SWEEP HORIZONS CLEAN
“A post-industrial love song” is how Jez Lowe introduced this song at a recent Bad Pennies concert. “That’s what I was told, anyway. What do I know?” Sweep Horizons Clean has been an understated stalwart of Jez’s “live” set for quite a while, and indeed was featured on the “Live at the Davy Lamp” CD last year, as well as on the original release “Tenterhooks” in the mid-90’s. For many years though, it was only sung at solo gigs, and it wasn’t until the group insisted that they have a chance to play it, that it graduated into the band’s set, where it still features occasionally, often as an end-of -the-night encore. It has long been one of Jez’s favourite songs.
The song was written in America at the home of Jez’s then US agent Amy Fonoroff in Boston in the late Autumn of 1995, according to the notes that accompany the song in the soon-to-be-published third volume of the Jez Lowe Songbook. Its origins came as, back home, the last remnants of the Easington Colliery coal mine winding-gear and out-buildings were being demolished following the final closing of the pit by the Tory government. A quote from an interview Jez did at the time on BBC Radio Cleveland is worth noting. Jez sang the song “live” for presenter Richard Stewart, who remarked that it was strange that such a “pretty” song had remarkably sad lyrics, and asked “Why are all folk songs so sad?”.
“Well it’s a love song, and all the best love songs are sad,” Jez replied, laughing.
“But it’s more than a love-song, it’s about your hometown…”
“Well it could be about anywhere. I mean, it is about my hometown, as it happens, but it could be anywhere, because the same thing is happening all over, that thing where people are scared to look.. they pass where the pit used to be or the factory, where there was all this high machinery, the pit-head gear, the pulley wheels and all that, the chimneys, and now, and its all been there for decades, a hundred years, and now there’s just a big lump of sky. And people aren’t looking, it hurts them to look at it, so they look the other way as they pass by. It’s left such a gap in their lives, both emotionally and actually, physically, where the sky was dark with industrial shapes, you can now see the clear blue sky. That’s the “sweep horizons” bit. But you can’t dwell on that, we’re all trying to move on.”
“So how do you turn that into a love song? Is that the right thing to do?”
“I don’t know. There was an old song that I heard a mate of mine do in America actually, a fella called Michael Black, he does a great song called The Coming of the Roads, and I heard him do it one night in a bar, a pub gig, and it was great, and that was the sort of thing I wanted to do with this song, a sort of acceptance of change, regretfully but accepting as well, and let’s get on with it, don’t run away from it. Anyway I just put people into it, and that’s how it came out.”
The song that Jez mentions as inspiration for his own composition, was written by Billy Ed Wheeler, and recorded by Judy Collins in the 1960’s. (Michael Black is the San Francisco-based brother of Irish singer Mary Black). In that song, the changes are the building of new roads to a remote part of America, where the author comes from a coal-mining town as it happens, and as well as bringing big changes into the area, they are also giving people the chance to leave the area behind. Similarly it is a conversation wherein one person is staying and the other is leaving.
The melody and the lyrics of the two songs are not alike in any way however. The main similarity is that both are songs of social commentary using characters in a story to put across the point the writers are trying to make. And both songs start with the same word – “Now…”
When asked recently about the origins of Sweep Horizons Clean, Jez seemed not to remember the link with this other song, and instead cited another completely different origin, Crowded House’s “Better Come Home Soon” which he said was in the US charts when he was working on his song, and had subconciously influenced the writing of it. And also, he said, Sting’s “Fields of Gold” was constantly on the radio at that time as he was driving around on tour, and the construction of the verses of that song was also an influence.
Musically, there are several points that attract this writer to the song, apart from the simple yet effective melody itself. There is the catchy instrumental motif that introduces the song, played on saxaphone on the original, but in fiddle when in concert. (There is an in-joke in the band, that the short guitar doodle at the very start of the original recording can never be repeated, as Jez can’t remember what he played at the time! Subsequently he has played something similar, but not the same) Also the dramatically effective change in the chord sequence after the instrumental break, where the same main melody is transformed by bringing a series of minor chords in to replace the usual major chords. An added bonus recently in concert has been the use of fiddle on the last verse to echo the vocal harmony of the original recording, in a duet with the lead vocal. The omission of the refrain on the last verse is also a nice touch.
“Sweep Horizons Clean” has never been covered by any other artist, as far as I know, which is hard to believe, as it seems very much to have “mainstream” appeal to these ears, and I note that it is often the song Jez chooses to perform “live” in radio interviews and studio performances as he tours around America, where there is a better chance of a mainstream audience listening in and hearing him.
As an added bonus for this piece, he gave us the tuning used on the guitar for the song – DAGDGC