Thursday, 20 January 2011

Mountain: Nantucket Sleighride

Another musical nostalgia-fest for me here. I wanted to share a recording of what has been one of my favourite rock tracks of all-time. No matter how often I listen to this, I never tire of it - the track Nantucket Sleighride by the American rock band Mountain:

This is another band and track to which, like Rory Gallagher, I was introduced by my Uncle David when I was a little lad (maybe 12?). Mountain were an amazing hard rock combo, based around "man-mountain" guitarist Leslie West (vying occasionally for the title of tubbiest guitarist in rock history) and bassist Felix Pappalardi (probably vying for the title of coolest name in rock!). Amazingly, West, Pappalardi and their long-term drumming member Corky Laing are still playing live all over the world today (West seems a bit slimmer these days in the recent Youtube videos I've seen - a bit like Meatloaf, who's also half the man he used to be but in a good way!).

So, Nantucket Sleighride, the title of the track (and the album on which it appeared) is a moving tribute to Owen Coffin, a young whaler who set sail, at the age of 17, on the whaling ship Essex out into the Pacific Ocean on a sperm whale-hunting expedition in August 1819, under the command of his cousin, George Pollard, Jr. As described on Wikipedia: "In November the next year, a whale rammed and stove in the hull of the Essex in mid-Pacific, and the ship sank steadily... The crew of the Essex escaped in small whaleboats, with sufficient supplies for two months, but were not rescued in that time. During January 1821, the near-starved survivors began to eat the bodies of those who died. When even this resource ran out, the four men remaining in Pollard's boat agreed to draw straws to decide which of them should be slaughtered, lest all four die of starvation. Coffin 'won' the lottery, and was shot and eaten." Poor bloody little lad probably never stood a chance as the youngest in a bunch of desperate, starving men.

This song haunts me and it would consistently be a Desert Island Disc choice for me (without irony!). The lyrics of the song clearly concern a whaler being parted for three years from his loved ones on a hunt for the "mighty sperm whale" and the title "Nantucket Sleighride" refers to the major historical whaling port of Nantucket in Massachusets, New England, describing what happened to the whalers' rowing boat when they successfully harpooned a whale. "The whale, realizing it had been harpooned, would attempt to flee and drag the whale boat along with it. The speed of the "sleigh ride" would vary depending on the size of the whale, with larger whales giving faster rides... Once the whale expended its energy, the sailors would kill it and harvest its oil." In the 19th century, whaling was an industry where, unlike today's ongoing mechanised slaughter of whales by Norwegian and Japanese vessels with their large diesel engines and explosive headed harpoons, in the name of so-called "scientific whaling" (aye, right!), the whalers would row out in longboats and attempt to harpoon whales with hand-thrown harpoons. Whaling trips must have been nasty and brutish, and the lives of whalers often extremely foreshortened.

Readers/ listeners of a certain vintage might recognise the refrain in this track - it was used during the 1970's and up to 1988, as the theme music for London Weekend Television's excellent current affairs programme "Weekend World", shown up here on Scottish Television (STV).

1 comment:

  1. This is great. Believe it or not I don't think I've ever heard this track - although I recognise the TV excerpt - or have heard of the band either.

    My education was obviously remiss.

    very cool.


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