Employing a symphony of samples, London duo Public Service Broadcasting know a thing or two about using pre-recorded material. Like the rest of debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain, new single Theme For PSB which was released on Monday (12 August) takes old public information films and weaves them into a new soundscape. However with the band with the band in the midst of a summer tour what does that reliance on pre-records mean for “playing live”? PSB couldn’t be more upfront about their tapes (it’s almost the point), but there many live acts rely heavily on backing tracks yet don’t advertise the fact. In a guest column PSB’s J Willgoose examines whether pressing play is the same as playing live…
Growing up in the mid-to-late 1990s at the height of the Britpop boom (Noel Gallagher is probably correct in my case when he states that “I’m the reason you play guitar”), I remember hearing a story – possibly apocryphal, it must be said – about the Liverpool band Space. Their biggest hit was The Female of the Species, and apparently it featured a break before the final chorus that was too hard to produce live, so they had to play it off CD each night instead. The story was that their support band – I can’t remember who, but possibly Octopus (remember them?) or someone like that – were so incensed by this betrayal of live music that one night they switched the CD for one of their own, and equal parts hilarity and embarrassment ensued. How dare Space not play everything live? They got their comeuppance alright.
Whether or not that story is true, thinking about it today illustrates, for me, how the attitudes to live music and performance have almost totally changed. These days practically everyone – and I mean almost everyone, with the exception of obvious throwbacks like The White Stripes, or whoever Jack White happens to be playing with this week – plays to some form of backing track or click live. If you don’t believe me, try and line up at the front of the stage at a festival to hear the stage crew check the monitors. I almost guarantee you that at some point they’ll ask to hear “track”. Normally it’ll be the drummer at the back, wearing in-ear monitors, who controls the starting and stopping of each song, and there’ll either be a laptop or redundant play out system (depending on budget) lurking somewhere on stage keeping the performance on track – or on rails, if you prefer. They put it at the back of the stage because they don’t want you to know it’s there, and they don’t want you to know they’re using it. But it is, and they are.
Still don’t believe me? Have a listen to this video of Paul McCartney at the Olympics last year (below). He clearly starts the song ahead of the backing track, and the first fifteen seconds or so are a complete shambles. Then, whoever’s in charge of playback finally twigs, and manages to realign the pre-recorded vocal with the live one. Admittedly McCartney is getting on a bit, and his vocal parts were always very high, so you don’t begrudge him getting by with a little help from his pre-recorded friends. But if even the custodian of The Beatles‘ legacy is at it, [though to be fair as a major, televised world-event there is an entirely different set of logistical considerations compared to take into account] then trust me, they pretty much all are.
And by “they”, I also mean “we”, because of course my musical outfit Public Service Broadcasting are by no means exempt from this trend. There are only two of us, for a start, charged with recreating the sounds of an entire album. I’d love to have ten musicians on stage every gig playing everything live, but sadly our modest budgets (far more modest than Sir Paul’s, I can tell you) preclude that as a realistic option. Instead we rely a lot on live looping (both MIDI and audio), with some parts coming off tape. We don’t hide the laptop, to be fair – it’s pretty much front and centre for every show – and I think most people accept the trade-off between a genuine live performance, which I believe our show very much is, and syncing everything up with video and backing elements. We clearly don’t portray ourselves as a regular, authentic ‘band’, instead landing somewhere in the middle ground between electronica and guitar music – but it still makes me feel, occasionally, uncomfortable.
It also makes me wonder how the paying audience feels about this kind of thing. I’ve seen bands turn up to some pretty big gigs with the whole set pre-loaded onto a laptop as one hour-long stereo file, then play a few notes on a synth or guitar while the laptop does the hard work, or the frontman sings along to 18 perfectly-tuned vocal harmonies coming off a computer. Isn’t that a bit of a con? Do people realise that that’s what’s going on? Do they care? I don’t know, but, personally speaking, I care. One of the reasons I got so frustrated with going to see electronic acts was that – apart from the fact that the visual spectacle on offer quite often descended into man-checking-his-emails-on-stage – you really have no musical engagement with what’s going on in front of you. Someone may, indeed, be twiddling a knob very cleverly, but unless you really know what’s going on and what to listen out for then you may as well be at home, so indistinguishable from the record are the results. When you have an act as big as deadmau5, who is refreshingly candid, it must be said, admitting that “given about one hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of music software Ableton and music tech in general could DO what I’m doing at a deadmau5 concert” (read his full blog post), you might assume they’re all at it.
But deadmau5 is speaking about the world of electronic dance music, long dismissed by guitar-obsessed purists as fake, artificial and “not really music”. I wonder if those same people who champion today’s alternative and indie bands are aware of how reliant a great deal of them are on exactly the same technology, and are almost as on-rails as, say, a Fatboy Slim DJ set. We’re not just talking about the odd bit of backing vocal here or there, either – it’s not uncommon for authentic bands (I know one Mercury-nominated one, for example, who you wouldn’t expect to follow this trend but very much do) to turn up with 16, or even 32, or even more, channels of playback. That’s before the engineers have even mic’d up the drums, guitars, bass, synths and vocals – no wonder they need digital desks with a hundred-plus inputs these days! And speaking of engineers, there’s a new breed out there who certainly didn’t exist 15 years ago – playback engineers. There’s a reason for that…
Part of it will be the technology being better and more reliable, but I suspect a bigger part of it will be the reliance on profit from gigs. In the past, bands could tour and hope to break even, safe in the knowledge that album sales would be massively boosted and that’d be where the money came from. Nowadays the tables have flipped almost entirely, and bands who haven’t toured for years are reforming because the record company cheques have dried up. One of the biggest side effects of all this is that despite all the increased cash flowing around gigs these days, perversely, I would bet good money that fewer musicians for bigger shows are being hired. Why blow extra cash on four or five session players (plus their meals, hotels, per diems and transport) when you can have it come off tape, note perfect, night after night? I suspect the Musicians’ Union are aware of the irony, but I equally suspect that they don’t approve of the situation.
So does any of this matter to the most important people in the equation, the audience? Live shows sound great these days, that’s for sure. How could they not, with bands of our era being able to play along to studio-quality backing tracks through more powerful and more accurate PA systems than ever before? To me it boils down to what audiences really expect from a live performance. What is the point of seeing a band, or act, live? Is it to see your heroes in the flesh, to watch them on stage playing their instruments? Is it to experience the amazing light show (again a sign that a performance could be “on rails”)? Is it to hear it really, really loud? Is it to see if they can pull it off, or add anything to their recordings, or take them up a level? Or is it merely to be in the same room, or field, as thousands of other like-minded people, all joined together by a shared love of the music being played?
I suspect there are hundreds of answers to that question and quite a lot of people simply don’t care. But for me, live music should have an element of risk, and an element of danger. It should be capable of going quite spectacularly wrong. Singers should be able to hit wrong notes, harmonies should occasionally go out of whack, drummers should go out of time – it should be the aural equivalent of a tightrope walk. There should also be room for improvisation, even if only in small measures. How else are you supposed to be able to tell a good performance from a bad one?
That’s where I do feel 100 percent comfortable with our live show, as it genuinely is different every time, in that something different always goes wrong (and it is, almost always, my fault). Our set-up is, I hope, endearingly Heath Robinson-esque, which allows variety and difference by dint of sheer unreliability. We don’t seek to recreate perfectly the album performance, rather to make it better, louder, harder, and occasionally wrong-er – but, crucially, different. Of course there’s always room for improvement, and as we go on we’ll look at ways of making our show more dynamic and more changeable. But bands who chase studio quality performances by relying on redundant playout systems which never go wrong – unless someone like Sir Paul ballses it up, as he did at the Olympics – remove spontaneity from the performance, taking any element of risk or danger out of the equation entirely. I don’t know about you, but a performance without risk or danger doesn’t sound very much like rock and roll to me.
But what do I know? I’m at it too, until I can afford not to be. Most of us are. Do you care? Should you care? You’re the audience: you decide.
For more head to Publicservicebroadcasting.net.