Summary of J. Willgoose Esq’s keynote

Opening the third and final day of Conference – with a day theme of ‘ourprofession’ –  and using a powerful combination of images, musicand narrative, J. Willgoose Esq. set out the evolution of the band PublicService Broadcasting, and some of the key moments for the band’smusical evolution and relationship with records.

Conf pic 5For the audience, this was not only an exposure to the dynamism of the creative process, but very much an insight, too, into the perspective of a creative ‘user’ of archives and records. J Willgoose, Esq. stressed the power and impact of people saying ‘yes’ to requests for support/access, especially during the early years of his music career, when he and the band were less well known.

The first phase – if it can be described as such – of the band’s musical interface with records was using audio from public information films to help create structure around the music (for example the ‘Three Things’ health ministry film about controlling germs in the 1940s.). He had first seen and accessed this short film on the UK National Archives website from material transferred by the British Film Institute (BFI).

The second phase was adapting/using archival film to stimulate and increase audience engagement with the live music, to add ‘personality’ and context. The third phase – which led to the ground-breaking album Inform - Educate – Entertain – used BFI material (of UK, US and wider origin) in a more integrated fashion, though there was deliberately no central theme running though the album. The breakthrough moment for this album was the positive response the band received from making a phone call to the BFI seeking advice/help.

It was with The Race for Space album that the band began to develop a single theme around which to incorporate a variety of archival material and use the ‘power of the archive to drive the narrative’. This involved some of the detailed research of primary sources, the archives of the NASA Apollo programme. Given the huge amount of material available, the band benefitted hugely from the cataloguing work (for example, the flight journal of Apollo 8) undertaken by David Woods and Frank O’Brien.

Wanting also to add a Soviet dimension to the album – and some creative/dramatic tension – J. Willgoose, Esq. reconnected with the BFI (given the difficulty in accessing primary Soviet archival material and the culture of secrecy that still surrounds much of it). BFI had a ‘Soviet List’ of propaganda films from the 1960s on its stocks, so the band was able to deploy some of that successfully into the mix.

The most recent fifth phase (leaving aside the recent White Star Liner EP, a short-term project), led to the ground-breaking album Every Valley, centred on the coalfields of south Wales and the impact of closures since the 1980s. For this album, the archival research process – like a ‘net widening out’ - became much more detailed, including listening to oral history recordings in the South Wales Miners’ Library in Swansea; the band even carried out ‘primary’ interviews of people connected to the mining community. The band decided to write and record in Ebbw Vale, at the Leeders Vale Studios, seeking to maximise creative inspiration from the local setting, and again drew on BFI archival films developed by the former UK National Coal Board (some of which had a disturbing irony and complacency to viewers seeing them now).

One outcome of the renewed relationship with the BFI was that the band was able to contribute financially to the digitisation of some of the original film and sound material in the BFI collection that it used in the album. The lesson for the audience was the potential for collaboration to develop in two ways, to the benefits of both partners. The album also saw the integration of Idris Davies’s writing and collaborative support from James Dean Bradfield of Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers, as well as important material inspired by the ecollection at the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield (very close to our Leeds Conference venue).

In response to audience questions, J. Willgoose, Esq. encouraged records professionals to think flexibly and understand the power of ‘yes’ to even the most ‘weird-sounding’ ideas and approaches. This became especially important when it came to copyright – most smaller organisations (even to BFI size) had proven to be very flexible, without which the creative process could have been stymied. The same was not true of larger (unnamed) private sector media entities, who demanded unrealistic licensing fees to access their archival material. Also, again, the vital importance of excellent cataloguing – enabling people who ‘know the kind of thing they want to find’ to get there quickly and efficiently. As the creative process was not always linear – the music and records often ‘hover around each other’ – a willingness to engage and be patient is equally important.

On how repositories might reach out more to creative communities, J. Willgoose, Esq. recommended inviting a range of artists – visual, literary, music, film, etc. to explore the repositories and seek inspiration. But to think differently: perhaps not the usual network of ‘established’ people, but those who think alternatively – and might be thought of as ‘alternative’. Having a local root or connection could be important, but not always. In terms of the band’s next album, he was understandably tight-lipped (!) but promised something musically different from work to date – a new challenge and a new exploration.