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Public Service Broadcasting wrote an emotional ode to the Titanic and Belfast

Blending politics and art, the band are back this spring with their trademark sound, playing new tracks about the world's most famous ship at her Belfast birthplace

It was back in June 2017, I think, sitting in the green room at BBC 6 Music in Salford, that I was approached by a member of the station’s senior management and told that the 2018 6 Music Festival – or a version of it, upgraded to the BBC Biggest Weekend in light of the lack of a Glastonbury this year – would be taking place in Belfast, on the Titanic Slipways where the ship was constructed. I was asked if we’d be interested in playing the event and writing something about Titanic to mark the occasion. My reaction was instant, and the same as it has been when we’ve taken on similar projects in the past. “Now that’d be interesting.”

My band, Public Service Broadcasting, has made something of an unlikely name for itself as chroniclers (well, more accurately, re-chroniclers) of the past, having previously raided the archives to retell stories from World War 2, the space race and the decline of the coal industry in South Wales. We write new music around the material, placing the stories of the past firmly in the present; it’s never been about nostalgia for me, and always far more about drawing lines, contrasts and comparisons between then and now.

Each time we tackle a subject the challenge is the same: trying to get across the essence of the story without using the most well-known or hackneyed material, and hopefully in the process shedding new light on the subject matter. Our World War 2 release avoided any mention of Churchill (or Hitler, for that matter), just as The Race For Space used only one clip of Neil Armstrong, preferring to tell the story of Apollo 11 by focusing on mission control. Even on the more politically fraught Every Valley, Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher were nowhere to be found, eschewed for the more personal stories of miners and their families as the industry they gave their lives to was dismantled around them. It’s safe to say, then, that there will be no Dick Van Dyke-esque “iceberg, right ahead!” in our upcoming Titanic compositions. But where do you begin attempting to address this story, so well known to so many?

The process always starts in a very old-fashioned way: reading. There’s something in the combination of history and imagination that occurs when reading historical material that’s particularly inspiring – the brain almost instinctively starts sketching out the shape of the story, the parts you’d like to focus on and the kind of music you’d like to create. I read Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember, as well as multiple survivor accounts – and slightly more obscure material which forensically detailed the ship’s building process, as well as visiting the fantastic Titanic Belfast which we’ll be performing in front of this May.

It was obvious that Belfast’s proud industrial heritage (and its implied industrial decline, throughout the 20th century) would be the best place to start. It should be quite something to play new material addressing the construction of the world’s most famous ship on the shipyard in which it was built – sad, yet proud, echoes of the past reverberating around a much-changed landscape.

I don’t believe that music has ever been purely apolitical

I also wanted to capture something of the spirit of pre-war optimism which greeted the launch of the ship in 1912 on its journey from Belfast to New York via Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown, and that forms the basis of the second track, which uses a combination of BBC and BFI material. And, as much as I wanted to make the release more balanced than the usual iceberg-related Titanic fare, the disaster itself (and the aftermath) has to be addressed, and in a tasteful and appropriate way. Instead of using survivors’ interviews, we’ve taken a more abstract approach for these two tracks, one constructed using a musical reinterpretation of the Morse code distress call, C-Q-D, and one focusing on the wreck.

In all of it, I’ve written music as a response – both intellectual and emotional – to the story I’m trying to tell. Whether that music serves its purpose is, of course, highly subjective, but I do hope the new compositions convey something of the scale of the ship, the pride that those who built her took in her sailing, and the almost unimaginable terror of that cold April night on the Atlantic.

I don’t believe that music – certainly the best music – has ever been purely apolitical, and viewing it as just pure entertainment both devalues the medium and, I would argue, fundamentally disrespects the audience. As artists, we shouldn’t be afraid of speaking up for the things we believe in, for taking principled and honest stances even in the face of quite considerable commercial risk. That’s the ethos which has grown in us steadily as the band’s profile has risen, and recognising the fact we have a voice – one which we must use responsibly and thoughtfully, but one which has been hard-earned – has been a key part of shaping the way we’ve approached the last couple of PSB projects.

It’s also been behind our support for causes like the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which saw us launch a T-shirt collaboration with them earlier this year, with all profits going to the OTJC. Despite the fact that the OTJC is a cross-party organisation, there will always be (and there have been, this time) those who object to any kind of engagement with politics by bands. We may have lost a few fans in the process, but I’d far rather that and be able to hold my head high knowing that we at least tried to make a difference rather than opting for the easy (and more financially comfortable) route. Whatever the future holds for the upcoming Titanic material, I’d like to hope that such an approach will see us on the right course. As with everything, time will tell.

Public Service Broadcasting debut their Titanic commission at BBC Music’s Biggest Weekend, Belfast, May 25 – live on BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC iPlayer

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