TVD Live: Public Service Broadcasting at the Black Cat, 3/4

Fade in: Interior, Doctor’s office, Me with Doctor

Me: There’s something terribly wrong with me. I’m greenish. My eyes look funny. And I feel like… someone else. And I’ve been (I vomit in doctor’s face.) Excuse me. Vomiting in people’s faces. It started last Tuesday, March 4, when I saw Public System Broadcasting at the Black Cat…

Fade out.

It has always been my desire to review an electronica duo whose members included one J. Willgoose, Esq. and his faithful companion, Wrigglesworth. I never thought in a million years I’d get the opportunity, mind you, but fate plays strange tricks. I never thought I’d wind up married to porn star Tawny Buttocks, either. I don’t mean to brag, but some of her bedroom maneuvers, like the Reverse Half Cuban Eight, have only ever been performed at world-class aerobatics competitions. I could describe the Reverse Half Cuban Eight to you, but you would croak on the spot from sheer jealousy.

J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth make up the London-based duo Public Service Broadcasting, an uncommon adventure in music making. Willgoose plays stringed instruments, including the guitar and banjo, and is also responsible for sampling and electronic instruments. The trusty Wrigglesworth plays drums, piano, and electronic instruments.

PSB released its first EP (“EP One”) in August 2010, and since then has released at least four EPs, two of them consisting of remixes, and one full-length, 2013’s Inform – Educate – Entertain. It’s a wonderful album. You should be holding it in your hands right now. But you’re not. Instead you’re holding a Beaver Brown Band LP you don’t even remember buying. Purchasing music during an alcoholic blackout is never a good idea.

What makes Public Service Broadcasting’s music so intriguingly different is that the band’s “vocals” consist of the voices culled from old public information films, propaganda material, and archive footage. Believe me, it’s far cooler than it sounds.

“Spitfire,” for example, samples a film or radio broadcast about the WWII fighter aircraft that won the Battle of Britain, and includes one stiff upper lip proclaiming, “Someday, I’m going to build a plane just like a bird… a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction.” As for “Signal 30,” its samples appear to have been culled from the Brit equiv of those gloriously gory films we used to watch in Driver’s Ed. “There’s trouble ahead,” intones an official-sounding voice, “trouble that may or may not be a Signal 30. What will we find? A minor mishap? Or will we look upon the stark face of death?” Oh, please, please—Let it be the stark face of death!

But as anyone who has ever watched a horror movie can tell you, playing around with old recordings can have terrifying consequences. In all that antique tape hiss and white noise there may lurk demonic entities, or even some kind of embedded alien virus. And this explains why I missed the opening act.

Namely, I met a friend who was to accompany me to the show, and he’d been listening to Inform – Educate – Entertain for four days straight. He didn’t look himself—he had a greenish pallor and there was something off with his eyes—and no sooner had we said hello than he projectile vomited right into my open mouth. Now l’ve watched every horror movie ever made, and when somebody vomits in your mouth it’s a sure sign they’ve contracted a horrible, body-snatching virus and are passing it on to you. So I raced home, brushed my teeth 67 times, gargled an entire econo-sized bottle of Listerine, and spent a half hour staring into the bathroom mirror to make certain my eyeballs weren’t going weird on me.

Fortunately I made it back to The Black Cat just in time to see PSB, as well as several audience members vomiting in other audience members’ faces. But that’s not so unusual at the hard-drinking Black Cat and I thought no more about it because the show—as the Brits say—was bloody brill. Front man J. Willgoose was dressed like Harry Potter, complete with jacket and bow tie, and spent the entire evening talking to the audience through a voice distorter that made him sound like an evening presenter on BBC News, rendering even the most mundane of comments (“We’ve always wanted to play Washington, D.C.”) both ludicrous and hilarious.

But PSB was no joke act. They played it loud and fast, pushing many of the sound samples out of the forefront they occupy on the records, which proved to be an improvement. They opened with “London Can Take It,” from 2012’s “War Room” EP, which featured some heavy drum pummel by Wrigglesworth and one very cool banjo riff by Willgoose, set to a haunting and propulsive synth groove. The more synth-oriented “The Now Generation” opened with the voice of a female fashion show presenter, and had Wrigglesworth playing against the synth beat while Willgoose alternated back and forth from synth to electric guitar. It was a relatively low-key, percolating and burbling affair until near the end, when Wrigglesworth set at the drums with a vengeance and the synth went around in big loud loops and whoops.

“Signal 30” boasted a hard-driving electric guitar riff, redolent with feedback and Wrigglesworth pounding away. Together they established a punishing groove that went on an on, like a secret Krautrock vengeance weapon, while behind them a voice cried, “Why don’t you get some glasses so you can read those signs!” I’d have called it the highlight of the night if it weren’t for “Spitfire,” which featured an even more propulsive groove fueled by one raving guitar that alternated between loud and reverb heavy and a higher pitched sound. The album version gives but the slightest indication of what this baby sounds like live; these guys sounded like the roaring human equivalent of the plane’s Rolls-Royce PV-XII V-12 engine at full throttle, set to the task of dancing rather than death and destruction.

“Theme From PSB” opened with a voice intoning, “Shortly before the beginning of this century a small group had a vision of a great human service” while Willgoose played some plucky banjo to the accompaniment of a perky, syncopated synth riff and Wriggleworth’s minimal drumming. Then the synth quieted so Willgoose’s banjo could come front and center, and it was lovely in a way that moved both your soul and your feet. And from then on synth and banjo took turns in the forefront, while establishing a great groove against which various voices repeatedly intoned, “Public Service Broadcasting.” “Night Mail” was a more haunting affair, despite its galloping drums, as Willgoose produced a heavenly melody on his heavily distorted guitar while a droning voice repeated, “Letters for the rich, letters for the poor” as volume and pace gradually increased until one was subsumed by pure, glorious sound. Why, it was almost enough to make one apply for work at the post office.

Willgoose then announced, “We wrote two songs about Dutch figure skating this year” (much laughter) “and this is one of them.” With that PSB launched into “Elfstedentocht Pt. 2.” The tune was far more exciting than Dutch ice skating could possibly be, opening with an appropriately chilly synth riff that slowly morphed into a groove that kept getting faster, driven forward by guitar and some increasingly loud drumming. “Lit Up,” meanwhile, had nothing whatsoever in common with Styx’s paean to mob pot smoking, “Light Up.” It was, instead, a slow starter featuring a simple guitar riff, an equally basic synth figure, and rudimentary drumming. But the melody was simply divine, and became increasingly so as the song picked up speed, a voice crackling with static repeated, “The whole thing is lit up by faerie lamps… the whole things a faerie land,” and the synth piped and chimed like bells, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t light up my heart like the faerie lamps the voice in the background kept going on about.

“ROYGBIV” opened with a very cool syncopated beat, then Willgoose took a long star turn on banjo before switching between synth and guitar, and once again the melody was lovely, sinuous and funky, as the song slowly built and built in one long gorgeous groove towards, as one voice intoned,
“the vivid pulsating miracle that gives color to shadow.” A perfect one-word review of the song came from the same voice later: “Spectacular.” PSB closed the show with the epic “Everest,” which opened with the words, “Once there was a mountain called Peak 15. Nothing was known about it.” Then the drums and guitar locked into a groove over which a mountain-wind cold synth riff rode, turning in comely melodic circles only to be joined by the guitar as the volume went up and up, like men scaling the highest peak in the world, and triumphantly summiting just as the wonderful “Everest” came to a close.

Afterwards I went to shake Willgoose’s hand but he seemed so delicate, and no longer sounded like a BBC news broadcaster, and besides there were other people around him, chatting happily and vomiting in each other’s faces so I left through the bar and went out into the night, the glorious and bewitching sound of “Everest” still ringing in my ears. Such sublime moments come but seldom, and I was happy as I stood in the cold with a cigarette and waited to hail the taxi turning the corner, which stopped so I hopped in and the driver turned, took a double take, and said, “Are you alright? You look… greenish.”

Fade in: Interior, Doctor’s examining room, me sitting on paper-covered examining table

(Doctor enters.)

Me: Doctor, your eyes! You’re–

Doctor and I: One of us! Hmmm.

Me: It’s great, right? I’ve haven’t felt so calm, docile, and ready to obey the orders of an alien overlord in years! And all I listen to is–

Doctor and I: Public System Broadcasting! Hmmm.

Me: And I hardly ever vomit in anyone’s face anymore. You know, unless—

Doctor and I: They’re not one of us! Hmmm.

(Long silence.)

Me: So? Wanna dance, or would you rather just compare tentacles?

The End

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  • Martijn

    Love it so much!
    Top of your form! You wrote that like a gentleman, complete with eye patch
    & handhook.
    It’s so good in fact that I’m afraid to google the band and find out they don’t
    exist and you made it all up.
    But if they do exist, can I get their e-mail address so I can tell them that
    ‘The Elfstedentocht’ isn’t figure skating but a 200-kilometer endurance race (a
    Death March on Ice if you will) and the greatest sports event in the world,
    except perhaps for that desert car race Hunter Thompson writes about?

  • SteveRenfro

    I’d want to go for the “Reverse Full Cuban 8” instead of the “Half Cuban”; that way I’d get “8” more.
    Listening to Spitfire right now. Good stuff! And great write up.

  • Joe Small

    @Martijn They are real and they do know (see their Youtube site) that Elfstedentocht is a long distance race, skated only when the ice is of a sufficient depth throughout the entire course.  Andy they are brilliant live – go see

  • Michael Little

    Thanks guys! And Steve, you do get more 8 more. And vertigo! But it’s worth it. Martijn, you’re too sweet. As Joe points out, they are real and they’re great. Glad you like Spitfire, Steve! It was like five times better live!

  • Martijn

    @Joe Small
    Hey Joe! (as a massive but unfortunately Dutch speaking Jimi Hendrix fan, you have NO idea how much it thrills me to say this!)… I have, in the mean time, checked out their song on Youtube and by now know all about their Elfstedentocht song. Thanks very much for trying to help me understand and like their music, which I do now. If they’re in my neighbourhood, I WILL try to see them. Hey-hey!

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