The Young Man and the Sea

I’m on vacation by the sea at the moment and while I was sitting on the beach yesterday, listening to some Frank Turner songs, an idea popped up again. After I had written the “Lyrical History of Mankind” last year I thought about doing a piece on “references to the sea (in the widest sense)” as well, but for whatever reason didn’t follow through. I want to do that now. Because I have to admit that I possibly love Frank’s penchant for including references to the sea, seafaring and all things maritime even a bit more than all the historical stuff.

I only looked at the his own material for this; no collaborations and I also excluded “No Man’s Land” as a concept record. First of all… for some reason I had though there were more songs with a sea reference in the title!
Worse Things Happen at Sea
Sea Legs
Sailor’s Boots
Plain Sailing Weather
The Lifeboat
5 out of… I don’t know 150? 200? That’s not all that many. Or am I missing something?

When I was going through the lyrics in my head or on the website I realized that quite a few of the references are in fact rather… factual. No surprise, really, because most of Frank’s songs are autobiographical. He grew up and still lives on an island after all. According to Wikipedia no place in the UK is farther than 70 miles (113 km) from the sea. Therefore I disregarded most of the mere geographical references (like e.g. in “Rivers” or “Take You Home”).

When you look at the rest of them, “lost at sea” or “troubles at sea” seem to be a recurring theme. Which might sound depressing, but it isn’t. Far from it, because writing about (difficult) emotions in a relatable and engaging way, is one of the things that drew me to Frank’s music from the start. And I definitely found and still do find a lot of comfort in hearing words I can relate to.

All that aside, I was left with quite a few references I really like and I tried to narrow those down to a neat 10. Alas, I failed with that. [I just used “alas” without even thinking about it. I think I know who I get that from… ;-)]

Anyway, narrowed down here are my 15 favourite references to all things sea in Frank’s lyrics.

Sunset at the North Sea, Germany, July 2021
Sunset at the North Sea, Germany, July 2021

#15 “So I’m going to say what everyone’s thinking:
If we’re stuck on this ship and it’s sinking,
Then we might as well have a parade.”

(Love, Ire & Song)

The “sinking ship” is such a classic metaphor for a failed endeavour. It fits well into the whole idea of the song.

#14 “They threw me a whirlwind,
And I spat back the sea.”

(Get Better)

I still haven’t figured out the meteorological aspects here. Kidding. Sort of. Because from my understanding whirlwinds happen on land and not on / over sea. I don’t know what the equivalent phenomenon on the sea would be called? I’m clearly overthinking this. I really love that song though.

#13 “Honey I’m sorry, but I’ve got my sea legs again.
If I stand on dry land for a minute, I feel sick and then
I have to start moving again.”

(Sea Legs)

Another lovely metaphor, this time for Frank’s wanderlust or his drive to be on tour and on the move all the time.

#12 “You say worse things happen at sea;
I say worse things have happened to me.”

(Worse Things Happen At Sea)

We don’t have a similar phrase like “Worse things…” in German (I think?), but I right away got what it means. Funny enough, I just now tried to find its origin, but came up with nothing. It seems to be just an old English phrase. No wonder for a nation of seafarers, maybe?

#11 “Stay with the boats lest ye be drowned.
Save what you can;
Behind us, the old world in flames.
Lower the lifeboats,
Take the tiller,
Steer the way.
[….]
From the prow we see far, all that’s old now is new.”

(The Lifeboat)

The song itself is more about what happened on land and what made the people take to the lifeboats. But I love the use of nautical terms like “tiller” and “prow” here. Maybe I should have added #nerdalert at the top of this post?

#10 “A navy coin and a broken plastic compass someone gave me
That can’t find north any more, just like me”

(Wherefore Art Though Gene Simmons)

I don’t want to write about the navy coin, because I’m sure that’s meant to be a challenge coin for service personnel in the US and not the navy in particular. But the “broken plastic compass that can’t find north” gets to me. I associate the compass with travel, expeditions, seafarers. A functioning compass (or navigational system nowadays) was and still is such an essential piece of equipment and if that’s broken, the situation can get pretty dire.

#09 “It’s not meant to be,
I am lost at sea,
So mermaid sing to me
Of the better times and the things that can be,
And of islands in the Mediterranean sea,”
(Imperfect Tense)

Reaching proper “lost at sea” territory now. Being lost anywhere – woods, mountains – must be pretty horrible. And people do get lost in those locations as well. But the sea is such a enormously vast space to get lost in. Any ship or boat and especially a lone human being is a tiny insignificant speck compared to the mass of water and distance to any land mass. On land (wood, mountains) you could still hope that someone might come by and hear you cry for help. On the sea, away from the usual shipping routes? Not very likely. So yes, “lost at sea” is a pretty desolate place to be.

I also like the rhyme and rhythm in these lines a lot.

#08 “You once sent me a letter that said “If you’re lost at sea,
Close your eyes and catch the tide my dear, and only think of me.”
Well darling, now I’m sinking, I’m as lost as lost can be,
And I was hoping you could drag me up from down here towards my recovery.”

(Recovery)

See #09. The gazillion syllables in rapid succession here put it on #08.

#07 “And we’ve met this sorry end from a picture perfect start,
The romance and the running down to disconnected hearts
Of two people sad and free, who know they used to be
More than just a pair of sinking ships.”

(Anymore)

The pair of sinking ships (see #15) breaks my heart a tiny bit here. Especially with the knowledge what they used to be. It was an inevitable end, but it’s still sad and these lyrics capture that perfectly.

#06 “I let slip my guard, let go of the rudder,
Now we’re drifting in the current away from one another.
So give me one fine day of plain sailing weather
And I can fuck up anything.”

(Plain Sailing Weather)

Not quite lost at sea, but drifting away from each other seems like a unpleasant experience as well. I love the metaphor of “letting go of the rudder” that leads to this. As in “not paying attention, being careless” and thus getting on a unretractable path in a relationship. Drifting away….

#05 “Now you can go down with the wreck, or you can scurry from the deck
But there’s no way to save your skinny little neck,
And you can pray to who you please and you can fall down on your knees,
But your feet will still get wet.”

(Out Of Breath)

The first verse of the song conjures up a definitive “on solid ground” picture in my mind: road, ditch, spot, run. So, when I heard the song for the first time, this nautical metaphor in the 2nd verse caught me by surprise. A surprise in a song is often a good thing. At least here it is and I love it.

#04 “But if ever I stray from the path I follow,
Take me down to the English Channel,
Throw me in where the water is shallow,
And then drag me on back to shore.”

(If Ever I Stray)

Here is the exception to the “no mere geographical mentions of the sea” reference. But this song means a lot to me. I mean… look at the blog title! Duh!

#03 “The wind blew both of us to sand and sea,
And where the dry land stands is hard to say.
As the current drags us by the shore,
We can no longer say for sure
Who’s drowning, or if they can be saved.
But when you’re out there floundering, like a lighthouse I will shine.
Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind.”

(Be More Kind)

I love the whole sea / shore imagery here. I love lighthouses. That’s why this is one of my favourite pieces of Frank lyrics in recent years.

#02 “But when I was just 16 I pinned my colours to the mast:
Punk rock’s in the ink that’s in my skin,
The attitude in every song I sing.”

(Back in the Day)

This might be a surprise as #02. I’m not a hardcore punk. Far from it. I hadn’t heard the phrase “pinning colours to the mast” before either. But the meaning was clear from the context and I love it. To me it wasn’t an obvious sea / maritime reference, which makes this even more interesting.

#01 “But the ocean is still out there, magnificent and wide.
She’s got open arms to hold me, and endless space to hide,
And the only things that hold me back are things I hold inside,
The ocean is still out there, magnificent and wide.”

(Sailor’s Boots)

One of my favourite of Frank’s songs. Definitely my favourite of the rarer ones and thus often my go-to song request for a celebratory occasion. And it’s the ultimate reference to the sea. I’ve laid out why I love this song so much here on my old blog many many years ago.

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