London calling to the faraway towns, war is declared with archival sounds
Public Service Broadcasting are bringing the sound of the London Blitz to Dublin, with their archive-music project
An air-raid siren sounds over the London skies. Big Ben chimes, its peal barely audible over the siren’s wail. A voice announces: “Now it’s eight o’clock – Jerry is a little late tonight.” A bespectacled figure, dressed in corduroy, straps on his Fender guitar and begins riffing over pumping drums and rolling synths. “The dusk is deepening,” continues the voice. “Soon the nightly battle for London will be on.”
The man is J Willgoose Esq, the band is Public Service Broadcasting, and the song is London Can Take It, from last year’s stunning The War Room EP. “These are not Hollywood sound effects,” insists the voice. “This is the sound they play every night in London – a symphony of war.”
The sounds are archive recordings, propaganda reels and public-service broadcasts from long ago, but the music is contemporary – a blend of rock and electronica that echoes the sounds of Primal Scream, Death in Vegas and Lemon Jelly. Willgoose and his sidekick, drummer Wrigglesworth, pile on the instrumental layers while the archive sounds evoke an era long-gone and long-forgotten by all but a few. The result is a head-spinning trip into the past.
Having released a succession of well-received EPs, the duo have just released their debut album, Inform – Educate – Entertain. It’s not all wartime nuggets: other tracks on the album include Signal 30, a driving tune fuelled by old US road-safety films, and Everest, built on a 1953 documentary on Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of the titular summit.
In modern-day London, Willgoose has just fought his way through traffic from the band’s rehearsal space to his home in Lewisham in the south-east of the city.
“I’ve listened to a lot of music that’s used that kind of stuff in the past, so I think it’s all been bubbling away for quite some while. But in terms of actually starting to do it myself, it was probably listening to Tom Robinson on Radio 4. He was presenting an archive-hour programme, and he was speaking about the British Film Institute archives and the Prelinger archive in the US, which is a big public-domain source of videos. And something just sort of clicked, and I thought, oh, I should probably go and have a look at some of those and see if there’s anything good. I made a song out of one of them, and . . . I just kind of carried on, really.”
Willgoose’s interest in archive footage isn’t driven simply by nostalgia. “The kind of contrast between what was happening then on a daily basis and the relatively safe and beautiful city that we enjoy today, it’s just staggering. It blows me away every time.”
Willgoose didn’t simply want to sample the past to create a bunch of tunes. His ambition was to use the found footage to tell a bigger story. The War Room was his first attempt to paint on a wider sonic canvas.
“I wanted to write an EP that would be all focused on one subject, it would have a kind of narrative flow to it . . . I think the danger with this kind of act is that some people can see it as a kind of a novelty act, so I wanted to write something a bit heavier that might kind of offset that.”
While there’s a poignancy in evoking the bravery of ordinary Londoners living through the Blitz or fighting on the beaches, there’s equally the danger that Public Service Broadcasting may be mistaken for nationalists on a mission to keep Britain tidily rooted in its glorious past. With the 21-gun salutes for Baroness Thatcher still ringing in our ears, what’s to stop the extreme right from co-opting PSB’s sound and twisting it to their own agenda?
The solution, says Willgoose, was to head them off at the pass by putting a different spin on the stories to try to make them more observational and apolitical. The spoken-word part of Spitfire, for example, extols the virtues of the much-loved British fighter plane, but the Kraftwerk-style track has a motorik rhythm that’s more suited to a Messerschmitt.
“I thought that hopefully some people would notice that and kind of pick up on what we were doing with that. It’s not just some kind of nationalist fervour, but it is done with a bit of consideration and sensitivity to the original material.
“There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to be grateful for the machine that did save Britain from being invaded by the Nazis. I think it is something that can be celebrated without necessarily taking on any unpleasant undertones. But it is a very difficult balance.”
The biggest problem for Public Service Broadcasting is one that Willgoose can see coming down the track.
“There’s enough material out there to keep making samples of for a long time and then some, so finding material is not really an issue. It’s more what can you do musically with it that makes it fresh and not sound like it’s going a bit stale. So the next thing I have my eye in is something quite big in scale, and I think the music and some of the instrumentation around that is hopefully going to be suitably large to match it.”
Public Service Broadcasting play the Button Factory, Dublin on Friday. Inform – Educate – Entertain is out now on Test Card Recordings