It was twelve months ago today that Trish Keenan, singer and songwriter in Broadcast, tragically died after contracting pneumonia in Australia. I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the work of one of my favourite bands.
The first Broadcast record I owned was Ha Ha Sound, their somewhat avant-garde second album for Warp. As a lover of analogue/retro-futurist synth stylings it instantly grabbed me. There are any number of Radophonic Workshop fetishists knocking out genre-exercise library music pastiches, but Broadcast were better. Broadcast had heart. They were a pop band (lest we forget, they were able to fit snugly onto the Austin Powers soundtrack).
Pop music should always feel like it comes from outer space. I can remember seeing endless BBC documentaries where rent-a-talking-heads types would reminisce about listening to Radio Caroline and the like. The story always goes that they would listen to these new rhythm and blues bands which couldn’t yet be heard on mainstream radio and feel like the musicians involved were ‘from another planet’.
These days much of the mystery’s gone. With the X Factor and the like proceeding from the assumption that being involved in the commerce of music is what people want, they’ve shattered the illusion of pop stars as alien. Even in the world of indie music you’re apt to see some songwriter whose sensitive musings on love and life you admire tweeting off #lols and banal domestic observations… so it’s nice to hear a record which still feels like it could have come from another place.
Of course Broadcast were borrowing from the tradition which gave us Delia Derbyshire’s recording of the music for Dr Who. Early synth enthusiasts had their avant-garde dabblings subsidised by selling them as soundtracks for Quatermass and the Pit, Forbidden Planet and the like. The wobble of an analogue oscillator fed through a space echo will be forever evoke cheaply costumed space monsters stalking across distant planets/disused quarries.
Broadcast used all these potentially sci-fi signifiers in their work, but it was Trish’s vocals and lyrics that made them so beautifully alien. The headline in this obituary ‘Alice through the test card’ captures it perfectly. She hinted at this wonderland when she sang ‘curiouser and curiouser’ in Black Cat from Tender Buttons.
Instrumentally Broadcast were a whirl of ideas, you can’t understate the contributions of the original members to the first two albums. The drums in particular are excellent and recall Phil Spector’s girl groups, the balance of keyboard textures is perfect, the lead melodies all memorable. Then every now and again a little flourish makes you realise that a computer has crept in somewhere and it almost feels like an anachronism, like seeing a digital watch on a roman soldier. Even when they stripped down to a duo for Tender Buttons and brought more guitars into the mix, they somehow found a way to make that most generic of instruments sound strange….
At the heart of it all was Trish’s Alice gazing back out into the world. Her lyrics filtered her observations through phrases cut up and rearranged into surrealist poetry, always delivered in her beautifully blank melancholy chanteuse’s style. Usually evoking love and loss, the other side of the looking glass seemed to be somewhere deep inside her, rather than an alien planet (which of course would have looked suspiciously like a disused quarry).
“Here I am, at the end, before the beginning…”
I think my favourite Broadcast song is Before We Begin and I was just checking to see if there was ever an official video for it which I didn’t know about. Instead I found this fan made one:
Which is actually quite delightful. It’s a quick ‘n’ dirty re-edit of some old footage, but the way it flits in and out of sync with the track, with the singer dancing out of time, stuck in a loop works much better than it was probably even meant to. Like Trish’s Alice, lost and out of sync with the real world.
I hope this doesn’t come across as some sort of posthumous attempt to reframe what Broadcast’s records mean. I’ve always felt this way about them. Trish Keenan’s death was just one of those occasions where basic human frailty catches you out. There were no hints of it in her music.
The good news for fans is that James Cargill has apparently been working on material for a new Broadcast album using vocal tracks she recorded before her death. Certainly when I saw them perform at Chapter in December 2009 a large chunk of the set was new material, so I had been wondering (somewhat selfishly) if there were usable recordings of those songs which might see the light of day.
I can only imagine how difficult it must be for James to work on this material given that Trish was not only his bandmate and creative partner, but his romantic partner too. Still I’m glad that the record’s on it’s way, and hope he’s taking some comfort from making it.