Saturday, 21 January 2012

Birds and rock musicians

Billy Fury statue in Liverpool's Albert Dock 
Large suburban cemeteries can be attractive to birdlife. They offer nest sites and feeding grounds with minimal human disturbance other than during the occasional burial ceremony. So when I popped into north-west London’s Mill Hill Cemetery in September on the lookout for passage migrants such as Spotted Flycatchers, I was surprised to come across a crowd of middle-aged, leather-jacketed bikers. They turned out to be visiting the grave of Ron Wycherley, better known as the 1960s rock star Billy Fury.

Few of Fury’s fans in the 1960s would have known that he too was a keen birder, nor that he had been ill since childhood as the result of contracting rheumatic fever during a rain-soaked bird-watching trip. The disease weakened his heart and he was constantly in and out of hospital. His illness eventually put a stop to his live performances, though not to his birding.

Fury also became involved in wildlife conservation. This included spending time in 1967 living in a caravan in Cornwall, caring for seabirds affected by the infamous Torrey Canyon oil spill. After heart surgery twice during the 1970s, Fury died of heart failure in 1983 at the age of 42.

Those who picture rock stars as drug-raddled reprobates staggering drunkenly out of seedy clubs at sunrise might be surprised to learn that a number of current British rock musicians are responsible citizens who share Billy Fury’s keen interest in birding. Two indie rock groups named after birds are fronted by birders — The Doves by Jimi Goodwin and The Guillemots by Fyfe Dangerfield. The 1980s indie pop group Housemartins was named after the favourite bird of its founder, Paul Heaton, who is now a solo singer.

Other birding musicians include singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins, Guy Garvey of Elbow, Marc Riley of The Fall, Martin Noble of British Sea Power and Bill Drummond of The KLF.

Their interest in birds has influenced these musicians’ compositions. Between them they have penned songs or instrumentals titled “Redwings”, “Starlings” and “The Great Skua”. Their song lyrics have mentioned birds such as Black-headed Gull, Blackcap, Blackbird and Flycatcher. Guillemots tracks have even featured recordings of the Robin and the Red-throated Diver. And when an Elbow album won the 2008 Mercury prize, singer Guy Garvey announced that he would spend his share of the prize on image-stabilising binoculars.

Why should there be such a strong link between rock music and birding? I don't know. But at least I am confident that songs written by these British birders are unlikely to make mistakes such as placing city-shunning Nightingales in Berkeley Square or linking North America’s Bluebirds with the white cliffs of Dover.

No comments:

Post a Comment