Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space
There’s something delightfully quirky and English about Public Service Broadcasting. This three piece band containing two multi instrumentalists and a drummer have embarked on soundtrack albums that use spoken samples from great or profound events over lush and engaging older electronica music somewhere between Jean-Michel Jarre, The War On Drugs and the odd sprinkling of early Pink Floyd. Their last two albums cover the Space race and the demise of the Welsh mining industry.
The album starts with “The Race For Space”. J F Kennedy’s September 1962 speech, in front of 40,000 Texans, is showcased:
“We choose to go to the moon,” the president said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
It’s an awe inspiring declaration of intent that eventually came to fruition when Apollo 11 touched down in 1969 (long after JFK’s demise). A male voice choir builds from a single note to becomes several, albeit with the same sanctity should they be taking vespers, his important words are wrapped in this precious sound. The choir builds the drama and tension. Next with ”Sputnik” we start back at the beginning of man’s exploration of Space with the Soviet’s successful launch of a craft into space in October 1957. No wonder the Americans wanted to catch up. The soundtrack now depends on a low fi throbbing beat whilst a simple melody, played on keys, swirls around the sampled speech of reports of that enormous leap in the Space race. After this we have a track about Yuri Gagarin’s achievement of being the first human into Space four years later.
The concept and song writing falls to the enigmatically named ‘J Willgoose’. He also writes copious notes on the album sleeve and signs off with the information that as of November 2014 he was 32½! Despite the atmospheric nature of the music the band can cut a rug and change gear throughout the album with brass, female vocals and near Latin rhythms to give a sense of celebration and overwhelming pride.
The album doesn’t stick to the race in chronological order: next we hear of the tragic failure of Apollo 1 where the craft didn’t launch and the astronauts died of carbon monoxide poisoning on the launch pad. The music has a distorted veil over it as if to emphasise the tragedy before we sign off side one hearing about the first Space walk. Side 2 brings Houston’s Mission Control real time dialogue: taking us through the first time craft (Apollo 8) flies behind the moon and, as expected, loses radio contact. The room explodes when the craft radios its return into contact with Earth. Spine tingling. A throbbing beat with electronic percussion sounds whilst a gently picked electric guitar floats like the astronauts.
“Valentina” is about the first female in space, a Russian cosmonaut, who went up in 1963. The addition of the two female voices of the band the Smoke Fairies creates a light and attractive ambience as they scat sing over a gently picked melody with reserved drums pulsing. “Go” is the song for the Moon landing albeit eschewing the Neil Armstrong quote but dwelling on Mission Control’s contribution to the endeavour. This is the most vigorous track on the album. Weaving the ground control’s instructions to the various members of the team into a driving piece similar to The War On Drugs with a keyboard melody that is picked up by some terrific electric guitar lines whilst the urgency of the percussion informs us the importance of this landing. The sample announces “the Eagle has landed.”
The golden age of manned American space exploration was completed in 1972 with Apollo 17. The last track, “Tomorrow”, reflects this with the words of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, when he paused as he climbed back up the steps of the lunar module:
“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
It’s a wondrous release where I feel like a passenger in history. The videos on YouTube are a delight if you want to see the band in action playing these songs.
Nothing is as heart warming, for me, as the decision by the youngest man to walk on the moon, Charlie Duke of Apollo 16, to take some music cassettes to the moon. Duke’s friend Bill Bailey, a disc jockey at Houston-area country music radio station KIKK, had enlisted several stars of the time to provide personalised recordings for the astronauts. The tapes were introduced by Merle Haggard, and other country artists included Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Buck Owens, Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins, and Floyd Cramer.
(Aren’t you just relieved it wasn’t Coldplay, Simply Red, Bon Jovi or U2 who made it up there).