Public Service Broadcasting

They Gave Me a Lamp

Public Service Broadcasting – They Gave Me a Lamp

This past July, the new album by Public Service Broadcasting, Every Valley, was released. It’s an album filled with songs about coal mining in the valleys of South Wales in the UK; from the days of literally fueling the nation’s industry, through the progress of mechanization, the strikes in the 80s, the pit closures, and the loss of jobs and devastation of communities that followed. You might think it would be an odd subject to write an album’s worth of songs about but in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, it’s actually incredibly timely.

I went to graduate school in Wales 20 years ago. Mid-west Wales not the southern coal fields, but still, Wales with its rolling hills dotted with sheep. People spoke Welsh there, in addition to heavily-accented English, and it’s also where my husband and I met. So I knew nostalgia was going to be pulling hard and that I was going to like this album for those sampled Welsh accents no matter what.

However, I didn’t necessarily expect to love this album for the stories it tells. It deserves to be listened to in its entirety, start to finish, as the songs follow the sequence of events as they played out in the valleys. If you’re not familiar with the history of the rise and fall of these Welsh coal mining towns, you can imagine it being coal towns in West Virginia, or the car factories in Flint, or steel mills in Pennsylvania. [I also strongly recommend you watch the movie Pride. Even if I can’t convince you to listen to the whole PSB album, watch that movie.] It’s what happens when an industry dominates a town or region, and how the working-class people who built it up are “chucked on the scrap heap” when those industries leave.

This song, “They Gave Me a Lamp” is about the women’s movement during the strikes in 1984-85 when Margaret Thatcher was determined to break the miners. I saw PSB in Boston back in September and when they played this song there were video clips of women on the picket lines and putting together food packages for striking families. It could just as easily be video clips from the Women’s March back in January. I’ve seen a video from their recent show in London and J. Willgoose, Esq., introduced this song by talking about the samples in it as “telling the story that we wanted to tell, what I think is quite a powerful story of feminism, of political awakening, of political emancipation in a way, the power of protest really, which seems it’s worth to write songs about, no?”

After the inauguration, I felt like the Women’s March was such an empowering moment and I wanted it to be the start of something, not just a one-off. There were a lot of resistance groups sprouting up and a lot of them were lead by women. I went to protests against the travel ban, the March for Truth, but I also joined my local Democratic party. I’d always voted but I felt like there had to be more we could all do. I’d read about how entrenched the Republican party had become in local politics, which in turn leads to Republican-controlled statehouses, which is what gets you those horrible politicians who want to return to the 1950s, if not earlier. They often run unopposed and consequently win in places that vote blue on the national level. If we are going to succeed at preventing this country from becoming a fascist state and hopefully moving it forward from where it was at the end of Obama’s two terms, we need all hands on deck.

So when I hear the woman in the interview at the beginning of this song saying, “if you could get a woman involved in one thing, they could see there was this other life … like myself, politics was just something that shouldn’t affect me, but politics is life and everything to do with it affects you, directly or indirectly”, I raise my fist in solidarity. By the time the second sample plays the woman saying, “I think a lot of women found their feet” I see the huge crowds at the marches, I see the women who, like me, got involved in local politics, I see the new faces of the younger people who took the leap to run for office. And when those Brassy Gents™ come in and the song really takes off, I can’t help but get goosebumps and tears start rolling down my cheeks.

Today was election day. Democrats won the governors races in Virginia and New Jersey. A transgender woman beat the GOP incumbent in the VA state legislature who sponsored the “bathroom bill.” A Sikh man won as the mayor of Hoboken, NJ. Maine, with their horribly racist and just generally idiotic governor, who was Trump’s prototype, just voted to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. And here in my town, we swept our local races. Swept. Them. The resistance is just getting warmed up.

A lot of women found their feet, and now we’re ready to run.

 

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Go!

Public Service Broadcasting – Go!

If you had the chance to see a band you love in a really incredible setting, you would go, wouldn’t you? It’s not that big a deal for me to go down to New York for a show but it’s not like I’ll make the three hour trip just to go to any concert. It has to be special or it has to be the band’s only northeast appearance. Sometimes it’s both.

This past Saturday I was down in New York to see one of two special shows by Public Service Broadcasting at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, playing underneath the Space Shuttle Enterprise. I mean, come on …

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Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the stage is in the lower right of the picture, you can just make out the drum kit and projection screen.

I would have traveled to New York to see them play at any venue but to perform songs from The Race for Space (among others) on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the shadow of an actual space shuttle?! Worth it. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I arrived about half an hour before the doors opened, eager to pick up my ticket from the will call window. Five or six people were there to do the same but when the museum said doors open at nine, they were serious. The line grew and I wound up talking to the people around me, including one guy who had cashed in frequent flyer miles and come over from England just for these gigs. This was not an uncommon story, as I would learn a little later on.

At 9:00 p.m. (and not a minute before) they let us in, got us through security and handed us our tickets (including two free beer tickets!) and ushered us back outside to make our way down the pier to the elevator. From there we went up three levels to the flight deck, then walked past some pretty impressive airplanes on our way down to the space shuttle pavilion. By this time it had gotten dark and the Intrepid seemed even bigger without the ability to clearly make out its lines. Finally we entered the room where the Enterprise was on display with several other exhibit panels and objects, including some Star Trek stuff. Those two free beers? Commemorative Star Trek Golden Anniversary Ale (there is also  a Star Trek exhibit at the museum since the original series first aired 50 years ago). A stage and screen had been set up in the rear corner of the pavilion. It was certainly the most unusual concert venue I can remember.

Someone on the museum staff welcomed everyone and remarked that she’d heard there were a lot of people from out of town. She said, “How many people came here from the UK?” Close to a third of the room shouted out. The west coast had a decent showing, then she said, “Anyone from the south, like Texas?” and one young guy just diagonally behind me gave a Texas-sized shout. In the remaining few minutes before the band came on, the couple beside me, who had come from the UK (husband and wife, she had surprised him with this trip as a birthday present) got talking with the young Texan. He turned out to be in town for a conference that had been taking place there earlier that day. He wore a t-shirt with an astronaut on it and in fact he’d been wearing a real space suit just that morning as part of the presentation his group from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University had done. If ever there was a guy who belonged at this show, it was him.

In short, we were a devoted, friendly crowd, appreciative of the surroundings. That’s my favorite set up. I never mind being there by myself when it feels like that. When you catch a stranger’s eye and you both give the smile or nod and kind of look around like, can you believe it?! Standing here under a fucking space shuttle with our Star Trek beers about to watch PSB play songs about Sputnik and Apollo 11. I am not that much of a space aficionado but I was a history major and there’s no denying that this was something special.

I’ve been searching for a way to describe the show and for the past couple of nights I’ve opened up the computer and stared at this draft and typed a little and deleted more. Nothing felt right. I had picked out the video above because I already blogged Gagarin last year (when I first learned about PSB) and because it’s a live clip and captures the visual elements of their performance. I also rather liked the directive of Go! – as if to say, you should go see Public Service Broadcasting if you ever get the chance. But what to say about the show wasn’t coming to me.

It turns out that dragging my feet has resulted in the happy coincidence that today is the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the subject of this song. I hadn’t known it was today until I started seeing all manner of celebratory images being shared on social media. I thought back to the show and the setting and the crowd.

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They didn’t only play songs off of The Race for Space, nearly half were from their earlier album Inform-Educate-Entertain. To some degree, that’s what their music does, though I don’t think that’s exactly what they set out to do. But what I do feel it does, and what Saturday night’s show in particular did for me, was allow me to be wrapped up in an experience so removed from the every day. Listening to songs that illustrate the triumphs and tragedies of mankind, watching old footage of people no longer alive, while people very much alive play the music while we dance in the audience, and every now and then turn around and look up at a hulking physical reminder of all of that. It gave me goosebumps.

After the show was over, we all headed back out into the open air to this.

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New York City, all lit up on a summer night. Perfection. This is what it’s all about.

 

Gagarin

Public Service Broadcasting – Gagarin

Several weeks ago I heard a song, once again on my local college radio station, as I was driving home. The dj had read some information about the song that was pretty interesting so I Shazamed it to look it up later. An online friend said he’d been listening to the album for a couple of months after he’d heard it on his college radio station. I was curious enough to look up the rest of the album and more information about the band.

The band is Public Service Broadcasting, two nerdy looking guys from England going by the names J. Willgoose, Esq., and Wrigglesworth. They use audio and film clips from old public service announcements and news reels which they set to music. The song was on their album The Race for Space, nine songs that trace the history of the US and USSR space programs by highlighting different chapters in each nation’s story.

The more I read about them and listened online, the more intrigued I was. The reviews of their albums on Amazon were nearly all 5-stars and for this record especially they recommended buying a physical copy so you could get the booklet that comes with it. I don’t need much arm twisting when it comes to getting the liner notes so I ordered the CD (much as I like records, the CD seemed more practical for me right now) and have not been disappointed.

It is worth it. The whole album is fantastic. You can just have it on in the background but it really deserves to be listened to more closely. I find myself getting pulled in to these stories and, this is not going to come out the way I want it to but, I feel like all of the day-to-day distractions fall away. I’m really immersed in these scenes of the space race.

I almost hate to choose just one song for this post because they work so well in the context of the whole and I can’t really pick a favorite. I lean toward “The Other Side” because it’s so expertly done – but I don’t want to give it away.

So if you’re curious and/or like this song, check out the whole album. And here’s some more links to see how they pull it together when it’s just the two guys* or when they add some people to flesh it out for a larger stage.

*The Tiny Desk Concert link is from last year and features songs from earlier albums but equally cool.