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If this show were a poster – or if it were a reproduced on a commemorative mug – it would read “Keep Calm and Carry On Krautrocking”. London duo Public Service Broadcasting trade in archival nostalgia set mostly to motorik rhythms, along with the odd ravey wobble of the past’s stereotypically stiff upper lip. Their tracks sample voices mainly from documentaries and propaganda films of the 1930s and 1940s, clips of which are screened live.
It would be just the ticket if you can’t get enough of austerity chic – but rather irksome if you’d prefer just to watch the films. On stage, pseudonymous frontman J Willgoose Esq and his drummer Wrigglesworth cast themselves as young fogeys. A stilted electronic announcer does all the introductions – its quip about playing the “ruddy, bloody Forum” a good riff on Spinal Tap’s “Hello, Cleveland” gag, even if the device is a one-note joke. The third man of the piece is Mr B, “on visuals”.
Why these visuals, though, and this music? Inform-Educate-Entertain, the group’s debut album, nearly went Top 20 in the UK in May. That title suggests some didactic aim. Perhaps the newly released DVD version will make it plain, but I couldn’t see their point here. And those vocal snippets were largely inaudible amid the crushing bass.
“London Can Take It” featured scenes of the Blitz. Was it extolling national resolve or simply a chance to sync big trip-hoppy beats to big anti-aircraft guns? Later, “If War Should Come” was vaguely plucky and stirring. Maybe they elicited an emotional response, but stripping the films of their context felt like a barrier to understanding or, worse, condescending to their subjects.
The instrumentals, if pretty well done, were hardly novel. Of the band’s apparent influences, Neu! began in 1972 and the Orb had my generation dancing 20 years ago. “Signal 30” essayed a drag-racey twang, its headlong rush through 1950s American road-safety shorts adding to the schlocky thrill of the track. “Theme from PSB”, an RKO tower of jittery funkiness, talked of “the importance of ideas and information”. Images of pioneering broadcast boffins implied that the medium was the message even then; if so, I got that.
Overall, the melding of sound and vision seemed gimmicky and slight. The war-related films were too intriguing to be eye-candy; the others – such as vintage Dutch ice-skating – too arbitrary for serious consideration. And while I’m painting myself as an old fart, a word on “Night Mail”. Dazed and propulsive, PSB’s version uses a few of Auden’s lines, but jettisons Britten’s score. In the week of his centenary, it’s safe to say that the composer’s work remains far more evocative and exhilarating.
When balloons were fully released from the ceiling during the encore’s “Roygbiv”, it became a kidults’ party. “Everest”, with footage of Hillary and Tenzing’s 1953 expedition, was then suitably awestruck and intrepid. The band achieved their Reithian objective – inform, educate, entertain – as long as you didn’t think about it too much.