Described by punk fanzine Zero as “eternal long-haired losers who also have the best tunes”, The Astronauts have been around for 40 years – but hands up who’s heard one of their tracks?
I say “they”, the band is the vehicle of singer-songwriter Mark Wilkins, aka Mark Astronaut, who has recorded and gigged with a flux of musicians in and around his home town of Welwyn Garden City since the late 1970s.
The Astronauts emerged from the British anarcho-punk scene alongside seminal bands such as Zounds and The Mob. Wilkins’ political lyrics helped The Astronauts gain a loyal following in the underground scene despite the music being decidedly “unpunk”.
The band released debut album Peter Pan Hits The Suburbs in 1981 to critical acclaim, its folk and psychedelic influences bringing hard-hitting anthems such as Protest Song and Baby Sings Folk Songs to a wider audience.
Wilkins matched lyrics about the drug scene and Thatcher’s Britain with timeless tunes boosted by Hawkwind’s Nik Turner on saxophone. Peter Pan has been re-released several times, most recently in Greece, where the band retains its cult status.
The second Astronauts album, It’s All Done By Mirrors, was released on All The Madmen records two years later. Highlights include Tim Nixon’s violin on live favourite Seagull Mania and one of the best apocalypse-scenario love songs ever written, Typically English Day.
Meanwhile jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill, who became a long-time collaborator with the band, took the album’s psychedelic overtones to another dimension.
Further albums followed in the 1980s – Soon and The Seedy Side (both on All The Madmen) and In Defence Of Compassion (on Acid Stings records). The latter saw the band experiment with ambient house way ahead of the curve.
The band self-released two albums in the 1990s until Irregular Records put out You’re All Weird at the end of the decade, revealing Wilkins had lost none of his talent with songs such as It’s Incredible and Bats In The Belfry.
Wilkins assembled a new band in the 2000s, The Otters, before returning as The Astronauts for last year’s album, It’s Got A Garden (on Grow Your Own Records).
Speaking to Wilkins this week, he told me audience numbers at Astronauts shows were rising steadily before the lock-down, while he has plenty more songs in the pipeline.
London-based survivor poet Frank Bangay sums up Wilkins: “His songwriting and singing gifts continue to shine brightly. Mark Astronaut is a national treasure.”
I live my own life
Do what I want, say what I mean
And you’ve got your own hope
Strange ambition, different dreams
So who are you to say I’m wrong?
And who am I to say I’m right?
Although we live in separate ways
Why do we argue, always fight?
A man who disagreed with a regime was termed a rat
One night, some men came round
“We’ve read your books, we’d like a chat”
And then they kicked him round the cell
With cigarettes they burnt his face
They said: “Remember, we’re the law
“Do you love your family, your dwelling place?”
And it seems that fools control the world
The nuclear button, the poison pen
Most of us are in the dark
But then we’re only little men
And little men have mouths to feed
And little men don’t want to kill
So little men are never told
Unless, of course, the earth stands still
We have got a chant
Ain’t got a chorus, ain’t got a name
But it helps us through the night
To know that we don’t share the blame
It’s just another protest song
With words to try to make you think
But come the dawn, resume your search
For your ultimate power
Your missing link
Lyrics by Mark Wilkins
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