Readers recommend playlist: underwater songs

Diving into your suggestions, a reader surfaces with Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix all caught in his list

Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of your suggestions last week. Thanks for taking part. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.

When our ancestors crawled out of the ocean on to dry land they carried the sea with them; as we still do. All of our cells contain the briny, without which we simply could not exist. Harking back 500m years to an earlier evolutionary experiment in intelligence, Bob James’s Nautilus, released in 1974 and apparently named for its sonic similarity with a submerging submarine, is one of the most sampled musical pieces of all time. By itself it is a thing of fluid beauty, but to list all the passages and tonal effects extracted would be to list a history of hip-hop.

Listen on YouTube.

When the Beatles’ Ringo Starr discovered our next marine creature collects attractive objects to create an Octopus’s Garden designed to entice a mate, he knew there was a song in there. With a little help from George Harrison, he pleasantly surprised his bandmates by concocting a song of love, happiness and innocence.

The sea rarely goes unappreciated by those who live nearby, but would we really want to go back to living there? Jimi Hendrix imagined so in the song 1983 ... (A Merman I Should Turn To Be). A global war has turned even the Arctic blood-red, and in this epic sci-fic audio fantasy, Hendrix and his Catherina, despite the mockery of his contemporaries, reach the sanctuary of the ocean where through the magic of making love in the sand, they are able to return to the starfish and the foam.

There are people who reject water in its entirety. Here’s a song about someone who hates water so much he doesn’t even sweat. Parliament’s Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop) catches George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell towards the end of their collaborative years, but also at a peak of creativity. “Underwater baby ... Ah, let go my leg. I hate water.”

Being afraid of water could be a sign of good sense. We all know the devastation tsunamis can cause, but at a more local level sudden flooding, even predictable flooding, can destroy lives. In When the Levee Breaks, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie describe the gamut of emotions running through a person’s heart as they watch the waters rise. Hundreds died in the great Mississippi flood of 1927, hundreds of thousands were made homeless and destitute, but our protagonist abandons home and family in order to make an escape.

Many songs about drowning were nominated, but PJ Harvey’s Down By the Water is of a different order altogether. In this song, a mother takes her daughter to the river and dispatches her. Harvey’s lyrical dexterity pares down the saddest of psychotic episodes.

Sugar’s A Good Idea has another drowning, one that makes you wonder who you can trust. “She” thought it a great idea when “he” suggested getting in the water together, but it didn’t take long for him to hold her head under. She wanted to know if it was something she’d said, while he just wanted to wash the mud off her face. Rarely has such a cheerful tune caused such shudders.

The submariner had just about the most gut-wrenching of wartime jobs. Thomas Dolby’s One of Our Submarines examines the loss of a vessel and the thoughts of those left behind, waiting for a sign or a signal from a pressureless “Spam tin”.

Angelique Kidjo’s remarkably angst-free cover of Once in a Lifetime is so full of life and energy that it’s no wonder she feels, as lyricist David Byrne felt, that all the water surrounding us can’t hold her back. Water is everywhere, sometimes over your head, sometimes pushing you along and sometimes giving you life. The Talking Heads’ version is zedded, but who cares?

Many people who were young in the 60s will recall a set of amusing adverts carried by DC comics. We were expected to buy into a whole nation of newfound friends – the Sea-Monkeys. These creatures had a royal family who wore their crowns while swimming among their playful subjects. Anyone foolish enough to send off their money would receive a pack of dried eggs which, once reconstituted in the family goldfish bowl, would hatch out into water fleas at best, or sea lice at worst. The Pixies’ Palace of the Brine has a backdrop of starry skies and the Utah mountains in their tank.

In certain parts of the world, unwittingly walking across a frozen lake could be an everyday hazard. The crunch of the snow, the crackling of the ice, the sudden rush of freezing water. Björk and her buddies, in The Sugarcubes’ Water, find themselves in just such a predicament. Unfortunately her mates are disinclined to offer any assistance when she crashes through the ice, and she is left to her fate.

We’re in similar territory with Kate Bush’s Under Ice, except that the action takes place on a frozen river. Entranced by the speed of her progress through the trees and the patterns made by her skates, Kate accepts the splitting of the ice beneath her blades. Disengaged, with something resembling an out-of-body experience, she sees herself looking out from under the ice.

Mississippi John Hurt closes the list with Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me. Hurt is not a happy man, working only to keep the world from his door. Now he’s marooned by the shore and wishing he had the fare for a steamship, but that’s not going to happen. So in his state of penury he has one wish: save the undertaker’s bills and place his body in the sea.

Not all songs appear on the YouTube playlist as some are unavailable on the service.

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George Boyland

The GuardianTramp

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