You would be forgiven for thinking that Public Service Broadcasting is something of a one trick pony. Using, and indeed naming, your band after the samples you use throughout your music, well – it’s a bit gimmicky, isn’t it?
Yes it is. Is it entertaining though? Does it stand up to a 90-minute gig?
For Wednesday evening’s show at the Kentish Town Forum, there were three guys on stage throughout. One played live drums, one was at the back so I’m not really sure what he was doing, and one, clearly the leader of the band, had a banjo, an electric guitar, a keyboard and a midi pad. They all wore tweed jackets and thick-rimmed spectacles, fitting for a show dedicated to that most English of institutions, the Public Service Broadcast. There were also two large screens hung at angles mid stage. The placement of the screens was important, as it turns out. As we heard the crackly samples we also saw the film footage they came from, interspersed with live footage of the three band members as they played. This then integrated band, visuals, samples and music into The Show.
Between tunes, the leader, presumably J. Willgoose, spoke to the audience with samples saying variously “Good evening”, “Thank you”, “This is a new one” etc. pressing the appropriate buttons with ill-concealed glee. It felt to me not like he couldn’t be bothered to speak to us in his own voice, more like he was making an extra effort to do so vie electronic means. He smiled throughout, which was nice- he obviously loves getting paid to what probably began with an idle afternoon in his bedroom.
What became clear to me as the gig progressed, that should probably have been obvious from the outset perhaps, is the reason for the PSB samples. The tag line on their bandcamp website is “Teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future”, so perhaps all those wartime images are supposed to make us stroke our chins and say “Tut tut. War is BAD!” but I think that it is just part of the tweed-and-crackle image. The actual purpose of the samples is to provide the melodies. Received English, as spoken on the BBC from its very genesis until quite recently is a very deliberate style, with each word enunciated clearly, as if speaking to idiots. Perfect for sampling. Voiceovers were persuasive, soothing, reassuring, using full use of major and minor keys depending on the message being given. We are all familiar with Harry Enfield et al’s take on the PSB. The voice begins speaking in a clear major key, but when it gets to “Look out! Danger!” there is a clear key change. PSB, the band, have clearly studied this at length and created tunes from the samples and built upon this foundation music that is, like the voice of the PSB, in turns persuasive, soothing, reassuring, often becoming celebratory, exultant, effulgent.
Layered over the samples themselves then might be Willgoose on his banjo, a reassuringly low-tech sound. At other times he was proper rocking-out on his axe, when it suited the livelier numbers. Over the top of that, were a few bleeps for punctuation and lots and lots of synth-wash, building the emotion of the music. Behind it all those bombastic drums, bashing away but still you can hear, that stentorian voice, calling out, “Look out Johnny! There’s a hole!”*, in perfect harmony with the rest.
It is undeniably emotional music, but, by necessity, you cannot take it too seriously. Perhaps we have Armstrong and Miller to thank for that, perhaps it’s the Tweed jackets and knowing grins. But still it speaks to us, this music. Is it the associations we have with Received English stiff-upper lips keeping calm in a crisis, for all our sakes? The blitz spirit? Is this Englishness why everybody at the gig was really nice and polite? I’m really not sure if there is more than another few tunes in this idea, but as a concept and an album and yes, as a 90-minute long show, it certainly worked for me.
*Not that, but like that.