The Quietus | 6 July 2017

Luke Turner On Public Service Broadcasting’s Every Valley

The nostalgia merchants remember the miners with turgid, insipid, bizarrely misjudged pap. Luke Turner is righteously appalled.

In 1960, the BBC broadcast a documentary called Borrowed Pasture. Narrated by Richard Burton, it told the story of Eugenius Okolowicz and Vlodek Bulaj, two Polish soldiers who, unable to return to their homeland after the second world war, eked out a living working the land around a dilapidated Welsh farm. It’s an incredible work, evocative and poignant, vividly capturing the loneliness of two men who parted each evening with a « goodnight Mr Okolowicz » and « goodnight Mr Bulaj » before kneeling by their beds in prayer.

I bring this up because Public Service Broadcasting have long given me the impression that they’re attempting to use music to achieve something similarly profound, with their use of archive footage and samples from old films a kind of cut-up approach to developing a new documentary form. In other hands it might well and does work, for the past is rich and vivid, full of tragedy and joy, love and sorrow, lust and destruction. It ought to and can be a rich resource for artists who wish to show us truths about our present by exploring these grey areas, troubled narratives, and forgotten lives. Since their first release, 2012’s The War Room EP, Public Service Broadcasting have got this spectacularly wrong, with clumsy and obvious lifts from audio archives lumped on top of music that sounds little better than offcuts from dire late 00s trip-hop act Lemon Jelly. Shockingly, they’ve rather thrived, despite being the musical equivalent of one of those dreadful Blitz-themed club nights where people who work in advertising get drunk while dressed in 40s garb before going home to clean up the gin sick with a Keep Calm & Carry On tea towel.

This is probably not their intention. I am sure that their third studio album Every Valley was meant to be a meaningful comment on the decline of the Welsh mining industry and the destruction wrought to so many communities during the 1970s and 80s. But therein lies the problem with this forgettable record. It was only when I read the accompanying PR that I had any idea what Public Service Broadcasting are trying to say. The general atmosphere on Every Valley is « the mines closed sad emoji », but aside from that? For a start, vocal samples don’t work like lyrics. They paint a two dimensional picture, speak a stilted narrative. Worse, they start to grate on repeated listens, at best diluting the impact of the speaker’s words and intent. Even the aforementioned Richard Burton, whose line « Every little boy’s ambition in my valley was to become a miner… They were the kings of the underworld » opens the record, starts to sound rather tired. It’s curious that by the fifth or sixth listen to a Welsh miner’s voice speaking about their vanishing livelihood, the Public Service Broadcasting gimmick has become distasteful appropriation.

An album about the decline of an industry that employed millions and irrevocably altered the landscape of these islands ought to have a sense of gravitas and poignancy. There’s none here. The burbling ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’, with its jolly brass and « ooo ooo » backing vocals is far too sunlit uplands, as if it were the music playing over a future utopian Pathé film of former miners cheerfully flocking through the doors of the bright new call centre, eagerly anticipating a day of fielding irate Public Sector Broadcasting fans complaining about their gas bill. ‘Progress’ has an insipid chorus vocal of « I believe in progress » and might be found in the sort of modern Christian chorus book that just can’t stand up to the great days when the chapels of the valleys resounded with proper hymns. And after all, the men who closed the mines did so in the name of progress too. On the flipside they borrow the title from 1975 miner recruitment film People Will Always Need Coal for a song that tinkles jauntily along. What’s the comment here, underneath this most-inappropriately lighthearted music? That the would-be recruits were duped? That we should have kept the mines going? In the face of climate catastrophe this would be a nonsensical stance. The fact that on Friday 21st of April Britain managed its first day in centuries without burning any coal should be celebrated, not mourned. From an environmental viewpoint closing the mines was not so much the tragedy as the way in which the miners were abandoned after it had been done. That track sets the blueprint for the record as a whole, all irritating guitar tap tics, clip-clopping drums, an attempt at brassy poignance in crescendo that merely breaks wind. ‘All Out’ is Mogwai blandly reimagined for a drive from Merthyr Tydfil to Aberdare. If you can imagine James Corden at the wheel you’ll get the general idea of how cosily tedious this is. One wonders why James Dean Bradfield agreed to appear on ‘Turn No More’, given the psychic traumas inflected on Wales during the 1980s have been such a key inspiration over the years, especially so given that the band have essentially written a backing track that sounds like it might have appeared on That’s What We Call Manic Street Preachers Karaoke Vol. 3. Even the presence (finally!) of some Welsh language lyricism from Lisa Jen Brown cannot rescue ‘You + Me’ from twee monstrosity as it builds and builds, conflating solidarity and love: « if we stand as one we’ll have something they’ll never break ».

It has long perplexed me that British Sea Power get written off as fusty rock Scouts whereas Public Service Broadcasting have got all the public love. BSP channel deranged psychedelic intoxication into stratospheric rock belters in ode to European freedom of movement, the tragedy of melting ice sheets, and attempts to counter the algorithmic age. The crucial difference is that where the music of British Sea Power is elegiac in tone, or that of Kemper Norton, Laura Cannell, Darren Hayman, I Like Trains, Grumbling Fur and English Heretic taps into uncanny ancient histories, Public Service Broadcasting peddle comfortable, easily digested nostalgia. The n-word is the only driving force, both here and across the rest of Public Service Broadcasting’s risible output. It perhaps explains their bizarre popularity, both in the UK (where nostalgia is our national disease) and abroad (where it fits with the tourist image of a Britain that nobody who lives here has ever been to) and also makes them sound quite Brexit. Indeed, Public Service Broadcasting’s aesthetic shares an accidental conservatism with the skaggy Albion dreamt up by Pete’n’Carl in The Libertines, who are soon to embark on the gormlessly named Tiddeley Om Pom Pom Tour of British seaside towns.

Despite the insufferable smugness of their songs, this was just about tolerable when they were composing odes to fighter planes and the space race. Here though it leaves an acrid taste. There is much to be furious about when it comes to what happened to our mining industry, in the Welsh valleys and far beyond. The government will still not open a public inquiry into the actions of the police against striking miners at Orgreave. Hundreds of thousands live in former pit towns and villages where unemployment is rife and the traditional bulwarks of the community – societies, chapel, pub – have decayed or been destroyed. Instead, this merely posits the question of whether it is possible to be radical while making music that might as well be library stock purchased to soundtrack an ad for boating holidays on the River Bure, voiceover by Alan Partridge.

Back in 2014, Test Dept created an installation on the derelict Dunston Coal Staithes on the River Tyne, just outside Newcastle and Gateshead, where 140,000 tonnes of coal a week were once loaded onto ships for export. The work used a collage of projected footage of pits, strikes, speeches and Thatcher combined with sound and lights to make a highly emotional, angry comment on what had been done to the mining industry. The collage of sound finished with just the murmur of the river as ‘Take Me Home’ sung by the South Wales Striking Miners Choir floated across the dark waves: « I remember the face of my father / as he walked back home from the mine, » they sang and I looked around the audience on that night and saw that nobody was watching with dry eyes. It was one of the most profound musical experiences of my life, an example of how traditional communal singing and contemporary art might provoke a righteous anger for restitution and change. Public Service Broadcasting use the same song to close this album. It sounds, as it did then, like a haunting. Yet here it also shows up the rest of Every Valley to be an exercise in thin superficiality, a trite memorial to the herculean efforts of those unknown men who toiled beneath the damp hillsides of this land.

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