Public Service Broadcasting really are something else. Not because they’re extraordinary (though that too) but because there’s literally nothing else like them. Part band, part documentary, part museum exhibition, with just a dash of the 1950s schoolteacher. Building their sound around vintage recordings and interviews in place of vocals, they’ve dedicated releases to the likes of the space race and the London blitz. Latest album ‘Every Valley’ dwelling on the Welsh mining industry, doesn’t drop for a few weeks yet. But for their one-off pre-launch show at the Electric Ballroom, PSB gave a tentative glimpse of what’s to come.
It was cardigans and spectacles as usual as the band emerged from the shadows before their sold-out Camden crowd. For drummer Wrigglesworth and multi-instrumentalist J. Willgoose, it looked like little had changed. But that’s not the case. Alongside visual artist Mr. B, they were joined by bassist JF Abraham, newly inducted as a full-time member. They kicked off with a double shot of the new. Richard Burton’s dulcet tones led them into the chain-jangling coalminer’s theme ‘The Pit’, and then straight into ‘People Will Always Need Coal’. Despite a few technical gremlins, the band were relaxed on stage, nodding and grinning back and forth. Like they were explaining astrophysics to schoolchildren, instead of standing before a spell-bound throng.
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After a brief moment to address the audience (another new-fangled idea for the traditionally silent Willgoose), PSB swung confidently into their back-catalogue. The heavier-hitting ‘Night Mail’ and the surprise inclusion of ‘Korolev’ put some zest into the mostly wide-eyed, static crowd. ‘Progress’, the Kraftwerk-esque lead single from ‘Every Valley’, gave the band’s boisterous brass section a chance to shine. Bringing their golden horn-work to bear over the sinister anthem of industrial automation.
Though PSB aren’t exactly Motley Crue when it comes to on-stage antics, that doesn’t mean they’re all sound no show. Quite the reverse. Mr. B and his visual displays are as much a part of the show as the frontmen. Both his selection of vintage footage and his film-reel style camera work focusing in on the band as they played. Newly-promoted Abraham lent his hand at the stagecraft too. As the only bandmember not shackled to his equipment, he was free to bop about the stage and incite the crowd, such as in the lively Race For Space favourite ‘Go!’. Then there were the elements of straight-up storytelling drama. For ‘The Other Side’, which relates Apollo 8’s orbit round the moon, the lights dropped completely during the module’s radio silence, and built tentatively back up alongside the band. In true PSB style, this was more than just a string of songs. It was a narrative exhibit, taking you on a journey right through the band’s own history.
They built up towards their finale with a sloop of their more inspiring numbers. The funkilicious ‘Gagarin’ was the liveliest of the night, and gave the horn trio a chance to really strut their stuff. New single ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ was perhaps the most uplifting of the set; a rousing triumph about the flourishing of Welsh women in politics. Then after the double shot of guitar-led classic ‘Spitfire’ and the nautical ‘Lit Up’, the band skulked back into the shadows. When they returned, it was with a vengeance. The dystopian ‘All Out’, their heaviest composition yet about the violent side of mining history, brought that built-up euphoria crashing down like a dynamited smokestack. Then with masterful ease, PSB brought you right back to the roof of the world with finale ‘Everest’.
Public Service Broadcasting are an enigma. With a sound so built on samples and overlays, you could forgive such an original act being underwhelming in the live setting. Yet they’re anything but. Through some nefarious mix of meticulous planning and honest-to-God talent, they sound as good live as on record and they’re electric to watch. Barely-noticed details, like seamlessly slipping between instruments mid-song, or converting a synth-riff to a guitar part to navigate around malfunctioning equipment, offer tantalising peeks at their musical skill. With the infectious zeal of those bygone vocal samples, they’re a band with the weight of history behind them. Go see them. You might even learn something.