The Brangwyn Hall, Swansea
Wednesday, 12th October 2022
There’s something very special about Public Service Broadcasting.
I’ve seen them several times and they’re always an enthralling proposition, but in this place they seem even more special. The Brangwyn Hall is lovely and, as arguably the premier performance space in Swansea, I often wonder why it isn’t used more frequently for this kind of show. The last time PSB played here, in 2018, it was a euphoric performance that highlighted their then latest album Every Valley, shining a safety lamp on the rise and fall of the Welsh coal mining industry and ending with the Beaufort Male Voice Choir singing Take Me Home. Tonight was different, but if anything, even better.
But first to the support act, Pale Blue Eyes, an indie pop bass/drums/guitar ‘n’ effects trio from Totnes in Devon. I found them to be quite beguiling, blurring the lines between ’80s and ’90s alternative sounds. Is that a hint of Joy Division? Quite probably, and when they go properly spaceward on something of a Hawkwind tip, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. A colleague commented about liking “the real Belle and Sebastian too much to fall for it”, but they certainly added something new for me and their set didn’t drag at all. Very engaging stuff.
With the sheets removed from the drumkit, lights and four – count ’em! – banks of keyboards, the stage is set for the main event. Public Service Broadcasting take their places to loud applause. All dressed in white, the four band members are augmented by German artist EERA on vocals and keyboards. It’s all very Kraftwerk as they stand behind their keyboards, only drummer Wrigglesworth spoiling the effect by sitting down, but it’s highly appropriate given the Berlin-centric textures of latest album Bright Magic, which conjures images of Bowie’s recordings in the city in the late ’70s. The set begins with three pieces from the new album, the music interacting with the three large multi-faceted screens behind the band. It’s effective and intriguing without fully drawing me in, a more downbeat side of PSB that shows them now free to experiment in whatever direction they choose to explore.
The set moves on into more familiar territory, and there’s something very moving about the way the visuals are used to illustrate the music as the music accentuates the visuals. It’s a symbiotic relationship that makes both even more compelling.
The music may have started in Berlin but soon moves to the lives of the working people of the South Wales Valleys during the heyday of King Coal. Jobs for life and a good living, with reserves that would last 400 years. What could possibly go wrong…?
With a fluctuating line-up of between four and eight performers on stage at any one time, with the sporadic use of a brass trio, the band gracefully provide all the dynamics necessary to bring the music to life. The sound is superb, clear and not too loud, and from Kraftwerk to disco, they seem to pull off almost unfeasible shifts of tone and texture with ease. On this tour the visuals are even more impressive than before, built around the pillared screens which dazzle as fast-moving visuals repeat and change, with live on-stage camerawork additions from Mr B.
The set takes in classic PSB with evocative accompanying images to accentuate the beauty of marvels of British engineering like the Titanic and the Supermarine Spitfire, and The Night Train‘s resetting of W.H. Auden’s powerful words from the 1936 film Night Mail sees the train’s journey flashing across the screen in dizzying cross-cut, as evocative now as it was upon the film’s release, but certainly more compelling. We get Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary conquering Mount Everest in 1953 and the Space Race of the ’60s, taking in a celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s giant leap off the planet (amid dancing spacemen) and Apollo 8’s scene-setting journey around the dark side of the Moon as a prelude to Apollo 11, NASA technicians shouting the urge to Go! for landing. The cavorting brass section add to the euphoria, entertaining and delighting in equal measure whenever they appear.
But there is also deeply felt poignancy.
A few years ago PSB completed a full Welsh tour. This is unusual by any standards, but for an enigmatic bunch of sound architects from South London it’s even more surprising, particularly as the tour took in the Royal Albert Hall a couple of days after playing their fifth date in Wales, at the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd. The reason for this groundswell of affinity for Wales and its people came from the research that went into the quite wonderful Every Valley.
A move away from the power and grace of cutting-edge engineering, it’s an album crammed full of very human emotion caught up in the machinery of industry, and in this place at this time, it remains the emotional heart of the set. Three further tracks appear from the album; a vision of a future that ultimately proved futile in Progress, the anger and deprivation of the Miner’s Strike of the 1980s in All Out! and on to the heart-rending peak of first encore They Gave Me a Lamp, featuring strong words from the women of the mining communities. The visuals remind me of childhood trips to visit family in Aberdare, the bleak landscape black with coal dust and slag heaps. It’s very different now, on the surface at least, but you don’t have to dig too deep to find the remains of the past, and by the end my eyes are filled with tears.
This music does indeed resonate.
So much of the subject matter visited in the set has been with me throughout my life, both personally experienced or shot through the collective memory of my childhood like a stick of historical rock. The reckless tragedy of Titanic and the mystery of its disappearance in the years before it was rediscovered in 1985. The Spitfire, a symbol of salvation and an iconic representation of the fight to save a way of life that was still very fresh. The triumph of Hillary and Tensing, which still loomed large as the pinnacle of human tenacity and endurance. Some of my earliest memories are of the Apollo missions of the late ’60s and early ’70s, usually well past my bedtime, but I’d plead to stay up and watch for a while, listening to James Burke and Patrick Moore explaining the significance of the grainy images appearing on our black and white television.
And then there’s the Miner’s Strike. It still casts a long shadow in this area, even along the coast, geographically detached from the coal fields and pits but linked by railways and built on their successes. Mining was everywhere and deeply informed everyday life through the 1970s. I lived in a harbour town built on the export of coal, where the mining communities still came en masse for their annual summer fortnight, flooding the seaside with noise and colour. Thatcher changed all that. I remember seeing the picket lines and police cordons outside the steelworks at Port Talbot, while friends whose fathers were miners suffered terribly during the year long stand-off with the government, the NCB and the police. It’s 40 years ago but the memory still lingers.
People, Let’s Dance is even more euphoric after all that, and with the encore concluding with Gagarin and Everest, anyone who went home without a sense of scale, history and humanity should give their head a wobble.
Informing, Educating and Entertaining, there’s something VERY special about PSB.
01. The Visitor
02. Im Licht
03. Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen
04. The Pit
05. People Will Always Need Coal
06. Night Mail
07. White Star Liner
09. Gib Mir Das Licht
10. Blue Heaven
11. Lichtspiel III: Symphonie Diagonale
13. All Out
14. The Other Side
16. They Gave Me a Lamp
17. People, Let’s Dance
J. Willgoose, Esq. – Guitar, Keyboards, Samples
Wrigglesworth – Drums, Keyboards
J.F. Abraham – Bass, Flugelhorn, Keyboards, Percussion
Mr B – Visuals, Keyboards
EERA – Vocals, Keyboards
John Rittipo Moore – Saxophone
Toby Street – Trumpet
Emma Bassett – Trombone