Martin Phillipps, on Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb

Chills main man Martin Phillipps shared some pithy thoughts on his band’s two major-label albums Submarine Bells (1990) and Soft Bomb (1992), during a Twitter chat hosted by his Charlatans counterpart Tim Burgess at Tim’s Listening Party (@LlSTENlNG_PARTY), on Sept. 28, 2022. I have archived his comments here for the benefit of future generations:

Hi everyone! Martin Chillipps here. Get comfortable. Let’s go…

Heavenly Pop Hit: Title subconsciously influenced by Sparks’ The Number One Song In Heaven (1979). A video was shot in Ireland as a stand-in for NZ. We were rehearsing there for the 1990 world tour. Note the goat. Not a tongue in cheek song. I truly wanted to create something beautiful and too powerful to be written off as lightweight pop.

Tied Up In Chain: About the rise of nationalism and fascism and the band’s visit to Dachau in 1987. One of my songs that went through many changes of lyrical direction before settling on a final theme. A song often requested and we briefly played it live again last year but it didn’t quite take this time.

The Oncoming Day: Fourth or fifth attempt at recording this 1982 song about expression of powerful adolescent emotions through descriptions of landscape and inner turmoil. A musical exercise in constantly growing intensity — about as easy as breaking in a wild horse.

Part Past Part Fiction: Once again singing about music being a stronger force than lyrics for conveying emotions. And for yet another lost girlfriend. It would be great to have it in our live set but it’s a real strain for my 59 year-old vocal chords.

Singing In My Sleep: I’ve heard symphonies in my dreams but have always lacked the musical knowledge to drag them into the waking world. I’ve grabbed a few rock riffs though! Just three chords, a beautiful melody and dynamics. We must do this live again.

I SOAR: An attempt at a Ray Bradbury-like story with a ghost’s perspective floating above an abandoned human settlement on another world. The backwards heartbeat percussion was inspired by some Bolivian folk music I heard in the ’80s.

Dead Web: Perhaps unfair critique of competitive mourning and histrionics amongst the young when we were dealing with our first peer group deaths. Also an experiment in shifting the same riff through various chord changes. Too many words.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Anger at feeling redundant just when things were getting going for the band. Scorn at new musical styles I had yet to understand — but not a bad rap, though!

Don’t Be — Memory: A plea to the woman I wrote “Submarine Bells” for. Her second song. The concept of becoming just “a memory” taken from a short story The Memory in a 1970 Pogles Annual (British animated kids’ show).

Effloresce And Deliquesce: A friend told me his two new favourite words — chemical terms just perfect for a description of a young couple fighting and making up. Someday I wish to release my home demos. This one has a haunting feeling we never quite caught in the studio.

sweet times: Was originally a Happy Birthday song I wrote for Shayne Carter (Dimmer, Straitjacket Fits etc) then I reversed it and approximated the backwards lyrics. Useful on the album as a musical interlude to smooth transition between songs.

Submarine Bells: Still my best love song and I have been privileged to sing this with an orchestra. And she still avoids talking with me! Where is the justice…


The Male Monster From The Id: About the human propensity towards violence and also referencing the Id monster in Forbidden Planet (1956). One of my first attempts at tackling feminist issues followed by “Sanctuary”, “Tomboy” and “Safe and Sound”.

Background Affair: About hard economic times and despair but, thankfully, producer Gavin MacKillop suggested I relieve the tension with an uplifting chorus which my demo lacked. The original demo, though, was more insidious and sombre and not as raucous.

Ocean Ocean: A metaphor, I guess, for the band’s journey up to that point. Tossed about, hither and thither, upon unpredictable seas. The original demo indicated a less pretty, far more powerful interpretation. I was thinking more along the lines of The Who. Sometimes you realise a song won’t live up to your expectations and you have to let it go.

Soft Bomb: Good, honest ringing open chords in a paean to the early “Dunedin Sound” and feeling its passing as we disappeared into the bowels of the Warners machine. I’m amazed and happy at how many of us from the early days are still making excellent music.

there is no harm in trying: Another short song as a kind of sorbet, a palate-cleanser between main courses. The positive side of a flipped coin.

Strange Case: The Aramoana massacre near Dunedin in 1990 claimed 14 lives. I tried to understand what was going on in the killer’s mind. The killer’s name was David Gray. When I first saw the movie Vampyr (1932) it was subtitled “The Strange Case of Allan Gray” but I’d misremembered it as “David Gray”.

Soft Bomb II: The first mention of “Soft Bomb” was on the back cover of the Kaleidoscope World compilation in 1986. I decided to keep using the “S.B.” title theme after the coincidence of Submarine Bells. “Soft Bomb” means making an impact or a strong statement but by pacifist, non-violent methods.

So Long: Meeting a wonderful person on tour and starting a long-distance affair which is ultimately doomed. I look back and see a number of examples of Celtic influence in my songwriting style even though I am at home in the South Pacific.

Song For Randy Newman Etc: Seeing how the great and adventurous are often side-lined or ignored in their time. I returned to this theme with “The Greatest Guide” on Snow Bound — although that was more about Bowie and Lou Reed. I’m still proud of the lyrics about the small-minded side of NZ which are becoming, sadly, very relevant again.

Sleeping Giants: The wonderful legends of those heroes and legends from our past rising up and saving us in times of need! There was a completely different early lyric about a hail storm.

Double Summer: That wonderful feeling when you first meet someone and then wake with them and wonder about love. Over the years this has become one of the most requested songs which we weren’t playing live — it was technically difficult.

Sanctuary: About a woman in a violent domestic situation who feels her only escape is through imagination. It didn’t start out funky. I don’t know how that happened.

Halo Fading: The third of three (and a half) songs written for the Submarine Bells woman. We were both into The Ballad Of Halo Jones graphic novels written by Alan Moore. I met him! (twice). He won’t remember.

there is no point in trying: The darker side of the above flipped coin. Also inspired by Brian Wilson’s modular composition style. It’s another little song so the title is all lower-case — like “sweet times”.

Entertainer: Sounds really dark but it’s about being the odd number in a group and driving couples around. I was really out of it when I sang this. Start of the slippery slope.

Water Wolves: The likelihood of being eaten by sharks is very small but this is about the terror of the unlikely and the unknown. Beautiful arrangement by Van Dyke Parks. I had to sing to him down the phone to check where my vocal was meant to start.

Soft Bomb III: Just a joyous chant to finish the record and try to give it some sense of cohesion. We’d decided to use the full time available to us on a CD at that point. I still don’t know if that was a good idea.

I hope everyone has enjoyed this. Thanks for listening, reading and commenting!

Dean Goodman