Songs From The Shipyards
Harbour Lights Cinema
Ocean Village, Southampton
29th October 2012
Rachel Unthank- vocal
Becky Unthank- vocal
Niopha Keegan – violin, vocal
Chris Price – guitar, vocal
Adrian McNally – piano, vocal, harmonium, bass drum.
I’ve seen The Unthanks five times in eighteen months, during which time they’ve released four albums … Last; Diversions 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnstons and Diversions 2: The Unthanks with The Brighouse and Rastrick Band. And now we’re onto Diversions 3: Songs From The Shipyards, and their fourth visit to the Southampton / Eastleigh / Portsmouth area. They must be the hardest-working and most productive band in Britain. The reason they’re worth seeing five times is that each show is radically different from the one before.
This time though, it’s even a different medium. They’re appearing in a cinema and performing live to a film, so doing two shows in the evening. A film with live music? A dilemma. What do you watch? Silent films were accompanied, perhaps by a pianist in the fleapit at the end of the street, or an organist with elaborate consoles at the plusher Odeon in the town centre. When Intolerance had its premiere in 1916, it had a full orchestra and choir playing a specially composed score by Joseph Carl Breil in the auditorium. In 1989, they tried to reproduce that in New York with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestras and a twelve voice choir. Another comparison, is the more elaborate light shows projected onto bands in the pyschedelic sixties. What do you watch?
The shipbuilding songs project is one they’ve been talking about at most concerts in the last two years, and was planned to be in seafaring towns. Southampton was and still is the hub for the big ocean going liners, and had a major dry dock for overhauls, rather than initial shipbuilding. The original shipbuilding centre was Bucklers Hard on the Beaulieu River, just a few miles away. But that was building the wooden ships for Nelson’s navy from the oaks of the New Forest (which is why the forest is now mostly somber pine), and its neat 18th century terrace in its picturesque setting now is a far cry from the steel and rivets and sparks and clang and clatter of Tyneside, the Clyde or Belfast. For musicians, Southampton has its own special Musicians Union memorial: the Titanic memorial to the band (Southampton men) who played as the ship went down. However, Nearer My God to Thee, their alleged closing number, is a long way from the shipbuilding songs of The Unthanks.
Songs From The Shipyards is not a silent film. It’s a documentary composed of archive film, some of which has soundtrack, and some not. I assume all of it originally had soundtrack, even if voice over. There are places where The Unthanks provide the live music, places where the film takes over with dialogue or interview or recorded music or folk song, and places where the film stops to allow The Unthanks to complete a song. It’s subtle, beautifully timed. Sometimes the sound from the film continues during and under the song (boats moving, a dog barking).
The band perform dressed in black, simple and weak light on their faces as individuals take centre stage. They’re on the auditorium floor below the screen. The evening begins with three audio only tracks, spoken voice immediately quelling the conversation. As in all classic film evenings, an animated short starts the show. This one is to the recording of The Unthanks Last. The short is black and white with one touch of colour … something silent film often did with hand-tinting. the classic being when the red flag opens on the Battleship Potemkin. It’s poignant and sad.
The band come on and the film begins. The archive footage from only 60 or 70 years ago is so distant from now. The songs are pure and melodic. The film takes us through the pride and glory of Tyne shipbuilding, and through World War II to the big tankers of the 60s. Then comes Thatcher and the Falklands War. I’d never seen the terrifying detailed film of the British navy ships hit by Exocet missiles before, this blends into the destruction of the shipyards themselves, and we see the community from the shipyards in a series of B&W stills. The war footage is strangely reminiscent of late 60s / early 70s lightshows … I remember seeing ones projected in Britain and Germany which intercut Vietnam War footage with improbable very close up porn … we were spared the latter. In those light shows of the past, the war footage was an excuse for a screaming guitar solo with feedback, perhaps the guitarist thinking he (it was always he) would replicate the chaos. Here the war footage was accompanied by gentle, sad reflective music to far greater effect.
The film as a whole is deeply moving as a portrayal of the destruction of a way of life, an industry and a community, so much so that going home, I felt bad that Southampton (a city bombed terribly in the war, just like Tyneside) was presenting itself with the luxury yachts of the Ocean Village Marina outside the cinema, rather than with the cruise ship berths and busy freight terminals a couple of miles to the west. No big ships were in tonight, but this summer they had the seven biggest cruise ships all in at the same time. There are still mighty ships in Southampton Water. And that’s the point. None of them were built in Britain. Thatcher’s government, unlike those of Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea declined to subsidise an industry whose workers consistently voted against her. We exported an entire industry, then demolished the infrastructure.
The album, Diversions Vol. 3 Songs From the Shipyards. presents the music. I can’t see that you can do much more. It was a very special experience watching it live. They could (and hopefully will) combine it on DVD, but there will still be the group only sequences with a blank screen or more likely a cut to the performers. The songs are by Jez Lowe (Black Trade, Monkey Dung Man, Taking On Men) and by Alex Glasgow (All In A Day, Tyne Slides By), Archie Fisher and Bobby Campbell (Farfield Crane … sung impeccably and solo by Rachel Unthanks), with Rudyard Kipling words for Big Steamers. Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding is The Unthanks trademark unexpected cover version. Adrian McNally wrote The Romantic Tees (Prelude). Only Remembered by John Tams was performed over the credits.
I wouldn’t say this is a “diversion” so much as a worthy mainstream successor to “Last”. It’s a superb collection of songs. All five sing, and at points all five sing together. This film / concert experience is a creative and artistic triumph.