In the early days of radio the maritime distress signal was not S-O-S, as Abba would have us believe, it was C-Q-D. Derived from the first syllable of the French word sécurité and with the standard attachment D, which denoted urgency. Until 1906 when the German Notzeichen replaced it as standard*. The shipping of a certain stubborn, change-resistant little island resisted such standardisation and was still using C-Q-D up to a decade later.
On 15th April 1912 radio operator Jack Phillips sent out the single most famous instance of the C-Q-D distress signal. A famously unsinkable ship had just hit a rather chilly immovable object.
106 years later Public Service Broadcasting were commissioned to compose and perform an original piece of music on the Titanic Slipways in Belfast, where a certain ship was built, White Star Liner was the result. I was excited to snaffle a copy of this 12″ EP when it was released late last year.
Now I adore Public Service Broadcasting unreservedly, I am an utter sucker for their play-along-a-archive approach to various historical/cultural topics. It’s not a view I share with many but their 2017 LP Every Valley was I think, their best to date, a sensitive and poignant examination of the decline of the coal industry in South Wales, which rocked rather groovily indeed in places. I am a real sucker for their clever clogs chic and I may have mentioned them once or twice before.
Well needless to say White Star Liner is certainly no let down.
The band start by paying tribute to the immense industrial pride in Belfast at having built the Titanic in ‘The Unsinkable Ship’. It is a steadily-building major chord treat, interlaced with some nice trumpet touches. The music is interspliced with an interview with an awesomely gravel-voiced chap recalling with wonder his shipbuilder father taking him to see the ship he was working on. I find second track ‘White Star Liner’ to be a bit PSB-by-the-numbers, it’s spritely and melodic but soon forgotten, one of the very few false steps in their canon.
Flip the disc and we get two tracks about the sinking and the aftermath, ‘C-Q-D’ and ‘The Deep’. For me this is where White Star Liner really earns its’ corn. It is tastefully done, of course, and there is a wealth of understated emotion packed into these grooves – from the discordant chiming guitar on ‘C-Q-D’, synth waves crashing overhead, to the quiet determination of, survivor, Eva Hart talking about the wreck’s status as a grave**. It is quite brilliant.
I will say that White Star Liner is a rather splendidly packaged 12″, the letter insert – using the correct White Star Line logo, naturally, is a classy touch.
I appreciate that this is a 12″ single only, with music written for a specific project but I teeter on the cusp of disappointment at the amount of music here – I could have done with more than 13:39; especially more in the vein of the second side.
So I commend White Star Liner to you as (brief) work of impeccable class and restraint. This is very much the sort of EP that would have enjoyed a third Martini on the deck, listening to the band striking up again, rather than indulging in an unseemly scramble for the lifeboats.
I have a tangential link to the Titanic story. My grandmother’s parents were apparently booked to sail on it, first class, before my grandmother was born. They were forced to cancel their crossing a couple of days before the sailing because one, or both (I’m afraid I forget) had a reoccurrence of malarial symptoms – he was a very eminent civil engineer, who had spent much time South America working on the Panama Canal.
Now I am sure there have been many such family stories of dubious provenance being promulgated all over, however I give it a lot of credence because they certainly were people of the correct class and wealth to have done so at the time.
Phew! That was a close one, eh readers? but for that bug you would never know the all-consuming joy of 1537.
*this was S-O-S, except that it wasn’t. It was a separate signal that was retrofitted as standing for S-O-S afterwards – what larks they must have had at the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention sorting all this out.
**all the more poignant, given that her father was lost there.