The Noise Made By People Turns 20
To look at Broadcast 20 years after their full-length debut The Noise Made By People is to confront the idea of what “psychedelic” meant at the end of the 20th century, both before and after they made their mark. Case in point: The first place you likely heard their music was coming across “The Book Lovers” on the soundtrack to 1997’s go-go spy spoof Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, and the last was almost assuredly the foley-room-nightmare score to 2012’s psychotronic existential thriller Berberian Sound Studio. How pop culture got from one of those points to the other is a process far more involved than just one band can encompass. But the fact that Broadcast was around for it all, from campy comedy to uncanny eeriness, means that even their first full-length album felt like a crucial step towards a more sophisticated, less caricatured notion of what psychedelia even meant for a new millennium.
The Noise Made By People is in an odd position itself: It’s such an accomplished debut album that it obscures the years-long struggle it took to come out, but it’s also considered more of a component of a body of work than a particularly definitive standout effort. It came at the peak of the idea of Broadcast as a singles band — between 1999 and 2000 they released three of them, plus the two Extended Play EPs — but the instrumental album-track abstractions that would be considered filler on another band’s records turned out to be just as crucial to Broadcast’s reputation in the future.
And as much as it can invite stylistic nods to pop music of the past — the soundtrack work of late ’60s and early ’70s Pink Floyd in passing; the brilliant one-off primitive-synth psych of the United States Of America’s sole 1968 LP by design — it’s not easy to pigeonhole as “retro,” despite the press’ best efforts. In approaching musical ideas of the psychedelic era in the environment of the post-Britpop indie-pop boom, Broadcast somehow wound up avoiding the watermarks of both eras and put out an album that sounded like neither. It actually sounds just as much 2020 as it does 1968 or 2000 — and not just because they and their friends, like Ghost Box co-founder and visual artist Julian House, so vividly embodied the UK-centric, Scarfolk-oid, Control-freakish notion of Brutalist, J.G. Ballardian modern-psych uncanniness that permeates the more brain-warping regions of our current atmosphere.
That’s because for all their immersion in psychedelia, that aesthetic’s more the means than the end; what they aim for specifically is a vein of pop that almost nobody had bothered to explore. In the 1960s you had early-peak Motown and Phil Spector girl-group pop on one side of a massive chasm that could trade echoes with synth experimentalists, spaghetti Western themes, and oddball library records on the other, but the idea to create hooky, melodic pop songs from ingredients of both wasn’t a regular occurrence. You could find more precise hints of Broadcast’s precedent if you knew where to look — Carole King’s one-off band the City, maybe, or the early electronic music of Mort Garson and Silver Apples — but the release of The Noise Made By People was greeted with the kind of waylaid amazement that frequently treated Broadcast’s music like some sort of unanticipated otherworldliness. If writers scrambling for a cohort didn’t click right — singer/multiinstrumentalist Trish Keenan shrugged off Stereolab and Portishead comparisons in a contemporaneous CMJ profile — then comparisons to transmissions from outer space or the soundtrack to a film noir that doesn’t exist could do fine, as NME did in their borderline rave.
But Broadcast didn’t come from a mysterious extraterrestrial probe or a smoky French recording studio on Jean-Pierre Melville’s franc. They came from Birmingham, where Black Sabbath had synthesized horror-film unreality and the more gnarled corners of psychedelia to their own ends and changed rock for the bloodier a couple decades previous. Keenan and bassist James Cargill, the Broadcast braintrust, got into band-formation mode after repeatedly crossing paths at assorted ’90s garage-psych nights in the city. By 1995 they’d channel their shared interest in experimental pop into a band that, with the addition of keyboardist Roj Stevens, guitarist Tim Felton, and drummer Steve Perkins, would put them in Duophonic Super 45s company with Stereolab and nab them a Peel session just two singles into their career. (That particular session includes the first public recording of future The Noise Made By People material, with “City in Progress” as the second song in the set.)
It’s easy to hear why they touched so many twisted nerves: There was a particular DIY appeal to a band with a background of self-taught musicianship that, in Keenan’s words to CMJ, translated their interest in “intricate music by people who really know their shit” into “this weird area where… you’re limited to your technique, and it comes out in a weird or unusual way.” Not with the adolescent, noisy bluntness of punk or garage rock, but something more immersively mysterious. Still, even in their early work, it’s impossible to listen to Keenan’s voice and come away with a sense of amateurishness. As someone whose ear for pop was as instinctual as it was adventurous, she was able to transmute that into one of the most graceful voices to front an indie-pop band, ever: melodies that sound like someone reacting to wonder for the first time and providing it for someone else in the process. Sophisticated and hinting at old-soul experience beyond her years, yet to-the-point enough to emphasize the evocative simplicity in her lyrics’ language, Keenan’s singing voice was the most immediately arresting component of a group hardly content to settle for workaday rocking out.
What kept The Noise Made By People from capitalizing quickly on that fast-building circa-’97 buzz, unfortunately, was a succession of misguided producers who thought rocking out was what would make them stars. After three strikes’ worth of dealing with wannabe auteurs attempting to steer them towards something more radio-ready — and replacing Pram-bound Perkins for new drummer Keith York — Broadcast capped off a nearly three-year album recording process by finishing all the production and engineering themselves (with a bit of a motivational assist from Squarepusher). While this earned them a rep for difficulty in the studio, The Noise Made By People seemed to arrive fully lived-in as a result, an unfiltered culmination of worried-over sounds that felt like they’d plugged a hole in a musical negative space that was waiting decades for them.
It’s a remarkable album just on a pure listening basis. Figuring out the specifics of their equipment is best left to the gearheads, and while it’s fun to speculate what kind of resurrected old analog synths, ring modulators, ribbon mics, and effects pedals might have been scrounged up and daisy-chained into operation, hearing the end result as this ineffable swirl of extrasensory stimuli is a hell of a lot more immersive. Losing track of where reverb ends and new chords begin, sinking into the blurred interplay of bass and keyboards, finding all the richness in the nuances of Keenan’s clear-toned enunciations — it’s enough to promote the idea that psychedelia doesn’t even need hallucinogenics to turn your mind around when insinuations of the out-there can sneak through the notes and inspire visions you never knew you had.
And if that level of immersion isn’t enough to fend off accusations of space-age-bachelor-pad throwback kitsch, the proof arrives in the lyrics, which work at untangling interpersonal dynamics in ways that turn love-song tropes into psychological deep-dives. “Come On Let’s Go,” which reimagines early ’60s girl-group pop as Joe Meek’s satellite transmissions penetrating Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, is a personal solidarity pledge (“You won’t find it by yourself, you’re gonna need some help/ And you won’t fail with me around”) doubling as a retreat from aimless approval-seeking (“stop looking for answers in everyone’s face”). “Papercuts,” the hissing, foggy noir-jazz waltz which debuted on the Extended Play a month earlier, attempts to cut through a partner’s shifty facade not with anger or guilt but with a post-chorus that seems more reassuring than anything else (“Don’t be so afraid/ There’s bound to be a place/ No matter who or where you are/ You’ve got to be willing”). And “City In Progress” is a slice of hopeful hero-worship with just the slightest undercurrent of anxious desperation (“Show us the way ’cause we need a place to escape to”).
The Noise Made By People was released on Warp on March 20, 2000, when the label was still best-known as a hotbed of IDM — with Squarepusher, Autechre, and Aphex Twin as their Big Three of sorts, and the recently-emergent Boards Of Canada opening the door for more hauntological sounds. Broadcast were a comparatively unusual fit with the label when they released their 1997 singles compilation Work And Non Work; the last time the label signed anyone more readily classifiable as rock rather than dance music was when their imprint Gift Records took a chance on a struggling indie band called Pulp in 1992. But The Noise Made By People was widely lauded by the music press, earned Broadcast a healthy cult following, and gave them at least a few more brushes with mainstream pop culture more dignified than Austin Powers — like “You Can Fall” finding itself in the company of the Velvet Underground, Can, and Lee “Scratch” Perry on the soundtrack to 2002’s Morvern Callar. At the very least, their status as a go-to band for adventurous music geeks was assured, even if the closest mainstream America would get to them would be the “Echo’s Answer” sample on the last track of Michelle Branch’s Platinum album The Spirit Room.
Their later excursions were just as tumultuous and labored-over, with 2003’s kaleidoscopic future-pastoral Haha Sound a comparable success, but also the last thing they’d do as a full-band unit. 2005’s Tender Buttons reinvented the group as a taut Keenan/Cargill duo with sparser sounds — drum-machine minimalism that yanked late ’70s/early ’80s synthpop back a decade into spark-flinging, patch-corded BBC Radiophonic Workshop primordialism. And at the end of the decade they formed something of a hauntological-psych supergroup with Julian House, who’d given the band their visual identity since the sleeve of their (and his) debut single and went on to Ghost Box and his own musical entity, the Focus Group. By this point, they all seemed just as fascinated with the idea of creating memory-stirring, spectre-evoking lost transmissions from half-remembered and unsettling media as they were in making actual pop songs.
It’s a heartbreak to think of what further explorations were taken from us when Trish Keenan died on January 14, 2011 of complications from H1N1-spurred pneumonia. The Berberian Sound Studio score, which she co-composed with Cargill, was their first and only shot at soundtracking a film that actually existed somewhere besides their own minds or that of their listeners; for a group so visually minded and sonically narrative, it became both a fitting coda and a dismaying what-if. But Keenan’s fascination with the occult and the otherworldly was an odd mirror of Sabbath’s — benevolent and beckoning towards hidden worlds, instead of a sinister punishment for man’s folly — and it makes a skeptic-defying sort of sense to think that she believed in ghosts so deeply that her spirit’s still around somewhere. (Did her labelmate Flying Lotus actually sample “Dead The Long Year” for his Thom Yorke collab “Electric Candyman,” or did Keenan spectrally insinuate her sounds into it?) That’s the thing about transcendence: If you take it at face value, you’ll always hear someone’s voice when you want to. Keenan sang it herself on The Noise Made By People’s leadoff cut “Long Was the Year”: “Be like the sun, never gone.”