How ‘Sŵn’ Is Noise: A Foggy Transmission

A few week’s ago I was approached by Cardiff’s Sŵn Festival Radio who asked if I would be interested in curating a programme for the ‘Experimental hour’, part of their week-long transmissions on 87.7FM (and online) for this year’s Sŵn Festival.  I didn’t need to be asked twice, particularly as fellow curators included Messers Robin Rimbaud and Connor Walsh aka ‘Scanner‘ and ‘that In The Dark chap’. The Festival may now be over but the archive of transmissions has now been put up on Mixcloud to be enjoyed and savoured FOREVER AND EVER, so I thought you’d appreciate a link.

As with life in general, the hour can be divided roughly in two, the first half bouncy and upbeat and the second rather more sinister. For all the amusing clippped voices speaking to you from the antique past, the moment Ken Nordine apparently phones himself up you just know that you’re in for a decidedly spooky time. There’s some misappropriated instructional recordings left over from my recent ‘Looking Good, Feeling Great‘ series for Resonance FM, an extract by Oscillatorial Binnage of an amplified Baptist Church and the hour ends with an exclusive 15-minute work entitled ‘The Foggy Transmitter’. It’s my salute to the secretive world of Numbers Stations documented so beautifully by Irdial’s Conet Project recordings, to Guglielmo Marconi‘s pioneering radio experiments at nearby Lavernock Point in 1897; and finally to the very modern development of online speech synthesisers and language translation engines, perhaps the latest ripple created by that enormous splash the great Italian inventor made on these shores 116 years ago (if you’ll forgive a clumsy metaphor – and a very long sentence). I was originally going to try and pass the whole thing off as a fake recording of a Welsh Numbers Station, but quickly realised nobody would be fooled for a second.

On a sombre note I’d like to dedicate this hour to fellow doyen of the mixing desk and expert speaker of Welsh, Mr. David March who provided me with some pointers when looking for Welsh language recordings and then suddenly and tragically died in Snowdonia on the week it was transmitted.  The World Service has lost a warm smile and a firm arm on the tiller. We will miss him greatly.

Another recent development I completely forgot to mention – new Howlround album Secret Songs Of Savamala featured as part of Monocle’s Culture Programme  a couple of weeks ago. You can hear the interview here, alongside a full hour of other stimulating stuff including Mark Kermode, Laura Cantrell and Massive Attack. What distinguished company I keep these days, albeit in ‘pre-recorded playlist’ form.  And then that affable fellow Strictly Kev of DJ Food fame went and reviewed it on his blog as well!

I haven’t been this excited since I was “book-ended” by Cliff Richard and that Jar Of Hearts woman, the name of whom I can’t be bothered to Google. I did have to Google Marconi’s first name, however, and use an online translation engine to work out how to pronounce it: ‘Goolie-Elmo’, apparently. Sounds horrific…

Spitting Bars Over Tracks – The Return Of The Public Information Film

Railway Tresspass
Trespassing on the railway – Dangerous but inexpensive.

As a child of the 1980s and an apparent member of what some are still calling the ‘Hauntology’ movement, it would hardly come as a surprise if I were to ruminate on the part played by Public Information Films in my cultural awakening. Indeed if you grew up in Britain at any point during the past forty years, there’s a chance that a number of these classic commercial-length dramas would have made a lasting impression on your psyche as well.

For those who are reading these words from afar or those who actually spent their childhoods engaged in wholesome outdoor pursuits in spite of the dangers, a classic PIF scenario would generally involve some young upstart in drainpipe trousers spotting an abandoned football in an electricity substation and advising his young upstart friends of his intentions to retrieve it and return a couple of uneventful minutes hence to instigate a kick-around. The only difficulty is that to get to said substation he has to cross a railway line, a busy intersection, a frozen pond and a sinister looking man brandishing sweets and puppies. Got the idea?

Aimed largely though not exclusively at children and screened during commercial breaks of the 1970s and 80s, they broadcast dire warnings about the manifold dangers of ever leaving the sofa (though in hindsight a few well-placed warnings about the implications of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles on our health might have proved more useful). Suffice to say that several generations of British children grew up just a little bit afraid of everything. For my part, the sight of a pylon still conjures up the sound of a sinisterly warbling modular synthesizer, while my fear of escalators persisted for years into my childhood after watching this as a toddler:

Anyway, the cultural legacy of these short films and their influence on artists such as Broadcast and labels such as Ghost Box (‘Nuclear Substation PIF’ from Mind How You Go by The Advisory Circle is a particularly fine example) has been documented many times before by people better qualified than me to do so. Why, then, am I mentioning all this now? It’s because last week I made a thrilling discovery. Public Information Films are BACK! And thanks to the involvement of some key players from the UK’s grime scene, they’ve been given a streetwise new twist!

Thank heavens that train wasn’t carrying a knife.

Previous generations might have had Alvin Stardust and John Pertwee escorting children to-and-from the Ice Cream van, but our modern yout-dem (if I may be so bold as to use the term) require a little more bang for their buck. Hence we find ourselves confronted with an expensive-looking sound system in a dimly-lit aircraft hangar, some synthesized heartbeats, an edgy voiceover with lots of glottal stops and a smattering of firm handshakes. Not a single kite to be found. This is how we roll in the 21st century.

While I’m very pleased to see the genre return, it’s hard to imagine just what kind of tragedy this film is intended to anticipate. Call me unsympathetic, but if you’re hare-brained enough to stand in the exact centre of eight inter-connecting railway lines then you deserve everything you’re going to get. More to the point, is this track design based on an actual, existing part of our railway infrastructure? If so, I think we should be worrying less about the safety of one law-breaking deliquent and more about the hundreds of innocent lives that will be lost in the event of a monumentally horrendous-though-admittedly spectacular eight-train pile-up catastrophe.

But returning to the matter in hand, both Wretch 32 and George The Poet fail entirely predictably and are killed to bits, though as the narrator thoughtfully reminds us, this was a controlled test, and therefore not quite as fatal as the real thing. To borrow another Hip Hop metaphor, they are slain virtually, like when MCs battle-rap.  ‘I thought this was going to be easy’ offers Wretch, who had clearly been operating thus-far under the misconception that Network Rail was making this film to promote  some kind of extreme form of trainspotting.  [I’m] not bragging or anything’, he confides, ‘but […] they told me I got 97% hearing which is like… the hearing of a brand new species‘.

No need to worry about bragging, Wretch, that’s a perfectly fair statement and only underlines your modesty and humility in defeat. You are, as your appropriately-titled hit single ‘Unorthodox’ reminds us, a new kind of restlessly creative genius fearlessly taking Hip Hop to epic new heights by sampling the catchy hook of an already very popular song by The Stone Roses and layering your pop-rap visions over the top. Using other people’s already very popular tracks to make your own hits is the kind of staggeringly original, game-changing idea that hardly anyone else in rap has EVER DONE, and the term ‘brand new species’ barely even scratches the surface.

Seriously, if a minor celebrity with a major label deal and THE HEARING OF A GOD can’t play safely on the railways, what hope do the rest of us have?  It’s a sobering lesson, though I must say I would have liked to have seen a third round of this test, where both rappers were asked to identify where the train was coming from and then forced to wait twenty bloody minutes for it to show up. Or perhaps we could programme some sort of  ‘First Capital Connect Couldn’t Run A Sodding Tap’ feature and cancel the whole thing at the last moment. I fear that such a scenario would be a much more accurate simulation of the state of our nation’s railways in the twenty-first century.

Minor criticisms such as these aside, this is an interesting new direction for the Public Information Films and a worthy addition to the canon.  And in the spirit of progress I’ve helpfully taken the liberty of coming up with some fresh new takes on classic public information films,  re-designed to appeal to the modern urban youth of today.  Any production companies interesting in discussing these ideas further are advised to send a cash-stuffed envelope to the usual address:

  • Lethal Bizzle neglects to don gloves while handling a sparkler (that’s a firework, not street-slang for jewellery)
  • Chipmunk leaves his Chip-pan unattended while polishing his floor and then puts a rug on it.
  • Example neglects to stand still on an escalator and makes an Example of himself. (very clever, that one)
  • Wiley, attempting to return to his ‘Eski-Boy’ roots, acts irresponsibly on a frozen pond
  • Dappy from N-Dubz attempts to rescue a frisbee from a substation (with surprisingly graphic-yet-cheering results).
  • Tinchy Strider goes kite flying near a pylon, while an elderly Bernard Cribbins looks on from the tree-tops, concerned..

Despite all this talk of new directions, it’s worth noting that incorporating Hip Hop into public safety announcements is not quite as recent a development as one might assume.  Marvel at this classic 1980s PIF in which Grandmaster Flash & The Sugarhill Gang’s grim ode to the violence, poverty and lawlessness of 1980s New York is re-appropriated to soundtrack little Jonny’s close encounter with a Vauxhall Astra.

It’s like a jungle sometimes.

Sadly the movement then took a wrong turn by investing in the briefly hip New Jack Swing sounds of the early 90s and serving up this turgid little stinker, an ode to the education system’s obligation to keep it’s charges fed that even at the time (and as part of the campaign’s intended demographic) I considered one of the most poorly-judged attempts at getting down with the kids ever.  Even Kurtis Blow would turn his nose up at this:

Clearly nobody involved in this nationwide campaign had ever been to Belah Primary, a school whose canteen was so bad that they were forced to bulldoze the entire place. Even incorporating a Kool & The Gang drum break while wearing a baseball cap sideways – usually the ultimate youth password – fails to convince. Did you notice the kid in the Hawaiian shirt who, unlike his table-mates, fails to meet your eye in the freeze-frame at the end? It’s because he knows that he has just implicated himself and all his friends in the DEATH OF HIP HOP.

‘Ghetto pass revoked’ as Blackalicious might have put it.  No wonder it’s taken them over twenty years to have another go.

In closing I thought I’d share this highly amusing escalator safety video I found on youtube. It’s not quite a public information film but it is interesting to watch how our stateside cousins handle similar subject matter and to speculate as to how anxious the video editor was to try out the new vision mixer he got for Christmas.  Groovy soundtrack too.

An illuminating video, but nobody seems to have thought of covering the dangers of mounting an escalator backwards in order to film the person behind you, or indeed allowing out-going scenes to float out of the window, where they could pose a danger to pedestrians.  While watching, I am struck by two thoughts. The first is that if I had only had access to this video as a toddler directly after being so horrified at the crushing of that wellington boot in the UK PIF mentioned earlier, I might have been spared years of nightmares  The second is the realisation that perhaps America’s rap community should make their own railway safety video? Partly because of Hip Hop culture’s long record of trespassing on the lines in order to ‘bomb whole cars’ with their graffiti tags, but mostly because having recently read a rather unpleasant interview with angry narcissist Chris Brown, I reckon putting eight trains on top of him would improve the gaiety of the nation no-end.

Well, that about does it for now. If anybody wants me I’ll be at the shunting yard. It’s a stupid name for a pub but they have a good jukebox…

Spools To Breaking Point

Photos by Joe Pitts. Spot the Ghost?

Presented for your approval, some sounds and images from last week’s top secret Howlround performance at Southwark’s Kirkcaldy Testing Museum. Top secret in the sense that I hadn’t actually been informed we were playing until the night before, which gave me little time to whip up my usual promotional storm.  Short notice, perhaps, but the chance to play alongside the behemoth machines housed inside this most fascinating Victorian testing site was irresistible. And that’s before we even mention our supporting of event hosts Oscillatorial Binnage as they prepared a very special site-specific performance.


As you can perhaps hear from this short extract, it proved to be one of our more ‘eventful’ sets, largely due to the mic stands we use to keep the loops taught proving less than stable on the uneven floorboards and the fourth Revox that serves as an echo unit proving inexplicably silent despite all our efforts at sound-checking. However, when you’re performing live improvised tape-collages using forty year-old reel-to-reel machines and an increasingly battered selection of loops, them’s the breaks; and the response from the surprisingly numerous crowd was most positive.  Among them was music critic Louise Gray who has written some very complimentary things about us as well as uploading some photos of the event on her blog, ahead of a reported review in next month’s Wire magazine:

…[C]an I also plug Robin The Fog and Chris Weaver’s Howlround’s two site-specific albums, Ghosts of Bush and, released last month, The Secret Sounds of Savamala, in all their strange and wonderful glory. They are the sonic equivalent of Rachel Whiteread’s casts of empty spaces.  

Anyway, before our heads get too big after such an accolade,  please enjoy some video highlights courtesy of cameraman Tommo and his Three Trousers blog. I particularly enjoyed the slow-motion bit at the end where our performance appears to have left the audience glassy-eyed and shell-shocked:

After we’d finished and bundled our sorry-looking loops back into the various Rover Biscuit Assortment tins they’d arrived in, it was time for the main act. Oscillatorial Binnage is/are Dan Wilson, Toby Clarkson, Fari Bradley and  of course my Howlround counter-part Chris Weaver (though I still can’t quite work out which one of us he’s moon-lighting). For this one-off performance, the group presented a series of sonic works exploring and utilising The Kirkaldy Testing Museum machines as electro-acoustic instruments. Piano strings were stretched, wood blocks crushed, metal grilles vibrated and everyday materials placed under extreme stresses to draw out their unusual musical properties. The highlight of the performance was the amplified action of the 450-tonne Kirkaldy machine itself going to work on a plank of wood while a well-placed contact mic captured the sound of it’s demise. It was loud, abrasive and really quite thrilling. It’s probably easier just to show you, so we turn once again to the documentary skills of Tommo:

I certainly can’t remember the last time a room full of people got this excited about wood. Thanks very much to the Merge Festival for helping to organise such an unusual event,  Joe for these rather groovy photographs, and to the good folk of the Kirkcaldy Testing Museum for having us. They’re a registered charity run by volunteers and surviving entirely on donations, so do please dig deep and help preserve this fascinating piece of our industrial heritage. Then perhaps we can come back and play again next year!  We could even find out what would happen if we subjected our quater-inch tape to such tensioning experiments?!  A very short performance and a lots of angry demands for refunds, I’ll wager…