Live Review: Public Service Broadcasting at Newcastle Cluny – 10th May 2013

By on Wednesday, 29th May 2013 at 3:00 pm

Public Service Broadcasting are a multimedia project, mixing live drums and guitar with samples, sequences and visual films, to create a modern, danceable soundtrack to historic records of events that changed the course of history. They take as their inspiration and sampling material that rich vein of mid-century film footage which gloried in the wonder of British achievements, celebrating the majesty of heavy engineering, the valour of daring explorers, and the gritty triumph of war. The band themselves mirror the tone of their subject matter by dressing in tweeds and having names like Wriglesworth; one half-expects the other band members to be called Ginger and Algy, and for them to fly off in Sopwith Camels after the show is over.

Each piece brings to life a particular microcosm of history via clips from vintage newsreels, spanning about 20 years from the early 1940s to the advent of practical colour television in the 1960s. Wartime propaganda is invoked in ‘Dig for Victory’, the distinctive iconography exhorting the populace to self-reliance via growing their own food is writ large across several vintage television sets adapted for digital projection. ‘Spitfire’ uses copious footage from the 1942 film The First Of The Few to honour the achievements of RJ Mitchell, the designer of arguably the most famous aircraft ever built.

And what sequence of wartime tributes would be complete without the famously lugubrious tones of Winston Spencer Churchill himself? Progressing from the war years, there’s music and film evoking topics as disparate as recreational drugs, the conquest of Mount Everest, and the advent of colour television. Perhaps the most symbiotic conflation of soundtrack and visual is found in the celebration of postal trains – the visceral impact of the pounding, steel-on-steel rhythmic chatter of a steam train at full speed is expertly captured in the music, the visuals a reminder of the brute force engineering which was once required for the transmission of data in a pre-digital world.

The whole project is as much a tribute to the unnamed writers, directors, cameramen and narrators of the original films as it is a vehicle for PSB’s original music. As the project name suggests, the imagery is so powerful and the subject matter of such importance to the British national story that the performance would be just as much at home as part of an Imperial War Museum educational installation than on the gig circuit; surely any student of history bored of dry textbook treatments could find fresh inspiration here.

But surely the most intriguing aspect of the whole performance is the sociopolitical context. It has been the tactic of several so-called ‘progressive’ politicians of the last decade or two to belittle any display of appreciation of the culture and achievements of the moderately recent past with such labels as ‘reactionary’ and ‘populist’. Yet here we have a modern audience lapping up – and the volume of applause is testament to just how much the audience enjoy this performance – a series of reminders of what Britain was once like, and how her achievements literally changed the world. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a large crowd so enamoured to see a film of a Spitfire in flight, cheering a Royal Navy destroyer pounding through a rough sea, or applauding a Churchill speech. But that is what Public Service Broadcasting have managed, and that is perhaps their greatest achievement of all.

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3 Responses

[…] with ‘Songs From The Shipyards’, and band-of-the-moment Public Service Broadcasting (who we caught last month in Newcastle) offer a similarly historical yet rather more lighthearted take on this island’s history with […]

[…] different feeling about them than when Martin took me last May to see them play a packed Cluny. (Read Martin’s eloquent description of exactly what they do in his review of that show, as I could never get anywhere close to that […]

[…] different feeling about them than when Martin took me last May to see them play a packed Cluny. (Read Martin’s eloquent description of exactly what they do in his review of that show, as I could never get anywhere close to that […]

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