Thursday, 18 April 2013

Broadcast in Shindig Magazine

The cover of the latest edition of the music magazine Shindig, whose tastes generally tend towards 60s psychedelia, is this month graced by a photo of Trish and James from Broadcast, circa Tender Buttons, looking appraisingly down at the camera eye, a painted wall of words forming a cryptically semi-legible backdrop. It’s the first step in locating the band within a broader history, allying them with a continuing stream of adventurous music which seeks to marry pop melodicism with avant garde and experimental sounds and techniques and poetic lyrics. Psychedelia, if you will, although the retro connotations of the term ill suits the music which Broadcast made, which, whilst drawing on many influences from the past, was always resolutely forward looking. Small side pieces folded into the main article pinpoint some of the music which fed into Broadcast’s evolving sound – The United States of America above all. There’s also a short article on the 1969 White Noise LP An Electric Storm, a collaborative effort bringing together Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the Radiophonic Workshop with the young American musician David Vorhaus. Another big inspiration for Trish and James, it was, as she observed in Broadcast’s Invisible Jukebox article in the September 2005 edition of Wire magazine, slightly marred by the intrusion of ‘orgy vocals’. There’s an obvious element of sadness in the implication inherent in appearing in a magazine devoted to the glories of bygone days that the band are now a part of the history upon which they drew. Trish’s death at the beginning 2011 effectively brought the ever-evolving musical adventures she and James had shared, together with their fellow travellers, to an end. But in the interview which is the centrepiece of the issue, James reiterates the promise of material recorded for the album intended as a follow up to Tender Buttons (a full-force Broadcast album as opposed to the fruitful collaboration with Julian House’s Focus Group on the Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP) being forthcoming at some future date, when he is entirely satisfied that it has reached a suitably finely tuned state to stand as the fitting tribute which it will inevitably partly be viewed as. The article is titled The Children of Alice, which also points to a continuation of the lineage: James has been recording and will be performing under that fitting name in a trio which includes longtime friend Julian House, alias The Focus Group, and Roj Stevens, a former Broadcast compadre who has more recently recorded an excellent album on the Ghost Box label (its percussive and slightly abrasive electronic palette sounding like it wouldn’t have been out of place on Tender Buttons, or indeed on the faux library music of the Microtronics mini-cds). The choice of name references Trish’s love of Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Miller’s 1966 version of Alice in Wonderland, and its suggestion of continuation, rather than a new start with a new individual perspective, is hugely heartening. If Trish is the girl who left Chelmsley Wood to go down the rabbit hole, then it seems that the spirit of her brave explorations into the hidden continents of the imagination is to be honoured, and further expeditions mounted. The Children of Alice will release their first recordings as part of the Devon Folklore Tapes series on June 1st, and will be performing at the Deerhunter/Atlas Sound ATP festival in Camber Sands in June (and you can see a clip of Trish singing with Bradford Cox during an American tour over here).

In one of several capsule side pieces bracketing the main article, Dan Abbott offers a ten best of Broadcast list. James and Trish’s methodical approach to recording and perfectionist attention to detail means that any such list is bound to be highly subjective. The time and care taken to craft each song on each album means that their records were few and far between but uniformly strong. There could be any number of top ten combinations. Abbott chooses a representative selection, reflecting the different phases of the band’s development, and the various aspects of their sound and songwriting. Clearly a committed fan with a broad and deep knowledge of their oeuvre, his choices tend to direct us away from the obvious, but always with a colourful and frequently poetic description which imagistically summarises why he considers it essential. How can you not immediately want to hear a piece whose ‘notes hang suspended like stars glimpsed through gaps in a magic fog as it slowly engulfs an unsuspecting night-time city’. Wonderful stuff, and entirely apt for the track in question (and I’m not going to tell you which one it is, either – you’ll have to guess, or buy the magazine). I’m happy that he’s chosen Arc of a Journey, one of my favourites from the Tender Buttons LP. It’s one of Trish’s most evocatively allusive lyrics, summing up science fiction landscapes with a few carefully chosen phrases, the simple, yearning melody backed by atmospheric and refreshingly non-generic electronic sounds which suggest they’ve learned something from their collaboration with the BEAST (the Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre) on the Pendulum EP.

Lists by their very nature invite response and suggested additions, however. So, if you insist: Book Lovers was my introduction to the band, and its shifting minor key arpeggio, suggestive of the 60s harpsichord sound which managed both to have a flavour of the antique and to inhabit the kinetic bustle of the present, drives it on irresistibly. The lyrics, full of bibliophile sensuality and excitement at book learning, are a statement of intent, with an unapologetic ‘it’s not for everyone’ pointing to their determination to pursue their own winding and idiosyncratic path. The melancholic instrumental addendum is gorgeous, a long drawn out sigh, both satisfied and a little sad, marking the closing of the storybook. Echo’s Answer follows the literary trail, with lyrics quoting Tennyson’s Echo’s Answer, as used in Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Its languorous pace is typical of a number of Trish’s daydream songs. Illumination from the Extended Play Two EP has a quietly ecstatic feel, with a rich mix of electronic sound textures over propulsive bass (which has an echoing concrete shadow throughout) and a gently rolling swell of drums giving it an epic, orchestral sound. It’s the baroque frame supporting a beautiful folkish melody, with visionary lyrics of great power (‘wait, the growing stem of time/waits poisonous outside’ is a striking opening couplet) expressing the autonomy of inner worlds, and a chorus of soaring wordless vocals. Poem of Dead Song, also from the Extended Play Two EP (both are collected on the Future Crayon compilation of EPs) has another lusciously melancholic opening section, beginning this time with wordless vocals. With the soft, bell-chords of the synths sounding behind her, the strike of the initial chime burnished away to leave only glinting resonance, it sounds like Trish singing to herself whilst walking back home along silent night streets. An abrupt shift in tempo and key takes us into what is not so much a chorus as a different plane of the song, refracting against the initial passage at a subtly off-kilter angle. Words come to the fore, although the muffled vocalisations continue with a crooning harmonisation in the distance. A solemn invocation calls on transformative powers, offering a hopeful vision of a clear path ahead.

Valerie, from the HaHa Sound LP, is essential, a perfect setting of Lubos Fiser’s main theme from Jaromil Jires’ 1970 Czech surrealist fairy tale film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The film became intensely personal to Trish, as she reveals in her sleeve note to the soundtrack album, released a few years back on the Finders Keepers label, and now happily repressed on vinyl with the original green poster design replacing the bloodstained daisy on the cover. It was a work of art to which she immediately felt instinctively attuned. It suffused her psyche so comprehensively (‘I became Valerie’, she notes of the experience of listening repeatedly to Fiser’s music) that such an appropriation seems entirely natural, the melody and lyrics a deeply affecting reflection of her inner life, as expressed by her sense of connection with the images on the screen. Hawk, which ends the album, flies along on a steady, ratcheting wooden pulse, two notes tic-toccing along at a nimble pace. Sparse synth arabesques are plucked out in reverberant harpsichord tones at regular intervals. Trish sings in a low register, the melody restrained in its emotional range. The words, intoned as much as sung, are imbued with a mythic feel. There’s the sense of a steady flight through the upper air, looking down on an ancient tundral landscape, progress measured out in the rushing beat of a strong and wide wingspan. The song sounds like a precursor to the ‘what you want is not what you need’ one chord Mongolian lute kosmische freak out with which Broadcast would end their concerts in the post-Tender Buttons period.

Tender Buttons, the title track of the LP which James and Trish made as a duo, draws on the linguistic play of Gertrude Stein, and finds Trish delighting in alliterative connection and the assonant qualities of words, creating striking contrasts or surprising associations through semi-random conjunctions of sound and meaning. The slithering, fast-picked guitar spattered over the firm supporting frame of the looping bassline sounds like Lou Reed in the early Velvet Underground days, or a stuttering passage in a Sonny Sharrock solo, a preface to the eruption. Black Cat, always a concert favourite, returns us to Alice’s subterranean or beyond-the-mirror dreamworlds. The repeated refrain ‘curiouser and curiouser’ is given its own distinctive inflection, the emphasis laid on the last two syllables. The electronic backing has a fizzing, roughly burred edge, which makes it sound as if it’s going to combust into smoking flame at any moment. This provides an added sense of tension, contrasting effectively with the measured vocals. The Focus Group collaboration Witch Cults of the Radio Age is a collage of song and sound fragments, which makes individual tracks harder to isolate and highlight. I See, So I See So, with its incantatory worlds and vocals, always stuck in my mind, though. The ‘solar on the rise’ lyric reminds me of Kenneth Anger’s films (as did the short films which accompanied the album), with Trish as a dark-haired incarnation of Marianne Faithfull in Lucifer Rising. It seems designed to sung on the rounded crest of an iron age burial mound or hill fort to mark some significant winter conjunction (in ‘magic January’). Finally, In Here the World Begins, from the Mother Is the Milky Way tour cd, is another low-key Pagan hymn, with lyrics of meditative self-reflexivity (‘a dream within a dream’) which fold in upon themselves before expanding outwards once more. The synths here sound like some plucked zither reverberating in a watery cavern. It was punctuated on stage by the most luminous synth lines from James, glowing with summery solar warmth. Trish would step lightly up and down the stage in front of a spotlit and back-projected screen, her shadowed form growing huge and then diminishing again as she did so. It’s a blissful and utterly entrancing lullaby, with all the acceptance of paradox and mystery often found in children’s songs (as in ‘life is but a dream’, cheerfully chorused in nurseries and libraries across the land as the concluding sentiment of Row, Row, Row Your Boat). Well, those are some of my favourites. Others will assemble a completely different set. All are equally valid.

Julian House is an abiding presence throughout the magazine. In his guise as a graphic designer with a distinctive, instantly recognisable style, he has produced to double page title spreads: One for the Broadcast article, featuring collaged fragments of Trish’s publicity and cover photo portraits, some outline cut-outs, some cropped and squared off; the other for an article on the dubious pleasures of 70s Italian giallo films, an imaginary poster in the period style of the one he designed for Peter Strickland’s recent film Berberian Sound Studio (and there’s an article on Broadcast’s soundtrack for this, too). Getting into the profundo rosso spirit of things, its steeped in shades of deep red. House is also interviewed in his role as joint chairman of the Ghost Box parish council, along with Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly, or the vicar of Belbury). Once more, he voices his indifference to the cultural pontifications filed under the unwieldy theoretical heading of hauntology. The Focus Group’s forthcoming LP, The Electrick Karousel, is previewed, apparently offering us numerous nuggets of ‘baroque psych’. It also features the magic trio of House, Roj and James on several tracks. The children of Alice are coming out into the world in many different guises.

As if all this weren’t enough, there’s also an article by Trembling Bells’ head Alex Nielson (a regular contributor of accessible and insightful reviews to the Wire), who shines a light on the post-Incredible String Band LPs of Mike Heron. I remember his Smiling Me With Bad Reputations album with vague fondness (sadly, it fell victim to one of my periodic Record and Tape Exchange purges many moons ago). My teen self particularly enjoyed the track with Pete Townshend and Keith Moon, glorying under the Beefheartian title Warm Heart Pastry. It seemed a surprising change of direction, before you recalled the move towards a heavier rock sound on the latter and little-loved Incredible String Band LPs. A news item at the beginning of the magazine has alerted me to the fact that Trembling Bells are returning to the Exeter Phoenix on 20th July. After their previous visit with Bonnie Prince Billy, they are teaming up on this occasion with the aforementioned Mr Heron, together with his daughter Georgia Seddon.

Night Ferry (1976)
Another article surveys the modest pleasures afforded by the Children’s Film Foundation from the 50s through to the 70s, which have grown in charm with the passing of time (I can’t say I ever saw one while I was actually a child). They now offer an insight into a more innocent world, which seems separated by a gulf greater than the few intervening decades would suggest. Watch the London Tales collection released by the bfi (it’s in the Devon library system if you’re from these parts), and in particular the widely roaming attempts of three schoolchildren to set up their own rag and bone round in The Salvage Gang, and you’ll see a city which simply no longer exists (and you’ll find yourself straining to pick up background detail passing by during the children’s trip on the top deck of a routemaster – a modern variant on the turn of the century ‘phantom rides’). Night Ferry (1976) is also fascinating, with its young punk protagonists in unglamorous back street settings in south west London reflecting their time and place with an unforced realism rather undermined by the preposterous (but fun) Egyptian mummy heist plot. The opening scene, in which one tyke tries to evade apprehension having trespassed into a busy railway marshalling yard to retrieve his toy glider, is particularly hair-raising. It has all the cringing tension of a public information film, with a shockingly violent accident just waiting to happen. The boy is seen hopping out of the way of oncoming trucks, and running in the narrow space between a stationary line of wagons and another approaching train. It’s inconceivable that such scenes would be filmed today, even if marshalling yards still existed. More treats for trainspotters (sorry, rail enthusiasts) come in the form of extensive footage, both in platform and onboard, of the night sleeper service from Victoria to (via Sealink) Paris and Brussells, just a short while before it was scrapped. I look forward to the release of the Weird Adventures CFF collection forthcoming from the bfi, which includes Powell and Pressburger’s 1972 swansong, The Boy Who Turned Yellow.

All in all, this edition of Shindig seems to be especially constructed to meet the needs of the average Broadcast fan, and thus can be considered essential.


Jon said...

Lovely. Thanks so much. So pleased with this one and the feedback has been wonderful.

Jez Winship said...

Thanks back, and congratulations on a wonderful issue.

cyberpainter said...

Great write up and descriptions of songs! And the Shindig issue is certainly essential for us Broadcast fans.

Jez Winship said...

Cheers, and thanks for the link on the Stereolab forum. You're not the first to comment on my lack of paragraph control! I shall try to address it.