Fifty years on from Sgt Pepper and Waterloo Sunset, where might one go to find that spirit of peculiar Britishness that was a key element in both the Beatles’ and the Kinks’ work? I’m going to nominate a 2017 song that I have listened to over and over like no song since my Sgt Pepper-era childhood.
As it happens, the song is the work of a new Liverpool band, or at least a new Liverpool-based band. They are called The Fernweh – a German word which translates roughly the same as wanderlust – and the song is called Next Time Around. It’s had some BBC 6Music exposure in recent weeks – that’s where I first heard it – and everyone whose attention I’ve drawn it to has reacted the same way.
One of those people – name-drop alert – was the head of 6Music, who I happen to know a little in a purely professional capacity. Not even the head of 6Music can hear everything the station puts out, and it was nice to be able to send something his way that he didn’t know and which I was crazy about. His reaction? 'That’s fabulous.'
Before we get into the detail of the song itself, let me give you The Fernweh’s own list of stated influences: Anne Briggs, Frederick Delius, Basil Kirchin, Oliver Postgate, The Zombies, Barry Hines, Fairport Convention, and Joy Division. You get the idea.
Next Time Around is a harmony-drenched bitter-sweet marvel – a magic-carpet ride that could indeed have come out of 1967 and yet still manages to feel completely new and contemporary. A sophisticated song of wonderful craftsmanship, there is nonetheless something child-like in its appeal – its Oliver Postgate aspect – just as so many Beatles songs appealed to children as well as adults. (I’m not just talking Yellow Submarine and such like). But Next Time Around is not all sweetness, and nor was the world of Oliver Postgate. It’s shot through with the melancholy that is present in so much of the Beatles’ and the Kinks’ output.
I love songs that seem to go on a journey, and Next Time Around is one such song. The briefest of drum intros brings everything to attention and then it sets off on a wave of gorgeous vocals and guitar reverb, building to the first of a series of resolutions, exactly a minute in, which features one of the best uses of a pause I can think of in any pop song. It’s like the moment when the car goes over a rise in the road and you get that nice feeling in your stomach. And just when you think things can’t get any better, a most beautiful middle-eight kicks in (actually some two thirds of the way into the song’s four minutes 20 seconds). The effect is simply transcendent.
The song is tight when it needs to be and also loose when it needs to be. It fades out in the proper manner. It’s dressed in highly tailored clothing that is just beginning to fray round the edges and the effect is very lovely. The blessed Neil Morton – founder of Here Comes the Song – referred to 'a single-fret or half-tone note change in the chorus that gets me every time'.
I was fascinated to know more about The Fernweh, and lead singer and bassist Ned Crowther obliged. He and the other main man, Jamie Backhouse, are both in their thirties, vastly experienced musicians who have session work by the truckload under their belts as well as numerous projects of their own that have come and gone. Crowther is from Oxfordshire, Backhouse – 'a guitarist in the Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson mould', in Crowther’s description – from Leeds, and it ended up suiting them both to base operations in Liverpool. The pair share the writing credits on Next Time Around.
The Fernweh, left to right: drummer Phil Murphy, multi-instrumentalist Oz Murphy (no relation), guitarist Jamie Backhouse, and lead singer and bassist Ned Crowther
In forming The Fernweh, Crowther explained, they were after a very specific aesthetic. It needed to draw on an English culture that contained darkness and violence as well as nostalgia and sentiment, he said. Brexit is nothing if not a moment to consider the nature of national identity, and I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that The Fernweh make a very interesting contribution to that debate. 'We never wanted to look at Englishness like Morrissey did,' Crowther told me. 'He kind of identified with a 1950s pre-immigration world, and we are definitely embracing Europeanism and internationalism.'
Next Time Around – which also features the vocals of one-time west London prodigy Alessi Laurent-Marke – has a lyric that is as effortless-seeming as the music. It tells a story of hope and aspiration, and of a love that may be compromised or even lost in that process: 'Did you make it down to London this time?/ And can it ever come too soon?/ You pack your history in your suitcase every time/ And you wear it till it fits you'. When Crowther described Next Time Around as his 'Billy Liar song' it all made sense.
'I definitely identified with Billy a bit,' Crowther said. 'The slightly mercurial, evasive way he lived his life just seemed to fit really well with my music. He’s a big icon. So that’s really where it came from.'
For a song whose impact is immediate and sensational, there’s an enormous amount going on. If there wasn’t, I don’t think it would reward so many listens.
In the meantime, The Fernweh are waiting for a record label to come calling. In keeping with their retro approach to music-making, they don’t do social media other than Twitter. And they are only now beginning to gig, in and around the north-west. SoundCloud is where you can hear Next Time Around and the other tracks that make up their self-titled debut EP.