"Can-utility And The Coastliners" as written by Peter Gabriel, Anthony Banks, Phil Collins, Steven Hackett and Michael Rutherford....
The scattered pages of a book by the sea
Held by the sand, washed by the waves
A shadow forms cast by a cloud,
Skimming by as eyes of the past, but the rising tide
Absorbs them effortlessly claiming.

They told of one who tired of all singing,
"Praise him, praise him."
"We heed not flatterers," he cried,
"By our command, waters retreat,
Show my power, halt at my feet,"
But the cause was lost,
Now cold winds blow.

For from the north overcast ranks advance
Fear of the storm accusing with rage and scorn.
The waves surround the sinking throne
Singing "Crown him, crown him,"
"Those who love our majesty show themselves!"
All bent their knees.

But he forced a smile even though
His hopes lay dashed where offerings fell (where they fell).
"Nothing can my peace destroy as long as none smile."
More opened ears and opened eyes,
And soon they dared to laugh.
See a little man with his face turning red
Though his story's often told you can tell he's dead.

Lyrics submitted by Demau Senae

"Can-Utility and the Coastliners" as written by Phil Collins Anthony Banks

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., CARLIN AMERICA INC, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

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Can-Utility and the Coastliners song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentCan-Utility and the Coastliners is the fourth song on the 1972 album Foxtrot.

    Can-Utility appears to be a word-play on the name of an old King, Canute (also spelled Kanute, or Knut) The Coastliners are his followers who in one version of the story are sycophants needing to be shown the truth, and in the other are the ones exposing the delusions of the king. Peter’s lyrics seem to weave elements of both tales into one, leading us from the near future of Get ‘em Out by Friday, to a quasi-mythical timeless area.

    (following taken from several sources, including Wikipedia)

    One version of the tale:

    Canute, surrounded by sycophants and obsequious courtiers, had an unwelcome and undeserved reputation of being master of anything in the universe, especially the angry North Sea separating his two seats, England and Denmark. Irritated and tired of this ridiculous assertion, he placed his throne on the beach - but not to defy the incoming tide. He sat on the beach and let the waves engulf him precisely to demonstrate that he was not master of the seas, whatever anyone said.

    Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th century chronicler, tells how Canute set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes; but the tide failed to stop. According to Henry, Canute leapt backwards and said 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws'. He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.

    This story may be apocryphal. While the contemporary Encomium Emmae has no mention of it, it would seem that so pious a dedication might have been recorded there, since the same source gives an 'eye-witness account of his lavish gifts to the monasteries and poor of St Omer when on the way to Rome, and of the tears and breast-beating which accompanied them'. Goscelin, writing later in the 11th century, instead has Canute place his crown on a crucifix at Winchester one Easter, with no mention of the sea, and 'with the explanation that the king of kings was more worthy of it than he'. However there may be a 'basis of fact, in a planned act of piety,' behind this story, and Henry of Huntingdon cites it as an example of the king's 'nobleness and greatness of mind'. Later historians repeated the story, most of them adjusting it to have Canute more clearly aware that the tides would not obey him, and staging the scene to rebuke the flattery of his courtiers; and there are earlier Celtic parallels in stories of men who commanded the tides, namely Saint Illtud, Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, and Tuirbe, of Tuirbe's Strand, in Brittany.

    The encounter with the waves is said to have taken place at Bosham in West Sussex, or Southampton in Hampshire.

    This event was also shown in a video from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales I believe.

    I like to think this is a parable to all leaders that we are all human, and that those in public office (or the entertainment industry) have a job to do and not a position to glamourize and alienate from everyone else. Utility is a public service.
    Madpropheton November 26, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentSince the meaning of this song is pretty clear, I would just like to say that this song played through REALLY GOOD headphones is probably one of the best sonic experiences on the planet =)
    PennyLane6700on September 21, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is about King Kanute & the thing he had with the tide coming in - can't remember the whole story!
    timbo.hon January 05, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIndeed based on the story of King Canute and the tide. He apparantly ordered the seas to retreat to mock the sycophantry of his followers.
    K-nuxXxon June 24, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentVery cool song. 4/5 stars.
    inpraiseoffollyon September 08, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIgnore my above comment, and look at K-nuxXx's comment.

    To that I have to add that he fails, of course, and though he is famous, he's still dead, and never really accomplished anything.
    inpraiseoffollyon November 27, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentVery beautiful song. Does anyone know how the tittle connects with the story?
    ledtheater9on June 07, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is one of the best progressive rock songs out there in my opinion. Peter's vocals are haunting and the violin and organ are prefect here.
    amhereston October 15, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General Commentwow, this is a great song! wonderful lyrics inspired by a sad story. Agree about Gabriel's singing, not to mention that punchy organ by banks, and collins with the awesome fills. Guitars fit in so well, such a well constructed and crafted piece of music

    sigh, wish there was more music like this written today... maybe there is but I just haven't found it. Any recommendations?

    gladtobeadadon October 26, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentMadprophet's observation that it's a merger of different versions of the Canute story is excellent. But I've been captivated by the first verse of this song.

    "The scattered pages of a book by the sea..." -- meaning this story has been lost, although the omniscient narrator is going to tell you it anyway. It's also odd/interesting that the book itself is suffering the same fate as Canute, and being lost for all time. It speaks to "Foxtrot's" themes of the impermanence of civilizations -- eventually not only will all this be gone, so will our record of it.

    "Time Table," two tracks back on "Foxtrot," utilizes the exact same device. "A carved oak table" once told a tale of kings and queens, but now the very medium of the story has been destroyed. I am fascinated by why the lyricist was so interested in discussing the impermanence of the story medium in these songs, as well as the story itself.

    You could even say it's happening in "Watcher of the Skies" -- the "watcher" is looking down at the destroyed surface of the earth and interpreting the entire history and future of the human race. I also like how almost every song on "Foxtrot" seems to view civilization from multiple points of view in time -- as if there's time travel going on in the middle of every narrative.
    simon peteon October 17, 2013   Link

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