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Can-Utility and the Coastliners

This song is by Genesis and appears on the album Foxtrot (1972).

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Can-Utility and the Coastliners
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 blew

Far 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 knee

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


Can-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.

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.