When I was younger, I hated swimming. I didn’t learn until I was nine or ten, and being a late starter to it was no fun during school lessons. It took until I started heading on holiday with my now wife that I really resumed swimming since my school days, and my increased fitness at least meant I could swim for longer – even though my strokes are still poor.
/The Experience of Swimming
In recent years, though, my wife has taken up swimming again with great gusto – and she was always a better swimmer than me. Her forays to the Hampstead Ponds (specifically the Ladies Pond, of course) have changed her life in many ways, and she and her friends frequently inspire awe in their ability to swim through even the coldest winters nowadays. I finally took the plunge last summer and started swimming at the men’s pond, although I gave up for the winter when the clocks changed and the temperature dropped into single digits.
So why do a post about swimming now? Well, this weekend I returned to the Hampstead Ponds, for a one-off visit to the Ladies Pond, who invited the members of the Men’s Pond Association (including me!) to swim with them on Saturday morning. I’m not going to lie – the swim was extraordinarily difficult for me with the water being a frigid 9.5°C, but I did it (and struggled again the following day). But I’m determined to keep it up this year and deal better with the colder water by the time the clocks change again.
Here, then, are ten songs about swimming, and a content warning for discussion of suicide (in the final song) must be made. Thanks as always to my now-army of contributors. The submission thread that this comes from is just under a year old, proof that I do get round to them all eventually…
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/Let’s Go Swimming
A band suggested by various readers in the past, this week marks their first appearance in the Tuesday Ten series. This song is quite lovely, too, as it suggests a similar trajectory to my route into “wild” swimming – lots of thinking about it, lots of suggestions that I should, before finally taking the plunge and enjoying it after all. OK, until the water drops below about ten degrees celsius. But the other part of the lyrics here makes interesting listening, too, as it suggests that swimming has and will outlive fashions and “cool” people wanting to make it the latest “fad”. I do it for fitness reasons, broadly, and that I enjoy it.
Amid the political fury of Senser’s fantastic debut album, was this song of watery beauty (and positioned just before the belting power of Eject, too, for maximum impact). Entirely Kerstin Haigh’s song, in many ways – it is her voice amid the drift of the drums and electronics, that’s all, Heitham Al-Sayed’s vocals wholly absent and the guitars only joining in during the proggy coda – I suspect that it is her experiences of swimming and diving underwater that inspired this lovely, gentle song that very much evokes the calm stillness of swimming alone.
/Automatic for the People
I recall that when I originally asked for suggestions of songs about water, I specifically asked to ignore this song – but when I finally got ’round to picking out the songs about swimming, well, this really needed to be included. One of the many ballads amid the reflective darkness of an album that has sold over eighteen million copies, it became one of the two songs to be played incessantly on MTV at the time – particularly thanks to the mawkish video – but listening to the song again now, it is a simple celebration of (naked) swimming at night, reputedly based upon the experiences of the band members in their younger days! My wife has made various late-night swimming trips, including one memorable trip last year where she and friends went from west coast to east coast overnight on the Solstice, swimming as the sunset in the west before swimming as the sun rose in the east!
Another band with a darker, murkier edge were Morphine, whose saxophone-and-baritone-voice-led songs – particularly when they slowed it down, didn’t half sound like Cohen now I think about it. Much like R.E.M.’s song above, though, this is song of simple pleasures rather than the tribulations of other songs, as Mark Sandman muses upon his experiences of swimming, even admitting that his first stroke was the front crawl. I have to confess that I never learned any other stroke beyond breaststroke, and I’m fine with that. It gets me through the water at a reasonable pace.
A song I’d not heard in a great many years – I was quite the fan of this Irish trio’s startling debut album from back in 2000, who sadly turned out to be one of those bands rather lost in the wake of new American bands suddenly bursting through (like the Strokes among others. Despite being just three minutes long, this song has a soaring, anthemic power, and at the first listen now, the lyrics seem rather oblique and seemingly have little to do with swimming. But one theory on Songmeanings.com is absolutely fascinating – that this song may be about Adolph Kiefer, a man notable both for his swimming prowess and for his work in the Navy that likely saved countless sailor’s lives in teaching them to swim better in the sea.
/The First Three Years
As mentioned above, I never learned Front Crawl, unlike Frank Turner’s protagonist in this early song of his, where he has to potentially swim the stroke an awfully long way to make it to a distant paramour (“across eight borders and three seas” – I wonder where you might end up doing that from London?)…but the twist is that he has to learn how to swim front crawl first. The only sea-swimming I’ve got planned this year is swimming in the Aegean Sea in June, where it should be an awful lot warmer than the sea off British shores.
/The Experience of Swimming
/Gentlemen Take Polaroids
Some way from my basic knowledge of this band’s iconic singles, this song sounds, frankly, exactly like a gentle few minutes in still water. Perhaps, even, a first-thing-in-the-morning swim, the likes of which I enjoyed a number of times last summer before I headed to my old job in the city – swimming through the low-level mist when the water is warmer than the air (fairly common in late-summer/early-autumn) for the first time is something I’ll never forget.
/Genius Next Door
Another debut for a regularly-suggested artist this week comes from the Russian-American singer Regina Spektor, who remains one of those artists that I probably should have listened to more closely a long time ago. This piano-led ballad seems to hold a much more complex story than first appears, as her voice winds around a village and the locally-held belief that the popular swimming destination of the lake is enchanted, which seems to come true when a man wades into the sea, “disappears”, and then seems to magically reappear in bed…
A third debut in the Tuesday Ten series this week from a long-lived band apparently much-loved by a great number of my friends. A band recently beset by tragedy – frontman Tim Smith’s severe health issues in the past decade all-but stalling the band’s progress entirely as he recuperates – they’ve actually been going since the late seventies, and this song dates from their earlier period. The complexity and length of this song is certainly unusual for the era that it comes from, and it’s not hard to see why more progressive musicians since see them as an influence, that’s for sure. Swimming and the sea is only really a vague allusion in this song, but it’s certainly an interesting enough one to merit inclusion. I’ve no doubt somewhere in the south-west, the English seas are pleasantly warm to swim in, but further east and north? “Chilly” is probably as good as it gets. Maybe one day, I’ll feel comfortable enough to swim in it again.
/Swim Until You Can’t See Land
/The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Finally, comes a band who I properly appreciated far, far too late – which is odd as I have been a fan of their labelmates and close friends The Twilight Sad for many years. Frontman Scott Hutchinson here – as was all too common – deals with his own mental health issues, and dreams of swimming far into the Firth of Forth as a way of shedding his troubles and worries, but of course, here steps back from the abyss as he questions himself (“Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand“).
This song, mind, is all the more difficult to listen to now, knowing what eventually happened to him, his body found in the Forth having seemingly taken his own life.