Public Service Broadcasting – The Race for Space

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From the Apollo 1 tragedy to the moon landing, PSB’s new album is a stunning memoir of man’s bravest venture

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Powered by burning rocket fuel and heroism, Public Service Broadcasting’s latest album is not just an essential addition to the music lover’s collection. It is an exhilarating, adrenaline-charged masterpiece, deserving of everyone’s unmitigated attention. The Race for Space documents the tense climb into the unknown between the US and the Soviet Union between 1955 and 1972, juxtaposing a hyper-emotional period in modern history with expertly constructed indie music.

Public Service Broadcasting hit the sweet spot with first album Inform-Educate-Entertain in 2013, which plucked snippets from the British Film Institute archives and sampled them to create mini musical lessons in milestones of the early 21st century, including the creation of the first Spitfire plane, institution of road laws in ‘Signal 30’ – “No drinking and driving!//Not even beer?//Not even water!” – and the first climb of Everest.

With their second album, they climb much higher.  J. Willgoose Esq. (one half of PSB, alongside co-member Wrigglesworth) tells us, “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. When we wrote our first E.P. The War Room using World War 2 as the inspiration, I knew I wanted to write a record about the Space Race at some point.” But, as he puts in the album sleeve note, “How would you go about compressing one of the most exciting 15-year periods in modern history into a mere 9 songs?” Using newly inherited Russian material at the BFI, and a range of online archives, the pair began the daunting task in early 2013.

A smooth path between the release of ‘Everest’ and The Race for Space is paved in the album’s opening track, which features J. F. Kennedy’s iconic ‘We choose to go to the moon’ speech to Rice University in September 1962: “Many years ago, great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said because it is there. And space is there, and we’re going to climb it.”

The story then has lift off, careering us on a journey beginning with the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik on 4th October 1957, it’s unmistakable bleeps enbalmed underneath the
second track. An ode to Yuri Gargarin, the Muscovite who ‘blazed the trail to the stars’ as the world’s first cosmonaut, follows in the form of a superhero theme tune, with mighty brass and gallant guitar riffs.

Next our pulse is lowered and thoughts provoked in a sensitive approach to the flash fire in Apollo 1’s cockpit, which killed three much loved US astronauts in early 1967. JWE explains, “I wanted to make that song as unemotional as possible, because I didn’t think it was our job to emote all over it, or attempt to make it really sentimental and overdone. It’s the one song where the feeling of euphoria we tried to put across in the rest of the album is put on pause. It’s meant to be a really restrained song to simply get across the tragedy of what happened.”

In track ‘E.V.A.’, panicked minor guitar riffs play against cinematic strings in a tense build up, to the moment at which Alexei Leonov, the first spacewalker, reports back to earth as he steps out of his capsule and floats above silken piano triads. ‘The Other Side’, focused on the Mission Control in Houston as Apollo 8 loses contact travelling around the moon, culminates in an explosive climax as contact is regained, and Houston breathes an elated sigh of relief. “For me that’s the most emotional moment on the album,” says JWE. A tribute then unfolds to the first female and citizen cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, in ethereal vocal layering by female group Smoke Fairies, splashed with starry syllables and breathy climbs.

And of course, ‘Go!’, the energetic and addictive penultimate track, once more focused on Mission Control in Houston, documents the first moon landing by Apollo 11 in 1969. “One thing I’ve learned, and it’s been slightly written out of our version of history – because the version is that America won the Space Race – is that actually they really only won the race to the moon. They lost everything before that; it was the Russians who were achieving all the big firsts.”

The events of the Space Race are barely even scratched in the album, but the spectrum of emotions associated with the era are beautifully embodied: terror and delirium; grief and conquest. “One of the things I remember most is reading about the heart rates of some of the Apollo astronauts as they launched. They’re sitting on top of several million tons of rocket fuel, which is being burned at 20 tonnes a second, and some of these guys are sat there with their heart rates staying at 70 beats per minute. You’re being launched into space. There’s absolutely nothing out there. A million things could go wrong, at least. These people were essentially a different breed.”

Although Public Service Broadcasting had no personal contact with NASA during the making of The Race for Space for the sake of full independence with the record, JWE mentions proudly, “To date, we’ve had nothing but good feedback, even from a couple of the guys who were in the room at the time of the moon landing. I mean, Gene Kranz I know has actually been sent the video and apparently he’s given it the thumbs up, which to us is absolutely incredible.”

Track ‘Tomorrow’ brings the record to a close, fading further and further away, allusive to the yet unexplored. Which poses the question: what will be the next Public Service Broadcasting topic? JWE refuses to disclose, but hints: “It will be on a bit more of a human level – and again, moving forward in history. It’s nice to keep the timeline moving towards the present.”