swished cymbals, simplistic bassline, anxiously-drummed-finger-like snare and eerie harmonics, and then, halfway through the track, the urgency of the river of life rears up and “spring is just around the corner” even during the darkest months. The song reaches a great crescendo before the lyrical plea to get the narrator from a burning bridge before he ends up on the rocks again.

On The Rocks appeared as the title track on a five-song CD in April 2008 before making its appearance on Stornoway’s debut album. The follow-up album Tales From Terra Firma contained within a song I have always assumed to be a blood relative of On The Rocks, in the form of (A Belated) Invite To Eternity. Musically it has similar elements and tempo; lyrically it suggests a nervous reappearance after time has passed, perhaps to the person addressed in the earlier of the two songs. In the first of my own autumns in the south I was as happy as I have ever been, and even though I too had endured a “wilderness journey with your compass still in me”, and even though I wasn’t always able to recognise the force that was driving me and keeping me going “through the longest of winters” when I “feared for my mind”, the song struck more than just one chord with me. Of course, it is convenient to select some of the lyrics to suit my own narrative whilst passing by others so integral to the song, but such was the resonance of these chosen words as I listened through my mental fug that it became almost inevitable.

Of course, there are many reasons why depression engulfed my mental being, some of which were obvious at the time, some of which would dawn on me as I began to talk to people who could ask the right questions; some of which I could and would talk about openly, some of which will remain necessarily private. However, what did become clear to me was that I was not at all comfortable with what I felt was expected of me as a man. Maybe those expectations were self-inflicted, maybe even non-existent, but in my head they were very real and I struggled to maintain the standards I set for myself in the very many different roles I fulfilled for the people around me. So when I noticed Stornoway finishing their third album Bonxie with a track entitled Love Song Of The Beta Male it was with no little relief. I’m not interested in cars, golf, DIY; I’m no good at small talk, not particularly interested in competition or fighting. I can’t dance. Love Song Of The Beta Male made all of this inability not only sound acceptable but normal. And all set to the suitably subtly beautiful music to which followers of the band have become accustomed to.

Bonxie would prove to be the album that collectively makes most sense to me and the path to self-acceptance I had to follow in order to get better. Perhaps most indicative of the songs on the album is The Road You Didn’t Take. Beginning with a rumbling strum of bassy guitar and twinkling piano and harmonies to melt the coldest of hearts, the track encourages reflection of the so very many ‘What-ifs’ that punctuate our lives. Whichever road we take there are hills to climb, and yes, sometimes when we get to the top of a climb we can see another route which may well have been easier. Of course, we will never know, and behind that tree over there may lie a huge swamp that could have made the struggle uphill actually seem like a breeze. It is very easy for an unwell brain to overanalyse and procrastinate over choices and decisions; songs such as this certainly helped me come to terms with an understanding that there is no right or wrong decision, because we can only say for certain the outcome of the journey we have made. Maybe in a parallel universe there is a Johny Nocash whose house didn’t get an unexpected vehicular visitor, who didn’t compound overcrowding with an additional family member, who didn’t … who didn’t … And maybe he is very happy and everything is tickety-boo. Or maybe he isn’t.

For those who like a good metaphor, or in this case simile, for these ears Bonxie was like a big warm hug. However, it is back to Tales From Terra Firma that we head for the penultimate track in this Toppermost. A breezily cheerful mandolin introduction leads us perfectly into The Bigger Picture and the suggestion that there is always going to be something bigger and better than that which we possess or experience. The grass always being greener on the other side, as the saying goes. In the western (dare I say Capitalist) way of life we are constantly pushed to the next thing, new and improved, extra ultra plus. This in itself can drive us over the edge. However, as Briggs so pointedly notes in his lyrics, “If you haven’t seen the places you have come from then you haven’t seen how far you have come”, and as the organ chimes and churls and the mandolin quavers its solo I start to see the point: “if you haven’t seen the people you have come from then you cannot see the person you’ve become”. Perhaps this song, more than others, paved the way for my own reappraisal which would be cemented by the final song in this selection.

Finally unable to drag myself out of bed, down the stairs, down to the junction, off to work, I succumbed. I lost a battle and needed to regroup what was left of my defences. I tweeted – it was often easier to type 140 characters (or less!) than to verbalise – and played online scrabble. I watched a bit of TV and read. I listened to music, some new, some older, and I watched versions of familiar songs on YouTube. And when I stumbled across a live-in-session version of the track Fuel Up from Beachcomber’s Windowsill I finally allowed tears to seep. Aside from its musical beauty, the song’s lyrical message really hit home. Home: the theme that started off this Toppermost. The song takes us from childhood to adulthood, the journey beginning as a passenger before we begin to take the wheel of the vehicle ourselves, through storms that cause us to lose direction until … well, here was the key to it all for me:

“I’ll tell you the reason you didn’t get home: it’s nowhere you’ve been and its nowhere you’re going. Home is only a feeling you get in your mind, from the people you love and you travel beside … and if you break down it’s a cold hard shoulder so fuel up your mind and fire up your heart and drive on.”

Slowly but surely – it isn’t easy – I have tried to fuel up. I have taken my fill of kind words and deeds, and repaired punctures left by the barbs and sharps. I will miss Stornoway, I will miss them sorely. But I can also see that they have done for me all that they could have done without ever even knowing it. I am not so pretentious as to suggest that without the music of Stornoway things would not have changed for the better. They are just one piece of a very complex jigsaw. However, as bands go I cannot underestimate their importance to me, and dearly hope that for someone, somewhere, by reading this and discovering the band’s catalogue they too will find a greater peace of mind.


Stornoway facebook

Stornoway discography

Stornoway lyrics

James McNair interviews Brian Briggs (The Independent, 2015)

Stornoway biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

Here are some of John’s other topper-posts: The Band of Holy Joy; The Beta Band; BOB; The Brilliant Corners, The Family Cat; The House of Love; James; McCarthy; The Mighty Lemon Drops; My Life Story; The Railway Children; Stereolab

TopperPost #626

1 Comment

  1. Richard Warran
    May 5, 2017

    Great piece, would have added Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea, but there isn’t a duff track on Bonxie. Saw Stornoway live many times over the last 10 years including an emotional (at least for me anyway) last gig at Brighton’s Komedia a few weeks back. Great lyrics, tunes and Brian’s amazing voice just add up to make the perfect band. I will miss them but as the Bunnymen said nothing Ever Lasts Forever at least in pop music anyway.

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