October 29, 2012 5:34 pm

The Unthanks, Purcell Room, London

The glory and decline of the shipyards of England’s North East made the perfect subject for The Unthanks’ melancholic songs

In the past couple of years, The Unthanks have delivered four albums, covering the songs of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt, collaborating with the Brighouse and Rastrick Colliery Band, and now celebrating shipbuilding on the Tyne.

This concert returned the shipbuilding songs to their natural habitat, soundtracking archive film footage sewn together by Richard Fenwick. The band sat in semi darkness at the front of the stage with the film projected overhead, the audience craning their necks as if staring up at giant, half-completed liners.

The Unthanks’ repertoire tends to North-Eastern melancholia, and the glory and decline of the shipyards made the perfect subject. Welders, riveters and pipemen – the “Black Trades” of Jez Lowe’s song, which the Unthank sisters sang with the names of the vanished crafts spilling out as remote from today as Chaucer’s pilgrims – scurried across the skeletal keels of future ships, or polished immense screw propellers.

With only a musical narrative to make sense of the pictures, some of the argument was hard to grasp. Niopha Keegan sang Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Big Steamers” to music by Peter Bellamy, and the footage moved from high life on inter-war liners to warships, one keeling over sideways and then engulfed in fire as the magazine exploded.

After the war, some of the film was in colour, the social geology of 1960s Britain uneasily on view as directors’ wives in full finery congregated to watch newly-launched ships inching down slipways shedding hawsers. Another Jez Lowe song, “Monkey Dung Men”, nodding to the after-effects of asbestosis and mesothelioma, was performed in darkness, to a funereal drum beat.

“I hope I’ll build ships, boys, until I am dead”, sang Rachel Unthank; but even as the shipbuilders sprouted shaggy perms and sideburns the writing was on the wall. The 1980s erupted in grainy videotape, Mrs Thatcher (at whose appearance the audience indulged itself in hissing and booing) intercut with footage of the Falklands. Adrian McNally sang Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” slowly, the melody made harsher and sharper than in the best-known version, Robert Wyatt’s supper-club jazz. From then on it was decline all the way – “Gone are the days they were taking on men”, went the words – finishing up with Swan Hunter’s PR man announcing its epitaph: “Being the best wasn’t good enough.” Heartbreakingly, giant cranes were dynamited and toppled on to the quayside. There was new footage of redundant wooden pilings rotting.

A song by John Tams was a bleak summary: “You might steal our future but you’ll not steal our glory”, chorused all The Unthanks, unaccompanied, over and over. It was both the closing credits for the film, and an epitaph for the industry.

4 stars

southbankcentre.co.uk

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