Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Public Service Broadcasting at the Phoenix Exeter

Public Service Broadcasting played to a packed crowd at the Phoenix in Exeter last week, a sign that the post-war nostalgia which is the subject and substance of their music has struck a resonant chord. All their songs are built up from voice-over samples taken from old propaganda, public information and promotional films. These mainly derive from the 40s and 50s, but there are a few stray images from the 30s and 60s: the art deco Eve of the year 2000 (a very Things to Come look) and the swinging groovies gyrating on the top of a flat bed truck as it cruises down the Kings Road from the spliced-together fashion parade The Now Generation. The films are by and large British, and principally produced by government bodies such as the GPO Film Unit, the Crown Film Unit and the COI (the Central Office of Information). Many are available in the handsome collections released by the BFI. There are messages from across the Atlantic too, however, which serve to leaven the air of cosy little England provincialism. The public information car mayhem warnings of Signal 30 allow for a bit of noisy guitar collision and drum crash, whilst ROYGBIV is an ad man’s dream of full spectrum cathode ray utopianism, in which the colours radiating from the TV screen will somehow bathe the world in beauty, truth and peace.

Around the lyrical content provided by the filmic samples, Public Service Broadcasting’s chief architect J.Willgoose weaves stirring guitar riffs and propulsive synth sequences, ably supported by his departmental assistant Wrigglesworth’s forthright drumming. There’s a driving, hypnotically repetitive Krautrock quality to many of the songs, ironically given the wartime provenance of several of the sampled films. They often hover on the borderlands between rock and dance music, with the former’s heavy guitar and drums dynamics and requisite riffs and power chords, and the latter’s functional single-mindedness and measured build-up to the euphoric moment.

On stage, Willgoose adopts a tweedy Matt Smith as Doctor Who look. It’s bow-tie chic, with the tie growing slightly skewiff as the evening progresses, a minor concession to the let it all hang out aesthetic of Rock. It was certainly not ideal attire for a packed hall on a hot summer’s evening, but to take off one’s jacket would have been an unthinkable breach of decorum. Wrigglesworth, meanwhile, labouring tirelessly behind his drumkit, allowed himself a top shirt button undone and a tie slightly loosened. All interaction with the audience was conducted via samples pre-recorded in cheerful received pronunciation tones, providing conceptual continuity with the sample-based form of the music and with Willgoose’s government or public broadcaster persona. Fun was had with rock conventions. A significant pause stretched out with mock awkwardness after a ‘we’re really pleased to be here in..’ crowd greeting, before the relevant Exeter key was located. A loudly drunken audience member, meanwhile, was advised to ‘simmer down’ in a teacherly manner.

Public Service Broadcasting is essentially a multi-media experience. The songs only fully come into their own when combined with extracts of the films from which the audio samples are taken, or others which add further thematic context. The old films are used as material for pop videos, in a way. Although the centrality of the original narrative voices to the music makes this a far more unified marriage than, say, Giorgio Moroder’s setting of a re-edited and colourised Metropolis to his 80s pop sounds. The Public Service Broadcasting album and EP which have thus far been released are a little like soundtracks to the accompanying videos. Live, the edited footage was projected onto a large screen, and also appeared on the smaller screen of a 50s bakelite telly set up on the side of the stage, more as a theatrical prop than a viable viewing option. Precision was needed to co-ordinate sound and vision, wto match musical rhythms, events and climaxes with filmic ones. There was a pleasing disjuncture between the cold blue hi-tech glow of Willgoose’s laptop control station and the light and shadow of the black and white world flickering behind him. Further disparity was evident in the incongruous blending of digital synthesiser with the folk primitivism of a plucked banjo. A touch of theremin (the wrong phrase for an instrument whose defining feature is its lack of direct contact) meanwhile harked back to the radio wave origins of electronic music.

Night Mail - preparing the postbag drop
Some films naturally lent themselves to musical adaptation. Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s 1936 classic Night Mail, for example, has the built-in visual rhythm of the train rushing across nocturnal landscapes and through illuminated cities and towns, as well as the measured scansion of WH Auden’s poetry. Public Service Broadcasting cut and re-edit the words, William Burroughs style. They bring out the musical qualities of isolated and repeated phrases in much the same way that Steve Reich did in Different Trains. The projection also made prominent use of the sequence in which the postal sorters gently haze one of their new colleagues, convincing him that he has to count down ‘two bridges and 45 beats’ before he can release the sturdy bag full of letters which will be scooped up by one of the mail catchers along the route (which will in return rocket its own mail bags from dangling gibbets into the train’s extended nets). It’s a great bit of footage to soundtrack, allowing for a build up of tension (the hapless newcomer tapping out a beat with his fingers) followed by clashing cymbal and exploding guitar as the bag is released and caught in the bulging net (a very dangerous shot for the cameraman, leaning out of the carriage, to capture).

London Can Take It
A number of wartime propaganda films are used, including London Can Take It (one of director Humphrey Jennings’ first wartime classics), narrated in the soberly authoritative tones of American foreign correspondent Quentin Reynolds. It’s a film which contains powerful and evocative footage of London during the blitz, the drama and poignancy of which was heightened by the music. Dig for Victory, on the other hand, showed a more prosaic and down to earth, though no less vital side of life on the home front in its didactic depiction of the creation of vegetable gardens across the country. The tramping down of soil over seed trenches became a shuffling and plodding line dance, with appropriately footstomping music as accompaniment. Spitfire makes rare use of a non-documentary film, The First of the Few, with Leslie Howard as the aircraft designer RJ Mitchell. With his noble profile shown leaning intently over his plans for a new kind of fighter plane, he is the classic picture of the visionary inventor. We see his ‘bird which spits fire’ in action, with David Niven in the cockpit. It’s a rousing track, with a memorable circling guitar riff. It does veer a little at times towards the kind of jingoism to which wartime nostalgia can fall prey. Those triumphant power chords which greet the shooting down of German power chords invite you to punch the air or cheer, which made me feel a bit uneasy.

It’s presumably this aspect which led to a splenetic review of the Public Service Broadcasting album Inform Educate Entertain in The Wire magazine, and which seems to have put them on their official hate list. The unabashed populism of the PSB sound was never likely to endear them to writers more attuned to the esoteric and experimental (and prone to using words like tropes and discourse). But to assert that ‘David Cameron would find much to love in this work of shameless conservatism’ is taking things to a hysterical pitch. As their name would suggest, Public Service Broadcasting are essentially celebrating the Britain of the post-war consensus which grew out of the fight against fascism. It was a time in which both labour and conservative governments took the Keynsian line of managing the economy and building up and maintaining public services and facilities. It’s precisely this world which Cameron and his set are intent on dismantling, whilst adopting the rhetoric or post-war unity and social purpose to persuade people that it’s for their own good. The popularity of Public Service Broadcasting, and the fascination with post-war British society in general, resides largely in the fact that it offers a vision of an alternative to the current state of affairs. The whole endeavour, drawing its cue from the films, celebrates ordinary people pulling together to do extraordinary things. All of which is far more in line with the philosophy outlined in Ken Loach’s recent documentary about the Attlee government, Spirit of ’45, than it is with a polished Cameron rallying speech.

It's the end this time, all right - What a Life!
There are knowing aspects to Public Service Broadcasting’s nostalgism to, a certain wry amusement inherent in their own self-presentation and in some of their choices or juxtapositions of material. The wonderfully lugubrious expression of Richard Massingham fills the screen whilst a voice matter of factly declares ‘it can’t go on you know. It’s the end this time, all right’ in the 1948 COI austerity short What A Life! (edited by John Krish, one of the finest of the post-war documentarists). It’s an amusing observation of the British relish for pessimism, but also makes it clear that they don’t buy into a reflexive ‘modern life is rubbish’ absolutism. The dedication of the War Room EP to George Willgoose, presumably J.Willgoose’s grandfather, shows that a sincere honouring of the ancestors lies at the heart of things, however. George was born in 1914 and died in 1940, his life beginning at the start of one great war and ending near the beginning of another (perhaps in the blitz depicted in London Can Take It). It’s a hugely symbolic span of years, highly personal to Willgoose, but with universal resonance for a British audience at large.

The concert ended, encore etiquette having been observed with a nod, a wink and a sampled ‘thankyou’, with Everest. The black and white screen was suddenly saturated with the glorious Technicolor of the Conquest of Everest film released in the cinemas in 1953. The music swelled with yearning yearning Sigur Ros grandeur and sweep, but it was the human faces rather than the sublime mountainscapes which made the greatest impression; the craggy and crevassed weather-beaten features of Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay smiling wearily but triumphantly at the camera were as fascinating as any high mountain peak. The final line asks ‘why should anyone want to climb Everest’, the answer predictably coming back ‘because it is there’. The Public Service Broadcasting show celebrates such human achievement, whether on the grand or the everyday scale. Not just an undifferentiated wallow in indulgent nostalgia, they are rather an attempt to evoke the lives and spirit of the people of a particular generation – one which continues to define us to this day.

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