It must be great being in Public Service Broadcasting. You’re sufficiently anonymous that you can walk about without being bothered by the general public. You make and perform music entirely on your terms. This means, in moves that would make the average record company executive choke on their cornflakes, you don’t sing and you wear a bow tie under your corduroy jacket. Your devoutly loyal fanbase buy tickets for your biggest ever headline gig at The Royal Albert Hall so fast that it sells out in a matter of hours.
Tonight’s show under the big dome and the upside-down mushrooms marks the current apogee in the history of Public Service Broadcasting. With two multi-instrumentalists, a drummer, a visuals and set designer, a five piece horn section, a string section, multiple special guest performers, a male voice choir and a pair of dancing astronauts, it all marks quite a contrast to PSB’s inaugural gig: a solo performance held nine years ago in a Tooting pub.
For the dwindling number of people not acquainted with the Public Service Broadcasting MO, it is this: Find archive public information and propaganda films and marry the dialogue and images with progressive electronic/rock music. As the band themselves put it: “Teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future”. There are practically no live spoken lyrics; the message is conveyed entirely through the music, the accompanying film and the audio samples.
To add an element of mystery, PSB are pseudonymous. So, tonight at the Royal Albert Hall, stage left we have J Willgoose, Esq. Willgoose is stood behind a keyboard, some sample triggering pads and a couple of laptops. He will also play various guitars and on occasion a banjo. The stage right position is occupied by Wrigglesworth. He sits behind a Ludwig drum kit bearing the latest incarnation of the PSB logo (a modification of that once used by the National Coal Board for reasons that will soon become clear) and he variously plays other percussion instruments. Centre stage is JF Abraham (JFAbs for brevity), who primarily plays bass, though he also contributes some keys, guitar, percussion and plays a mean flugelhorn solo. Being less restricted by his instruments, JFAbs spends the evening running about the stage, stoking and whooping the crowd into hand clapping and fist pumping compliance. Finally, towards the back, Mr B stands behind a myriad of monitors and laptops, mixing the footage that plays on screens behind the stage and around the hall. He also mixes live footage of the musicians from fixed cameras around the stage and occasionally wanders about with a Handycam shooting stuff of his own.
To date there have been three PSB LP’s. The first, 2013’s Inform, Educate, Entertain (Lord Reith’s mantra on establishing the BBC) was a generic title covering subjects as diverse as the invention of colour TV, the delivery of mail through the night and the performance of an intoxicated ex-naval officer describing a fleet review. 2015’s The Race For Space describes just that, using samples taken from the 1960’s as the Americans and Soviets battled for control of the cosmos. In 2017, the band released Every Valley, another concept album, this time focusing on the rise and ultimate decline of the UK coal mining industry, specifically concentrating on the valleys of South Wales. To make a record with such overt political undertones was risky but ultimately it proved a risk well worth taking.
The show began with the first three tracks from Every Valley. It was an understated opening; a stage lit solely by pit lamps dangling a hundred and thirty feet from the ceiling doesn’t make for great photos but it was atmospheric nonetheless. People Will Always Need Coal is a jaunty number with samples taken from a comically camp 1970’s NCB recruitment film: “Hey there miner, living life the way you want to be. Come on now miner, there’s money, lots of money and security”. No mention of pneumoconiosis I see.
After three songs from the front, I leave my own (photo) pit and head under the stage en route back to my seat. Willgoose was being handed a banjo as I left and before the lights of the arena were exchanged for my own underground gloom, the mooted strains of Theme From PSB could be heard above me. I get a move on as it’s a personal favourite. By the time I’m back in the auditorium though I find I’ve missed it. The twanging of a banjo has been replaced by crashing guitar chords in the form of Signal 30, a 1950’s tale of death and destruction on the highways of America for a ‘Signal 30’ was the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s radio code for a fatal car accident: “There’s trouble ahead, trouble that may or may not be a Signal 30. What will we find? A minor mishap or will we look upon the stark face of death?” It’s not subtle, but it is loud, very loud. It also has essentially a one note bassline which gives JFAbs plenty of time to jump up and down and he encourages the crowd to do the same. Those on the floor comply.
We’re all in need of a rest after that and the band oblige with their first trip into space. Sputnik, around seven minutes of hypnotic electronica charm has the “Bleep, bleep of the satellite” echoing around the great hall. The music of Public Service Broadcasting was meant to be heard in a place like this. We stay in space with an ode dedicated to Sergei Korolev. The Americans might have had to borrow Wernher von Braun to get their men into space, but in Korolev, the Soviets had a rocket scientist all of their own. It’s an epic tune that has a little of everything, including the dancing PSB brass section or the ‘Brassy Gents’ as they like to be known. They appear in two waves: two trumpets, two trombones, one saxophone, and an awful lot of tweed.
There’s a brief pause as Tracyanne Campbell (one half of tonight’s excellent support Tracyanne and Danny) is reintroduced to the crowd. It turns into a long pause as she seemingly isn’t aware she’s required. “It’s possible that nobody has provided her with a copy of the set list” says Willgoose as we wait for her to appear. Tracyanne is back to perform the vocal lead in I Believe In Progress, another song from Every Valley that she knows well for her voice is on the record too. It’s an ambiguously upbeat affair, detailing advances in mining technology: “Machines will do the heavy work, men will supervise the machines”. Of course, the ultimate ‘progress’ was the decimation of an industry that would be complete within ten years.
There are more introductions. Haiku Salut, an all-female instrumental three-piece come out and help perform They Gave Me A Lamp, another from the new record. This one recognises the crucial role played by women’s support groups at the time of the miners’ strike and there are some very moving words in the audio samples. For the first of two occasions tonight, I find my eyes becoming a little moist.
Proving that PSB aren’t afraid to tackle feats of human engineering, even when they go horribly wrong, the band play White Star Liner. It’s a new piece of music celebrating the build of The Titanic and there’s absolutely no references to dodgy rivets. In what must be the closest Public Service Broadcasting have ever come to a recognisable chorus, Willgoose repeats the words ‘White Star liner’ into a vocoder.
One of the staple sources of PSB inspiration, especially in earlier recordings, is war. Given the size of the archive of 1930s/1940s propaganda, this is perhaps not surprising. London Can Take It is a stirring tune recalling the stoicism of the capital’s population during the blitz: “The sign of a great fighter in the ring is: can he get up from the floor after being knocked down? London does this every morning. There is no panic, no fear, no despair, in London Town.” Given some of the recent events in the capital, it’s a message as prescient now as it was in 1940. Images of upturned buses in bomb craters play behind the band. I look around at the magnificent surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall and wonder how on earth it survived it all.
Another guitar change. Willgoose straps on a Rickenbacker and a familiar twang and part riff rings out whilst the string section retake their seats. The war theme continues with the excellent Spitfire. It’s a personal favourite and just about the most complete PSB song there is. The crowd are into it.
This really is a very cleverly thought out set list. Songs are in logical groups and there is just the right amount of light and shade. After a couple of songs of jingoistic patriotism, it’s time for things to get dark. “This one’s for Orgreave” says Willgoose as the band embark on All Out, recalling the bleakest days of the 1984 miners strike. It’s a loud, aggressive song. PSB are backed by intense strobes and film of violent battles with police. This was a very, very ugly part of our history and watching it, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with scenes on the streets of Trump’s America and (to a mercifully lesser extent) to some attitudes displayed in post-brexit Britain. I’m left wondering whether I believe in progress and can’t help feeling a little sad.
Still, the set list comes to the rescue because next up is The Other Side, the uplifting story of Apollo 8 and the first time a manned spaceship went around the back side of the moon. The performance of this is about as close as you can get to musical theatre in a contemporary rock concert. As the astronauts lose contact with earth, the lights go dark in the hall and radio static echoes all around. The protocol now is to remain absolutely mute whilst we all wait for the ship to return. A few in the hall break ranks and shout out, but they are quickly shushed and silence prevails. You know the ship is coming back when Willgoose’s guitar fires up and JFAbs starts stoking up the audience. When radio contact is re-established, the crowd goes nuts. “There’s a cheer in this room” says the Flight Director at Mission Control. You’re not wrong mate. At the end of the song, JFAbs gets everyone in the hall to stand up and the band close the set with GO!, the story of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s a song nearly as exciting as the achievement itself. The crowd punch the air and JFAbs ends up running into the stalls. The atmosphere is, if you’ll excuse the pun, out of this world.
The band take a well-earned breather and when they come back out, they calm proceedings with a beautiful rendition of You + Me, a song from Every Valley and one of very few in the PSB repertoire to feature fully formed vocals. Lisa Jên Brown, who performed this song on the record took the stage and sang the Welsh language parts. Willgoose, in a move that he clearly didn’t relish, sang the English language parts. I say sang, it was more spoken word really. Imagine Ian Dury, but without the imminent threat of malevolent violence. There was an ironic cheer from the crowd when Willgoose spoke the first lyric and he raised an equally ironic eyebrow. “That’s been staring out at me on the setlist” he said when it came to a close.
There were two encores left, neither of which came as any surprise. Gagarin is a sensational fun romp in celebration of Yuri’s one hundred and eight minutes in space. The Brassy Gents ripped off the tweed to reveal sparkling golden jackets and a pair of dancing astronauts helped bring the party to an end. The final song, Everest, closed the show kind of like the way it does at all PSB shows. It’s epic, it’s uplifting, it’s an achievement. Kind of like all PSB shows.
The band left the stage and we received one final treat. As Public Service Broadcasting exited stage left, the fifty-nine strong Beaufort Male Choir from Ebbw Vale entered stage right to sing Take Me Home, final track of Every Valley. They received the biggest cheer of the night and for a second time the eyes became a little glassy.
The traditional take when an artist (and especially an artist with an underground, deeply loyal fan base) breaks through and plays bigger venues is to feel a little sad at the loss of intimacy; to feel that you’ve ‘lost’ your personal attachment to more mainstream appeal. I feel that as much as anyone and can name several bands to which the maxim applies. And yet, I don’t feel that with PSB at all. Granted, compared to many here tonight, I appreciate I’m a late PSB developer myself – but it somehow feels right that music of such beauty and depth should be hosted on the bigger stage and Public Service Broadcasting looked very much like they were at home in the expansive surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. If they carry on like this, then maybe the days of anonymity are coming to an end after all.
Public Service Broadcasting live at the Royal Albert Hall. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at www.musicalpictures.co.uk