Despite garnering much critical praise Public Service Broadcasting‘s Every Valley, a concept album about the Welsh mining industry and its legacy, has not been immune from some pointed criticism. Here Craig Austin offers his own take on the release and takes issues with the allegations of cultural appropriation that have been levelled at the band.
In the decades since its demise the cultural legacy of the South Wales mining industry has assumed a seemingly untouchable status all of its own. One that acts as both a magnet for those who seek to claim a hitherto undeclared personal association with an era of brutal toil that their soft white hands will never touch, and as the noble embodiment of a more honourable era of personal opportunity and self-worth.
For many like me these memories exist only in the scribbled margins of a South Wales childhood; an industrial dispute that felt so tangible in its aims and its location, yet within an industry that employed not a single member of my own family nor the father or uncles of a single friend. From our concrete step at the foot of the valley we lived mainly alongside those whose wages were drawn from the motor industry, the NHS and local government. The handful of miles that distanced us from the coal seams might has well have run into three figures, such was the cultural disconnect between the valleys and the growing urban sprawl at its edges.
Yet for others it was not even a requirement for a loved one to be in the employ of the mining industry for it to have had an all-embracing influence upon lives and livelihoods. A recent conversation between my wife – an actual valley girl – and her father, recalled childhood memories of being teased by him about the numerous clips in her hair and the spurious notion that they were collectively magnetic enough to risk her becoming attached to the overhead cable carts that still transported coal above the streets of the towns and villages below. Her father was not a miner, nor his own father before him, yet the industry itself was so deeply embedded in the community that its presence continues to weave its way into the sepia-tinged recollections and memories of the era.
Within this context there are those who would refute my own entitlement to dare to represent the legacy of the South Wales mining industry – and most pointedly, the 84/85 strike – via any kind of artistic form. To them, not least because I have spent the vast majority of my adult life in London, I would be viewed as an interloper, an arriviste, or – worse – a cultural appropriator. In a recent, admittedly atypical, hatchet-job Luke Turner of The Quietus sees fit to utilise the recent release of Every Valley – a project that seeks to chronicle the rise and decline of the Welsh coal industry – as the perfect opportunity to spew a torrent of critical magma upon its creators, the London-based Public Service Broadcasting. A concentrated build-up of an evidently longstanding resentment for sure, but one irrefutably laced with the charge that they had no cultural right to have taken on a project of this nature in the first place.
That the tipping point for this outburst-in-waiting should be this album, of all of PSB’s recorded output, is perhaps the most baffling development. Though the band’s artistic focus to date has primarily. been that of historic war – either hot, or in the case of 2015’s The Race for Space, cold – there is an unspoken cognisance within Every Valley that the impact of the closure of the pits continues to touch so many of the communities whose black lungs the industry once breathed life into. With this in mind the archive audio footage that has acted as PSB’s calling card since 2012’s The War Room EP is – given the extant sensitivity of the subject matter – utilised in ways that overtly seek to avoid any sense of grandstanding or gimmickry. Interspersed within this are excepts from contemporary interviews undertaken by the band with members of the Ebbw Vale former mining community, the town’s Institute being the location in which the recording of the Every Valley project was both undertaken and debuted.
Not that PSB are entirely immune from charges of gimmickry of course. If you’re resolutely determined to unleash your ire upon them I’d maybe save it for the band’s seemingly Hendricks-sponsored nom de plumes – J. Willgoose Esq. anyone? – that would appear to have emanated from an especially lazy editorial meeting of The Chap magazine.
Rooted in this censure is also the peculiar notion that an industry whose reputation seems so closely entwined with its demise can only be portrayed within a cap-doffing framework of portent and pain. That two of the album’s strongest tracks, ‘Progress’ and ‘They Gave Me a Lamp’ are both musically and spiritually uplifting is to the album’s credit, not its detriment. A point driven home by the more earnest and formulaic ‘Turn No More’, a vocal performed by teenage Gwent boy James Dean Bradfield, yet one that lacks the emotional subtlety and power of his own band’s beautifully haunting and elegiac ‘Rewind The Film’. The Welsh language is also represented via Lisa Jên Brown’s beguiling contribution to ‘You + Me’ – a presence that elicits a pompous and exasperated ‘finally!’ from Luke Turner, as if the South Wales valleys are somehow a cultural hotbed of the mother tongue.
As a society, and as a nation, we should resist any such attempts to romanticise or rewrite either our past or our present and to PSB’s credit Every Valley succeeds in striking a delicately human balance between the two. Its focus is undeniably Welsh but its themes of self-determination, self-respect, and self-discovery have universal resonance.
Its title, in this era of austerity, Brexit, and rampant social inequality, is deliberately all-embracing. As an act of sincerity and as an act of art we should be happy to wrap our arms around it.
Every Valley is out now on PIAS Recordings