Public Service Broadcasting are a band that know how to polarise opinion. If people get it, they really get it. I’ve found if they don’t, they really don’t.
If you’ve not yet attained ‘I really get/don’t get this’ status and are currently unaware of the PSB shtick, it runs as follows: they look like they’re on university lecturer day release; bow ties and corduroy jackets abound. The band don’t really go a bundle on singing either, so in the absence of that they trawl film and audio libraries looking for vocal samples which they then put to music. To enhance the live experience, they deck the stage with TV’s and play images appropriate to the soundtrack – which is frequently the footage that accompanies the audio samples. To assist an overall feeling of comic detachment, they don’t talk between songs (though that’s changed on this tour, see below) – choosing instead to use a sampled voice; and they don’t use real names, choosing instead to use eccentric pseudonyms.
So, tonight at the Pyramids Centre in Portsmouth, the stage was graced by J Willgoose Esq (guitars, banjo, keyboards, samples), Wrigglesworth (drums, percussion), J F Abraham (bass, flugelhorn, keyboards, drums) and Mr B (a visuals expert that keeps all the imagery on track). Other musicians (‘The Brassy Gents’) came and went as required and for the encore the band were joined by a pair of cuddly dancing astronauts. By now, you might be starting to understand why people really don’t get them, but stick with it – it’s worth it.
There have been three full-length PSB albums to date. The first, Inform, Educate, Entertain (John Reith’s 1927 mantra for the ultimate public service broadcaster, the BBC) has no specific theme, although jingoistic accomplishment (development of the Spitfire and Hillary’s ascent of Everest amongst other things) is prominent. The second and third albums are more strictly conceptual. 2015’s The Race For Space detailed just that and the latest record, Every Valley is concerned with the rise and ultimate fall of the British mining industry and the loss of communities as a consequence – specifically how it played out in the valleys of South Wales. It’s an album of considerable emotional depth. Every Valley has a clear narrative arc and I was interested in how this would translate into a live performance, especially given the need to mix up the new material with the old.
Palace, an ‘alternative blues/rock band’ (their words, not mine) from London have been the support for this tour. I’ve seen them a few times and rather like them, their sound is chilled and washed down with lashings of reverberation. I was surprised though to see their name on the posters as they are as far removed from the technical wizardry and groove of Public Service Broadcasting as it’s possible to get. Accordingly, they received a reaction much as I expected from the PSB faithful: lukewarm interest followed by courteous applause. PSB fans are nothing if not polite.
The stage set for tonight was a tour de force. Aside from the projection screens, twin pit head winding wheels occupied the wings and miners’ lamps dangled from the ceiling. Public Service Broadcasting opened with Every Valley and The Pit, the first two tracks on the new record. The winding wheels turned and the lamps descended. Images of men plunging in cages into the gloom set the tone. Perhaps the new record was about to get played in full? Any thought of that was swiftly dispelled as Theme From PSB, a bedrock from Inform, Educate, Entertain and one of not many contemporary rock songs to feature a banjo as a lead instrument followed.
In fact, the conundrum of how to mix the different narrative streams was resolved by grouping songs from different albums and the Every Valley material was played out in roughly chronological order. People Will Always Need Coal featured samples and video from a preposterous 1975 mining recruitment advertisement of the same name. “Hey there, miner / Living life the way you want to be / C’mon now, miner / There’s money – lots of money and security”. Strangely though, no mention of pneumoconiosis of decimation of the industry within ten years.
The space theme wasn’t neglected with two of the most inspirational tunes from The Race For Space played back to back. The Other Side recounts the first time a manned spacecraft, Apollo 8, traversed the dark side of the moon and lost contact with earth. “There’s a cheer in this room” says mission control when it reappears. It’s a cheer met with similar from the audience. I wonder whether to increase the suspense, everyone secretly pretends they don’t know it’s going to have a happy ending. Go! is the Apollo 11 moon landing played out in around four minutes of high energy one note bassline. The audience punch the air and yell “Go!” every time one of the NASA engineers confirms the status of their part of the mission. It’s a highlight of any PSB gig, although a great disappointment when you hear the real thing and realise that in 1969 they didn’t do it in perfect 4/4 time.
Staple ingredients from Inform, Educate, Entertain in the form of Night Mail (featuring W H Auden’s 1936 poem of the same name) and the wonderfully evocative Spitfire were present, but the most powerful part of the night came with a triumvirate from Every Valley played in succession: Progress, They Gave Me A Lamp and All Out. Progress charts the drift into mechanised mining: “Machines will do the heavy work / Men will supervise the machines” – good for your health if not your job security. They Gave Me A Lamp recalls the support played by women in the community both in the run up to and during the 1984/5 miners’ strike and it contains some very moving audio samples. All Out is an aggressive, violent maelstrom of distortion to recount the strike itself. Images of battles with police in the street: “I was brought up to respect police; I don’t respect them now” mixed with community decay set the scene. This was an ugly time to be around.
Willgoose dedicated They Gave Me A Lamp to the South Wales Miners’ Library, where much of the research for the album was done. Conversing live with the audience between songs was a break with tradition – but when you’re portraying the systematic destruction of an industry and working class community, a plummy toff audio sample announcing the next song doesn’t quite sit right.
The main set closed with Lit Up, featuring the drunken ramblings of former naval officer Thomas Woodrooffe during his 1937 broadcast of the Spithead Review. It was enough to get him taken off the air. The screens played grey battleships ploughing through rough seas and as Willgoose put it: “We couldn’t come to Portsmouth and not play this”. Like many PSB numbers, this one builds and builds but in the live context goes way beyond that of the record. With all the precision and multi-instrumental pyrotechnics taking place stage left and centre you’d be forgiven for failing to notice that Wrigglesworth sat stage right is an exceptional drummer. That’s brought into sharp focus at the end of Lit Up, when the tempo gets raised to a point where it’s in danger of getting vertigo. It’s a very worthy ending to the set.
“Is anybody else very hot?” asked Willgoose when he reappeared for the encore. Yes, everybody – it was an oven in there. “Is anybody else wearing a Corduroy suit?” Well, given the PSB crowd, quite probably. I’ve seen at least one fully kitted out astronaut on the floor. The astronaut would have enjoyed Gagarin which followed, a bizarre but hugely enjoyable 70s horn-based romp that sounds more like an alternative theme to Starsky & Hutch than a dedication to Yuri’s heroics in the 1960s. The screens and the dancing astronauts on stage helped tell the story. The show closed with Everest, another stirring piece of music and homage to astounding human achievement. It was in stark contrast to much of the preceding subject matter, but at least we ended on a high.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Public Service Broadcasting at the Pyramids Centre, Portsmouth on 23rd October 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk