wed 07/12/2022

Album: Fisherman's Friends - One and All | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Fisherman's Friends - One and All

Album: Fisherman's Friends - One and All

Haul in the nets, call the lifeboat for the soundtrack on the film sequel

No longer a good catch

A decade or so ago, I imagine if I’d run in to Fisherman’s Friends while enjoying a beer and a nice fat crab sandwich in a Port Isaac pub I’d have passed a happy evening and possibly returned the next night.

Sea shanties – indeed, any good close-harmony singing – is very appealing, our reaction to it physiological, an endorphin boost. The sound is irresistible, no matter if you’re drunk or sober. A great part of Fisherman’s Friends' appeal would be their authenticity – a bunch of nice guys with decent voices getting together to have fun and make music.

A decade or so of marketing has ruined all that. Fisherman’s Friends are no longer authentic, and that million-pound deal they signed with Universal after being “discovered” by Johnnie Walker has made them a commodity. There’s been a book, a film, a stage show, a documentary and, naturally, ads for Young’s Seafood. (Did they promote the throat sweeties from which they took their name?). They’ve played the obligatory Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Now comes “the highly anticipated sequel to the beloved 2019 uplifting, comedy hit feature film”. It features Imelda May in her debut acting role. She features on the album also, three tracks including “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, something of a nadir. No doubt it plays over the credits.

Whether or not Fisherman’s Friends are responsible for the revival of interest in sea shanties I don’t know – a friend of mine has been singing in a shanty festival on Liverpool’s Albert Dock for many a year. And at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival, The Young ‘Uns were in an altogether higher class with their shanties and great historical ballads.

When Fisherman’s Friends dip into traditional repertoire with songs such as “Bonny Ship the Diamond”, “Sail Away Ladies” and “Santiana” (though that's not a patch on the old Highwaymen version, which I still remember from childhood as the flipside of “Michael”), they are on solid ground – something of a contradiction in terms here, I suppose. Tight harmonies, good lusty singing, resonant bass notes. But “Wild Rover” feels fake (listen instead to The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem) and “Sloop John B” aspires pointlessly to the Beach Boys. 

Perhaps they’re enjoying it all, the celebrity and the cash. Fishing is a hard life, after all. I’m sure they’re decent guys and I wish them well – and yes, they’ve known tragedy and they’ve raised lots of money for charity. But I don’t hear much “heart and soul” in this, and it seems to me a waste of good voices when there’s a wealth of sea-faring repertoire to explore. If I ran into them in a Port Isaac hostelry today, I don’t know if I’d be hanging around and that’s a shame. I think the tide has gone out on this particular buoy band.

Liz Thomson's website

A decade or so of marketing has ruined all that: Fisherman’s Friends are no longer authentic

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Why should singing Sloop John B allude to the Beach Boys. It was being sung long before any of them were born! It is a Bahamian folk song from Nassau. A transcription by Richard Le Gallienne was published in 1916.

I know. But their reference point is the Beach Boys.

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