Review: Paul Scraton
As a young person growing up in West Lancashire, Skelmersdale always felt like an “other” place. With no railway station and no reason to go there unless you were visiting friends or family in the town, it was never on our radar of escape destinations on a Saturday from our own small town. We would go to Ormskirk or Southport, Preston or Liverpool. The train could take us to all these places. Or to Wigan or to Manchester. But not to Skem. So it was a place unknown and unknowable, and therefore a place where stories could be hung on it, whether true or not, and Skelmersdale could develop a reputation for people who had only ever passed by on the M58 at 70 miles per hour. A rough town of scallies. A place of roundabouts that offered no escape once you were trapped in those estates. An unfinished town, that never became what it was supposed to be. Poor. Rough. What else? Nothing else. In the surrounding towns, that was all you needed to know. The prospect of Skelmersdale was grim.
Skelmersdale is a town of nearly 40,000 people that was designated a new town in the early 1960s, where industry was lured with breaks and benefits that that did not last and by the late 1970s most of the big employers had gone, leaving behind a planned town that was never really finished. Failing was the word that was stuck to Skelmersdale into the 1980s, at exactly the time an influx of newcomers to the town arrived. The Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement had been looking for a place to build a Maharishi Village and Skelmersdale, at the heart of the country, was deemed the ideal place. And so a community was established, complete with a Golden Dome for Yogic Flying, school and health centre. A failing new town and the largest TM community in Europe… perhaps we should have shown more interest in our near neighbours.
Simon Tong, one third of the band the Magnetic North, moved to Skelmersdale with his parents in 1984. “My dad wanted to be part of the TM movement in the town,” he says, “he wasn’t ever a hippie; he’d been more of a beatnik in the ‘60s. Growing up in Skem as a teenager, I hated the whole TM thing. When I got to 16 and started practising it for few years, it worked. I became a lot less miserable and angry.”
Tong and his bandmates Erland Cooper and Hannah Peel turned their songwriting focus on Skelmersdale following their first album Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North which was inspired by the landscape of the islands and released in 2013. Cooper is from Orkney, and when it came time to think about a follow-up, it was Peel that suggested taking a look at Skelmersdale. The album Prospect of Skelmersdale is then, like Orkney, a sonic exploration of place, exploring the dual modern histories of the town in twelve songs, described by the band as “a dozen tales of hope and hopelessness.”
Now, I am not a music writer. I find it hard to describe albums, songs or live shows in a way that does justice to my experience of listening to music, especially when it is positive and there has been a strong emotional reaction. But I was intrigued by the idea of an album about a town that I had grown up near but not really known, and so I took it with me on a walk through northern Berlin, sleet driving down from the sky at dusk, aiming for a doctor’s surgery by the railway tracks, across the street from a shopping centre. The Schönhauser Allee Arkaden is not the Conny (for those who know Skelmersdale) but as I walked and as I listened I found myself transported back; to memories of my own West Lancashire childhood, and a snapshot of images of Skem, most of which viewed through a car window or the school minibus on the way to a football match.
The first track is titled ‘Jai Gurudev’ after the original guru to the Maharishi and features archive recordings from a speech welcoming visitors and new residents to the opening of the Golden Dome. In what follows the album takes us to the woods and through the estates, the dreams of both the planners of a new town and the builders of a new, alternative community. The music is often melodic, at times dreamlike and yet with moments of sharp focus. Ken Loach meets George Harrison. Some tracks, such as ‘Little Jerusalem’ and the final ‘Run Of The Mill’ are hauntingly beautiful.
Ultimately my reaction to the album is completely shaped by my own knowledge (or lack of) of Skelmersdale. I can picture the boy in ‘Death in the Woods’ going, in the words of Erland Cooper “to meet his mates on a crappy bus on his way to a crappy location, just being a kid,” because if I was perhaps not that boy, maybe I knew him. Sometimes with art it connects with us because of something that is already there inside of us when we come to it, as we view the painting, read the book or listen to the album for the first time. As ‘Run Of The Mill’ came to an end as I reached the door of the doctor’s surgery it felt like I had not only walked through the cold and soggy streets of Berlin, but I had been back home again.
On subsequent listens to the album I tried to remove my own experiences from my attempt to judge the music. Impossible, of course, but the more I listened, the more I heard the lyrics and built a picture of those twelve stories in my head (rather than it being a soundtrack to my own childhood memories). It became increasingly clear that this was music - great music - that had been put to the purpose of creating a true portrait of a place, its memories and its community. People often say that an album or music in general can take the listener “on a journey”. With Prospect of Skelmersdale, the Magnetic North allow us to explore the town, having created a genuine album of place, filled with story-telling, reporting, memory, myth, (re-)imaginings and descriptive beauty that the best writing on place contains, whether done with a pen, a piano, a guitar or a voice.