“In the late eighties I was obsessed with the kitchen sink idea of the 60s, I felt umbilically connected with it because of my upbringing, it was the Britain I was born into, a Cathy Come Home England. I discovered psychedelia and it seemed to have self help properties that allowed me to let go of an immobilizing working class pride that was cementing a false identity into my psyche, stopping me from transforming.”
Trish Keenan 2009
Sitting behind a record shop counter in Bristol in the late summer of 1996, I turned to Dave Pearce, my fellow traveller, band mate and leader of Flying Saucer Attack and pointed to a postage stamp sized feature on a new band from Birmingham. We both raised our eyebrows in astonishment. The subject of the article, Broadcast, had been compared to The United States of America. Any band that had turned NME’s attention away from the atrophied fry-up of Britpop, to name check a group with which everyone we knew was obsessed, was definitely worthy of deep and protracted investigation.
We didn’t have to wait long. A day later a 12” mailer from Broadcast’s manager Martin Pike arrived, containing both their Accidentals single on Wurlitzer Jukebox and The Book Lovers on Duophonic, the label he ran with his other charges Stereolab. Listening through the tracks we could certainly hear, along with the unmistakable sound of British pop modernism, traces of the electronic pulse of The United States of America. Most startling of all we could hear the straight-to-camera confidence of Broadcast’s singer Trish Keenan and her remarkable voice.
A few weeks later I was vaguely involved, along with the other two and a half members of its staff, with the A&R side of a record company. Knowing we didn’t really stand a chance with the band, I nevertheless followed Broadcast’s progress around the country: Halloween with Gorky’s at the Fleece, at ULU two days later, then onto Oxford and the Kilburn National with Stereolab, by which time The Book Lovers had been on the radio and its spy-movie intro had the crowd swaying in time. A few weeks later Broadcast played a secret-ish show upstairs at the Garage. Rob Mitchell of Warp, another visionary who died far too young, was softly beaming as everyone toasted his newest and in the context of his label, most radical signing to date. Warp signing Broadcast felt like an incredibly empowering moment for all concerned and a few months later in 1997, the label duly rounded up the band’s releases to date on Work And Non Work. And then…….nothing.
The silence that followed, until it was broken by the band’s debut in 2000, is one of the most informative things about Broadcast. Having signed a record deal, they eschewed not only the conventional timescales of the music business – but just about anything else that interfered with their creativity and vision.
Their debut The Noise Made By People was flawlessly designed, as if The Aluminium Group had decided to start making sleek records rather than elegant and functional furniture. The follow up, Ha Ha Sound, sleeved in astonishingly original artwork by Julian House, was more refracted, dense with the foliage and instruments of cryptic European dream cinema.
By Tender Buttons, Broadcast were operating as a duo, with Keenan and her partner James Cargill perfecting a magical cold-war pop music. The album, so perfectly titled, was a collection of tone poems and textured static. One of its many highlights, Tears in the Typing Pool, combines a warmth and ennui, to say nothing of a heart-breaking lyric, which is now hard to listen to. Released in 2009, ‘Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio’ saw their ongoing collaboration with Julian House become musical as well as visual. Its drop off into wonderful, liminal psychedelia replaced the orthodoxies of sixties revisionism with a time-delayed collage of surface noise and incantation. The accompanying short films were testament to an intense and rewarding collaboration, giving the impression that the band and House, at the peak of their powers, had unearthed the location to a secret and haunted portal locked deep inside their collective perception.
There is another aspect to Keenan’s work, one that I’m barely qualified to write about – that of her stature as a woman, even among the more experimental spaces away from its mainstream, in a still male-dominated industry. Her self-confidence, her lyrics, her incredible style and perhaps most of all, her living embodiment of an artist, all ensured Keenan had a totemic presence and influence over anyone who found themselves clearing a similar path, through what is often a record-collecting boys club.
After fifteen years Broadcast had never felt so prescient and contemporary, their name setting off a palpable sense of wonder at where their next phase of exploration might take them.
In the quote above, Keenan talks of the self-help properties of psychedelia. Anyone who has listened to Broadcast, and it’s often a very personal and intimate experience, will have found in Keenan’s voice a sense of healing and respite. They will have also heard her confidence-building use of the imagination, and by her music they will have been unquestionably and uniquely transformed.
Richard King is a regular contributor to Caught By The River and the editor of the brilliant Loops magazine. He is currently finishing his first book – How Soon Is Now – a history of independent record labels.