Haha Sound, Ten Years On - A Broadcast Retrospective
Posted on Tuesday, 13 August 2013 | No Comments
I: Introduction and Reclaiming Psychedelia
“[Psychedelia isn’t] a world only reachable by hallucinogens but obtainable by questioning what we think is real and right, by challenging the conventions of form and temper… We discovered psychedelia and it seemed to have self-help properties that allowed us to let go of an immobilizing working class pride that was cementing a false identity into our psyche, stopping us from transforming.” - Trish Keenan
The above passage from an interview with Broadcast frontwoman Trish Keenan is one of my favourite quotes. In a quick outline, Trish hit upon exactly what it was that made her band so vital and unique. Because truthfully, when we think of psychedelia, what do we think? The old stand-bys, invariably: your stoned and huddled masses of hippies and broken post-beatniks, four-hour films with plenty of trippy effects but not a lot else, unending guitar solos that would a few years later tip over into the prog wilderness, a scene that promised to change the world but couldn't change its underwear.
What Broadcast did so brilliantly was to refute this lazy categorisation, and to re-discover the liberatory and revolutionary potential of psychedelia. Their work might have tipped the hat to cult trailblazers like California sister duo Wendy & Bonnie (whose sole album Genesis has been sampled by the Super Furry Animals and covered by Laetitia Sadier) and electronic pioneers The United States of America, but the way they took their West Coast influences and combined them not just with a distinctly British and working-class perspective, but with a taste for cutting edge electronica - listen to some of the instrumental tracks on their EP/B-side collection The Future Crayon and suddenly their presence on Warp Records doesn't look so anomalous - and a clear-headed desire for epiphany and change. Not just sous les paves, la plage, but psychic liberation within the tower blocks.
Listen to Broadcast in this way, and the wonderful melancholy of their arrangements and lyrics emerges even more precisely. Across their career, from Lights Out on Work and Non Work through to Tears in the Typing Pool on Tender Buttons is a fine lineage of laments, lovelorn in a traditional romantic sense and also with their surroundings, the confines of British urban and suburban existence. By the same degree, when they emerge with glorious hymnals like the sublime single Come On Let's Go, the potential for emancipation becomes evident. Broadcast always acknowledged their situation and the world they were born into, but pushes valiantly and successfully at its limits, using psychedelic art as a way to transform the world permanently into something more humane, vivid and remarkable.
II: Haha Sound and Reconstructing the Pop Fabric
Haha Sound, Broadcast's second full-length album (Work and Not Work consisting of previously issued singles), ended up sitting somewhere in the middle of their recorded output, both in chronological sense and in its sonic makeup - often noisier and darker than Work and Non Work and The Noise Made by People, but not as stripped-back as Tender Buttons or free-form as their collaboration with The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. This could suggest that this a less remarkable album for them, a necessary transitional piece as Broadcast reconstituted itself from a full band to a core duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill. Ten years on from the record's release though, it seems clearer than ever that Haha Sound might represent the most complete and coherent summation of the numerous strands of Broadcast's career.
There's still some of the swooning pop beauty of their earlier work tucked within this record. Many bands go their entire lifespan without writing melodies as strong or lyrics as touching as those on Colour Me In, Before We Begin or Winter Now, and yet Broadcast have got three of those on the same record. What changes the context though are the songs that surround and envelop them. Brief instrumentals like Black Umbrellas and Distortion offer clattering percussion and cacophony, indulging the band's love of the more outré experiments of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (and especially of Delia Derbyshire), while the Silver Apples pulse and guitar scrapings of lead single Pendulum result in perhaps the most anxious, dread-filled moment of their career. There's also the brilliant mid-album tracks Lunch Hour Pops and Ominous Cloud to consider, both of them fine pieces of psychedelic pop, but wedding to lurching rhythms that render their nostalgia deeply queasy - no wonder Ghost Box acts like The Focus Group found them such a kindred spirit - yet in doing so liberate the past from safety and render it a fresh playground once more. If there's any grand message to Haha Sound, it's that the process of breaking down established identity is tricky and full of dark realisations, but still rewarding and freeing for those ready to tumble down the rabbit hole. All manner of pop and alternative structures are broken down and reconstituted over the course of the album in pursuit of a construction that points to the way forward.
For a long time, I always considered Man Is Not a Bird and Minim the heart of the record, two tracks that demonstrate Broadcast's mastery of abstract yet richly melodic arrangements and assert how, no matter what the rest of the band threw in the way, Trish's voice always acted as a wise, kindly signal from across the confines of reality, guiding us into this strange old-new world. Listening back to it now though, it seems clear that it's the earlier track Valerie that really contains the key to the album. A soft, folky track unlike the rest of the album sonically, it takes its inspiration from Jaromil Jires's 1970 surrealist film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (adapted from Vitezslav Nezval's 1932 novel), a strange depiction of the onset of puberty and sexuality. I'd recommend Movie Feast for a full description, but what intrigues about Broadcast's reading is how they take the often troubling material and, without denying its undertow, find a way to make it more entrancing than terrifying. Just lay down your dreams on my pillow, before bed.
III: Conclusion - Until Then
Trish Keenan passed away on 14th January 2011 after contracting pneumonia following a tour of Australia with Broadcast. It's one of the most cruel music deaths I've known in my lifetime, the silencing of a unique voice that, if Broadcast's contributions to Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age and recent live improvisational soundtracks are to go by, was just entering a new artistic phase. For all who knew her, it was the tragic loss of a friend and partner. For those of us who just knew her art, it was the silencing of one of British music's most creative underground icons.
As such, Broadcast has inevitably become a past tense institution, their body of work gaining an unwelcome finality. Although this year saw the release of Broadcast's soundtrack to Berberian Sound Studio, begun before Trish's death and completed by James Cargill and further rumours concerning material half-completed by the duo being compiled for a final release, Broadcast as a working band is no more. This does nothing to lessen the great creative evolution they underwent as a band, from purveyors of soothing electronic psychedelia through tense, post-punk influenced urban hymnals through to the sound collages and cut-up ruralism of their final works, and it's an evolution in which Haha Sound played a pivotal role. It's a record that can be bewildering and scary at first, but with time blossoms into a technicolour fantasia.
With time, it seems certain that Broadcast's stature within underground and alternative circles is set to grow and grow. They were a band that breathed fresh new life into psychedelia and found a way to dodge the druggy clichés to arrive at an interrogative, imaginative sound that paved the way for the psychedelia revival that has resulted in the formation of festivals like the Austin Psych Fest and the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia as well as the mainstream success of an act like Tame Impala. Within their recorded output is some of the most vital, heartfelt and forward-looking music of the last two decades. They took the promises of the past and reworked them into grand promises for the future - eighteen years after their formation and ten years after Haha Sound, their vision of psychedelia as a platform for re-envisioning the self and the self's relationship to the world remains far ahead of the pack.