Songs about intergalactic adventure are not a new idea – think ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados, Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and Kraftwerk’s sublime ‘Spacelab’, (although let’s try to erase ‘Spaceman’ by Babylon Zoo from our consciousness).
In 2015, when events of the 50’s and 60’s can truly be described as historic, space commander J. Willgoose, Esq, leading explorer of the starship Public Service Broadcasting (albeit launching into orbit from Tooting in South London rather than Cape Canaveral) has set his trajectory for the heart of reminiscence, while simultaneously seeking out new existences and interplanetary occupancy.
However, this record is more than a simple trip back in time, playing on combined themes of final frontiers and seemingly staggering science-fiction stories, albeit the true life and death adventures of the planet’s initial interstellar adventurers.
Willgoose himself has admitted that he gets “a bit frustrated when we’re asked questions about ‘nostalgia’. The samples are archival, but the songs aren’t using antique or period music, at all. We’re bringing things from the past and framing them in new ways, to engage with them in the present.”
One could argue that PSB are not exactly ‘boldly going where no one has gone before’, as (sadly) being a bit of a music nerd it’s easy to pluck examples from the past of groups who have earlier tackled the space race in a similar vein. I was immediately reminded of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ‘Apollo XI’, a record that also uses actual samples of lunar exploration, and similarities with the Liverpool synth-pop duo don’t end there. ‘The Other Side’ has the kind of pulsing, retro analogue keyboard part that mirrors OMD’s ‘Messages’ and actually had me humming that melody over PSB’s track, in a kind of weird, kitchen sink mash-up.
The title track ‘The Race For Space’ defines atmospheric, with a divine, ambient fusion of voices from a heavenly choir interspersed with JFK’s eternal speech at Rice University in 1962, all recorded in the most distinguished of earthbound studios, Abbey Road. It’s a far cry from the debut, solo Willgoose gig at The Selkirk pub in Tooting in 2009, where Public Service Broadcasting first launched its mission to combine pop and funk with electro-rock and sparkle their space dust onto a terra firma grounded audience.
The first single taken from the album is named after the man who it is said, around the Earth a man could never spin, until they heard of Major Gagarin… Featuring a five-piece string section and a six-figure brass segment, the tune is super-funky – so super-funky that there are shades of Starsky and Hutch, gargle-blasting through 70’s in their Ford Gran Torino.
The first woman in space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova is remembered in ‘Valentina’, a contemplative, melancholic song with vocals provided by the dream-folk duo, Smoke Fairies. There are shades of Enya-meets-Lucius-meets Jonsi and Alex here, a bleak celebration of heroism, of a woman in a man’s world, used for Soviet propaganda.
‘Fire In The Cockpit’ brings home the dangers faced by those brave men and women who dared to dream the impossible and fly beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Command Pilot Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee were the three astronauts on-board Apollo 1, killed when their cabin caught fire during a launch rehearsal test in early 1967. It is a grim reminder that not all space travel is romantic and can be glamourised, but Willgoose says, “I was wary of covering the subject for fear of seeming disrespectful, but in the end felt it would have been more disrespectful to leave them out.”
The Race For Space isn’t ground-breaking or earth-shattering but it does evoke emotions with every track. The difficulty of reviewing a PSB album is that part of their appeal are the visuals that accompany their live shows, and judging by their increasingly impressive CV of performing with luminaries such as The Rolling Stones, New Order and Manic Street Preachers, playing at venues such as Glastonbury and SXSW they are obviously doing something right.
Their latest album is truly listenable without being mind-blowing; it’s pleasurable, fun, thoughtful yet with a sense of lament and yearning for a time when tales of human daring and space exploration weren’t the stuff of C.G.I. and re-booted, big-screen, multi-plex popcorn Friday nights.