My top 10 swimming songs

Swimming as a pastime can be full of joy and laughter; it can be sensual. It can also be physically demanding as a sport. It can be about beautiful solitude and contemplation or isolating and lonely, according to your mood. And of course it can be fraught with challenges and danger if you can’t swim.

You’d be forgiven, then, for thinking that there are hundreds of wonderfully evocative songs about swimming. But once you discard the dubious ones involving pool parties and breaststroke (really) the pool starts to dwindle. Some are about drowning rather than swimming: “Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine, but – alas – she was no swimmer, Oh my darling Clementine.” Some swimming songs are pick-me-ups – light and frothy. Some take you back to swims you’ve had in the past – good or bad. By turns literal, metaphorical, nostalgic, gloomy and anthemic: here are my top 10 swimming songs.

My absolute out-and-out favourite has to be the tender and breathy duet Swimming by Breathe Owl Breathe. It’s a song that makes my heart ache and makes me long to go paddling, by capturing the sheer joy of a really good swim. This isn’t a pumping song to charge up and down the lanes to at your local pool or one that conveys the loneliness of swimming in the sea. This song simply and perfectly captures the excitement and joy of packing a bag for a day on the beach or in a pond and splashing about with friends. “Swimming … I wish I was swimming / Bring the mask and snorkel / Bring the flippers also / Bring the frisbee baby, bring something to drink / Bring your purple bathing suit …” It’s a call to have whimsical carefree fun, and I love it.

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But of course not every swim is like that for some of us. And so to the opposite extreme. As one who’s been there, it’s hard for me to imagine that the person who wrote Channel Swimmer hadn’t experienced the isolation of swimming a very long distance. How could they possibly have written this song if they hadn’t? Vancouver folk band Corbin Murdoch and the Nautical Miles are mysteriously laconic and laid back in their description of a Channel swim: “I know the ocean well / I know the taste of it, the rhythm of its swell / The icy song that whispers across my skin …”. Listening to this song sends shivers down my spine, especially when our channel swimmer sings: “Currents do not pull me, tides don’t turn me away”. The sparse instrumentation and gentle and insistent lilt convey brilliantly the loneliness of swimming a long way. I’m instantly transported into the middle of a sea. Urgh.

Not all the songs in my top 10 are literal. Some great swimming songs are about metaphorical barriers and breaking them down. In Frank Turner‘s tender and sweet folksy ballad Front Crawl, he has to cross eight borders and three seas to see his love. Sadly he can only doggy-paddle. It’s OK, though – he says he’ll set out when his front crawl is up to scratch.

Never one to over-sentimentalise things, Loudon Wainwright III weighs in with an uplifting ditty, The Swimming Song, which recounts a summer of freedom. He tells us he swims in the ocean, the swimming pool and a reservoir. He does swan dives and jackknives and backstrokes and butterflys and even the “australian crawl” (another name for the front crawl). He swims in a swimming suit and goes “informal”. He does it all. This man clearly loves his swimming.

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And it does seem to bring out the nostalgic in others too. REM‘s classic Nightswimming evokes times gone by and the recklessness of swimming under cover of dark. Is swimming all really about nostalgia for youth? Is it true that “these things go away, replaced by every day”? For some, perhaps, that’s true – I dearly hope not. I feel sorry for Michael Stipe. Swimming keeps me young.

A weird and haunting one this, and I love it for that. Laura Marling sings, “Oh you crawled out of the sea / Straight into my arms, straight into my arms.” It could be Darwinian; it could be about slimy sea monsters. Maybe it’s not quite Ursula Andress with a dagger. In my mind it’s all about the romance. Maybe a mermaid and her sailor. Or maybe it’s a about a slightly bedraggled Channel swimmer, staggering up an obscure beach into the arms of her waiting love. Preferably he’s there with a big fluffy towel. And a hot drink. Yeah, that would be good.

Maybe I’m doing them a disservice, but could you ever pick a less likely looking bunch of guys to be singing about braving the ocean than 10CC? Seriously? Channel Swimmer from 1975 was the B-side to Life Is a Minestrone. Classic lyrics, with a kind of funky organ accompaniment: “I’ve greased my body / And I’m heading over the ocean / These two arms are the only locomotion I need.” Enough said. I had to include it in my list, I’m sorry. How many songs are specifically about Channel swimming?

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Any song that has the lyrics “Swim until you can’t see land / Are you a man or are you a bag of sand” had to be included in this top 10. I know I’m a long-distance swimmer so I have a certain bias. Scottish Indie rock band Frightened Rabbit‘s track might be about swimming or might be about walking out into the sea with no intention of ever coming back. I have no idea which. I choose the former interpretation – it’s just about bravado. Yeah – what are you? A bag of sand if you don’t even dare to set out. I love it.

Life’s not always easy, of course. Eels‘ Swimming Lesson is a hard lesson to learn – more sink than swim. More, to be frank, about being thrown in a (metaphorical) lake than going for a relaxing dip.

But let’s not end on a gloomy note. Jack’s Mannequin‘s anthemic Swim is all rock guitars and wailing – in the nicest possible way. He’s not having any of Eels’ negative thinking. He’s not giving up. He’s exhorts us to swim despite the tidal waves tearing at the shore. He’s swimming to brighter days. He entreats us: “You gotta swim in the dark, there’s an ocean to drift in.” Sounds just the ticket. Wait for me – I’ll just go and find my goggles and cossie.

My top 10 swimming songs

1. Swimming – Breathe Owl Breathe
2. Channel Swimmer – Corbin Murdoch and the Nautical Miles
3. Front Crawl – Frank Turner
4. The Swimming Song – Loudon Wainwright III
5. Nightswimming – REM
6. Crawled out of the sea – Laura Marling
7. Channel Swimmer – 10CC
8. Swim Until You Can’t See Land – Frightened Rabbits
9. Swimming Lesson – Eels
10. Swim – Jack’s Mannequin

What are your favourite swimming-related songs? Make your suggestions on the thread below.

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