Kate Ross went to see the London duo giving new life to old propaganda at La Fléche D’or…
Marie Slocombe and Thomas Woodrooffe, a BBC sound librarian and Royal Navy lieutenant commander respectively, could never have imagined that their voices would one day be set across shimmering electro and played out to bobo Parisians in a converted railway station in an eastern arrondissement of the French capital. But this is without the reckoning of Public Service Broadcasting, who have turned to old radio and film archives for inspiration, harvesting voice clips to set to music.
By day, the London duo sift through snippets from the BFI, GPO Film Unit and StudioCanal, intersperse these samples over nippy, electro-spangled guitar riffs and by night are transformed into the spectacularly named J. Willgoose Esq. and Wrigglesworth, resplendent in suits and bow ties, reminiscent of slightly madcap history teachers caught between Doctor Who and hipster geek chic whose intention is to teach us about the past through the music of the future, echoed in naming their debut album ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’.
It’s an experience out to enrapture the senses – from the screech of fighter planes and shaking dance floor to the smoke that clouds in like bomb debris and the black and white propaganda footage that plays on the stage behind, cut and set purposefully to every musical heartbeat – an unmistakable nod to British Sea Power, but looping out hallucinogenic patterns with the assurance that they are providing a singularly unique concept.
Opening track London Can Take It leads in with a whirl of church bells, air raid sirens and smoke, aptly set amongst lyrics like ‘the dust is deepening’, which swirl into electronica, J. Willgoose Esq. on banjo, with black and white stills and flashes from behind.
Keeping it lighter, The Now Generation is next, opening with the announcement ‘hello and thanks for coming to our little fashion show’, clapping crowds and preening models swirling fabrics down the catwalk, shoe shiners and suave penguin-suited men, all hooked over interwoven clubbing sounds.
Many of these samples were originally propaganda after all – ‘pay no attention to rumours’; ‘there is no panic, no despair, no fear, in London town’ – the stuff designed to help the people of Britain to Keep Calm And Carry On, back before this motivational poster had become a staple for every t-shirt and coffee cup, greeting card and iPhone case of 2009.
Signal 30 is heavier rock and roll, guitar slides, broody and smouldering of leather and drag racing, but juxtaposed over car revs and screeches, US road safety videos, calls for ambulances and voices that distort into screams.
Similarly, Spitfire is zingy and uplifting, weaving riffs and heavy drumming, but all the while telling us about a spitfire bird that ‘spits out death and destruction’, set to a backdrop of planes, bombing and speedometers.
These moments feel almost documentary-like – we are subliminally informed and educated, as Night Mail drops in fragments of information about the postal service, whilst shimmering with a northwards climbing guitar riff and nice little chords that pop out like bubbles exploding, building into a raging climax.
More dreamlike, yet with a similarly educational undertone, Lit Up is melancholy and sad, with a teasing, quivering long intro and a slow, inevitable sense of death’s shadow, Woodrooffe’s commentary of a royal inspection of the naval fleet ‘lit up by lights, and the whole fleet is in fairyland’.
Others impact a more melancholy note – Elfstedentocht has a Sigur Rós element to it, rumbling and desolate, with clever looping riffs and footage filled with emptiness, ice, bare trees and lake skating, but if you understand Dutch, you’ll realise that the lyrics are in fact more upbeat, one of two songs written about the Eleven Cities Tour, the world’s biggest ice skating race, which Public Service Broadcasting were approached to produce by the organisers of the Explore the North festival in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.
Indeed stripped bare, every individual element of Public Service Broadcasting could be portrayed as underlyingly eerie – Lit Up’s crackle of radio static and ghostly footage of sailors abandoning ships for the sea, or the floor rumbling, chased by violin chords in the solemn If War Should Come; and the lonely, but poised RP accent, unwaveringly telling us ‘there is trouble ahead’ and ‘London raises her head, shakes the debris of the night from her hair and takes stock of the damage done’, yet done together, it’s not ominous but strange and gripping, heart swelling and thrilling as the sounds weave together towards apogee, and otherwise perfectly danceable.
The tongue in cheek moments come in-between the songs – commentary comes in computer-speak generated by J. Willgoose Esq, tweaked to measure. ‘Ça va…j’ai dit ça va’ he asks us, ‘excuse me’ as he tunes his banjo. Public Service Broadcasting will surely never run out of footage and Elfstedentocht has given us a taste of perhaps what is to come. Whether they can stretch past being a concept band remains to be seen, but until then, the crowds at La Flèche D’Or are more than happy to keep calm and carry on.