In an era of nanosecond attention spans and click & dump music listening habits, it takes some brass neck to bring out a concept album. But living up to their name, English duo Public Service Broadcasting are out to sway our opinion on the much-maligned art form, boldly taking it out of the prog rock bargain bin.
Since the concept album’s 70s glory days, we’ve had double-disc epics touching on war, the apocalypse, alien invasions and the kind of ropey fantasy that’d make any Dungeons & Dragons fan blush. But the greatest theme for a concept album has been hiding in plain sight: Public Service Broadcasting’s new album The Race For Space is the first record to chronicle the late 60s war of wits between the US and the USSR en route to the Moon.
Speaking on his mobile from the final frontier in a van en route to a gig in Wolverhampton, PSB songwriter J. Willgoose Esq says the album is a way of “Saluting the technology and the heroism for the time. Considering how much technology has moved on since then, in terms of results, there’s been nothing dramatic or as exciting.”
For such a lofty premise, The Race For Space isn’t weighed down by any sense of self-importance. Archive broadcast footage from 1957-72 weaves the incredible narrative through sparse electronics, future funk, sci-fi prog and introspective ambient passages, with a sense of wonder the over-arching theme. Unlike many classic concept albums that rely on lyrics and a contrived story, The Race For Space has its own narrative arc mined from the two opposing original sources, and J says the first hurdle was choosing the chapters.
He says: “There are obvious milestones like the first Sputnik in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. Obviously we had to do the moon landing but I was keen to avoid things like Apollo 13, which was only notable because it was a successful failure. Even when touching on Apollo 8, we didn’t want to do the Genesis reading round the moon, it’s been done and overdone before, the same with ‘One giant leap’. We did have ‘The eagle has landed, but that was from a narrative point of view.”
Space has been a perpetual theme for concept albums and in electronic music in general, but artists such as techno innovator Jeff Mills explore space through an abstract futurist lens. Willgoose says PSB’s retrospective approach adds an ironic depth, as well as a sense of melancholy, adding: “Especially on the last track, Tomorrow, it’s summed up by the sermon saying ‘We hope we won’t be leaving the moon for too long and hopefully someone will follow in our footsteps us soon. And it’s been such a long time already — who knows when we’ll go back, if ever. Its the irony that’s flying through the album.”
Willgoose says the idea for the album had been in his head “for at least a couple of years”, overlapping with work on PSB’s debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain.
“I first put in a call to the BFI for footage in January 2013 and the idea has been bubbling along for quite some time before that. Things take a while to come together. Whether it’s research or writing bits of song that match archive footage, or watching archive and trying to write songs about that,” he says.
He says poring over old news reels and grainy public information films is a “different side to sampling”, adding: “Instead of digging for old funk and soul or 45s and trying to find elusive drum breaks, it’s digging for old archive stuff, trying to find snippets of film and spoken word. I’ve got reasonably good ear for bits I could use, whether it’s reading books or remembering bits that speak some truth to you.”
In making a case for brevity in movies, critic Mark Kermode often invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey, saying Stanley Kubrick brought us from the dawn of man to the space age and beyond in two hours. In a similar way, The Race For Space manages to condense humankind’s greatest technological achievement of the time into 40 minutes, with zero space filler.
Willgoose says: “I read a quote by Brian Eno and he said he wished almost all albums were shorter. He’s definitely got a point there. The temptation was to cover loads of other interesting events. We had all sorts of footage, but the challenge was to keep it succinct and brief. It tends to hang together better as a piece of music when it’s relatively short. In terms of a narrative flow, it was written sequentially, in a very deliberate order. There was some music hanging around, The bones of Sputnik and the bones of Gagarin. With Gagarin, I wanted to try and do a song for him that wasn’t all 60s and sci-fi. Something at a right angle — something euphoric and joyful, so funk is the perfect genre for that.”
The Race For Space is a thematic side-step for Public Service Broadcasting after their 2013 debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain. Their debut is more in tune to their tweed and corduroy image, with stiff-upper lip war broadcasts and propaganda films in the King’s English, countered with spiky electro, leftfield folk and krautrock in the vein of Neu! or XTRMNTR-era Primal Scream.
As an Englishman in his early 30s, Willgoose would have first-hand memories of the sinister public information films of the late 70s and 80s, a Britain of dirty browns and greys, with atonal electronic soundtracks and kids falling through cracked ice or electrocuting themselves on power lines. It’s an era that’s been mined by artists like the Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly on the Ghost Box label, that prey on a collective dread and fear, and other hauntology acts tapping in to this unique English surrealism.
Willgoose says the decision to embrace older footage and reports was aesthetic, but also due to a “residual terror” of the 80s films, adding: “I do remember being shepherded into the assembly hall and watching these horrible films and thinking, ‘Jesus I’ll never play with a frisbee near an electric pylon again’. Also, I like the objectivity with the passage of time and the perspective it gives to these songs. Possibly something to do with the sound of it on a sonic level, I really love the character of the voices back then and how evocative they are, it gives the music a different dimension. I kind of feel with 80s public information films, it’s almost too soon to be using , unless we actually worked our way up to the 80s, which in some ways we are I suppose.
“We’re slightly off to one side from Ghost Box. I reckon from their point of view, they probably think we’re not for real enough, because we don’t take ourselves quite so seriously. We’re not averse to banging a few melodies in there and making them appealing in a pop way. I don’t really hear that in Ghost Box. I like their output but I think it’s a lot more serious, with furrowed eyebrows. The people who have a problem with what we do, tend to be people who are into that. They probably don’t like people like us coming in and maybe being a bit less serious about it, but I like music that has a bit of a sense of humour, rather than a sense of importance.”
Willgoose says their inherent wry humour is toned down on The Race For Space, but it’s not banished by any means. He says: “There are a few notes of darkish humour. Like the line in Gagarin, ‘Was it hazardous?’ And the answer is very equivocal, ‘Yes it was, thanks for that. I kind of guessed that sitting on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile and being launched into space would be a little bit dangerous, but thanks for clearing it up for me’.”
Willgoose touched on Brian Eno previously, but we wonder if Eno’s iconic ambient album Apollo Soundtracks was on the PSB radar while writing The Race For Space. He says: “Brian Eno was an influence, but more through a slightly circuitous route, through his work on stuff like David Bowie’s Low. Low has always been a massive record for me, but particularly when putting this album together. Eno is such a pivotal figure in modern music that you can’t help but be influenced even if you don’t know it. Others would be the KLF’s Chill Out, and Mogwai and Tortoise are always in there. As for the song Sputnik, it’d be obscure sparse and mildly threatening electronic music, and I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack and Danny Elfman in general. That’s where the choir voices came in.”
Considering the theme, The Race For Space album will indeed get an actual launch — with two sold-out shows at the UK’s National Space Centre at the end of the month. At the time of writing, Willgoose is getting tripped up in live logistics, tweeting before our chat: “I cannot put into words how complicated it is to get track 2 [Sputnik] from the album ready to play live.”
As well as J on guitar, keys and samples, the beating pulse of PSB is drummer Wrigglesworth, who “is very good at turning my unrealistic beats into actual reality… he’s a very good drummer… extremely talented.” Their live show is a multimedia showcase, with old public information films and propaganda reels beamed through vintage amps, televisions and projectors — and the space-theme should be well oiled before they visit Ireland. The duo are set for gigs in Dublin and Belfast in May, and they’ve recruited JS Abraham on bass and keys — and “a bit of flugelhorn” for a grandiose flourish.
“It feels a lot more ‘live’,” says Willgoose. “You need to make the right decisions early on or you just do things awkwardly on the stage for years. The main aim is to do the important musical stuff live and if you have to do other stuff on track that’s a bit more perfunctory, that’s a small price. As long as it stays musically engaging.”
Original version in Irish Daily Star