I’m not alone in my fascination for all things space-related, and was captivated as a child by the later Apollo missions, at least one of which I vaguely recall catching on telly at primary school in the early ’70s.
And it appears there was a similar attraction during the later manned flight era for J. Willgoose, Esq., the pseudonymous mastermind behind indie favourites Public Service Broadcasting.
Willgoose’s first space memory involved the Challenger space shuttle disaster. But he has happier recollections too.
“I remember being on holiday in Florida one year, when my Dad was adamant he heard a massive sonic boom one morning.
“When he read the news and saw it was the space shuttle returning home he was very happy.”
Why this talk of space? Well, for PSB’s latest album, Willgoose was granted further unique access to historically-important British Film Institute footage, going back in time to explore the period when the USA and USSR fought to gain the upper hand on a whole new frontier.
And the result is The Race for Space, out on February 23, the stunning follow-up to Public Service Broadcasting’s acclaimed 2013 debut LP Inform – Educate – Entertain (with this blog’s review of that album here).
I can’t pretend to have followed the band since the very beginning, and while I was vaguely aware of the ROYGBIV single through BBC 6Music, it wasn’t really until I heard the startling Spitfire one afternoon on the Radcliffe & Maconie show that I was hooked.
Only then did I feel a compulsion to dig back into the back-catalogue, taking in The War Room EP and watching the accompanying promos. Again, those World War Two films – not least the Humphrey Jennings classics – always stir something deep within for this scribe, no doubt transported back to afternoons in front of the black and white TV watching war flicks and documentaries with my Dad in the ’70s and ’80s.
There have been many great hairs on the back of the head moments from PSB since, not least when that first album dropped through the letterbox.
And it’s fair to say this new album takes us to a whole new level – as you’ll see when I post my review of The Race for Space on the release date. But before then, here’s the result of my recent chat with the enigmatic, self-styled ‘director-general’ of the Public Service Broadcasting phenomenon, officially known as nothing more than J.
Prior to that first album’s release, I witnessed a memorable PSB performance at Preston’s 53 Degrees in mid-March, 2013, a review of which was posted on this blog (with a link here).
That show will always stand out for me, while Willgoose and drummer Wriggleworth (not even a first initial this time, I’m afraid) have enjoyed many more highlights since, including festival successes at SXSW in Texas, Glastonbury, Bestival and the Green Man, and sell-outs at London’s Forum, New York’s Mercury Lounge and Rome’s Lanificio.
There were prestigious supports to The Rolling Stones, New Order and the Manic Street Preachers too, plus their current Kaiser Chiefs tour outings, the band branching out from their indie roots yet remaining cult heroes, with Willgoose coming over modest, slightly shy, and quintessentially English.
They’re not an outfit willing to re-cover the same ground either, and hopefully you’ll have already heard one such departure, the new LP’s lead single Gagarin, which features a six-piece brass section for a superbad funk-driven theme dedicated to a cosmonaut who was arguably the world’s most famous man in the early ‘60s.
There’s a bit of a ‘70s cop show feel too – or at least a James Taylor Quartet style cover of one – to Gagarin. So what came first – the tune or the theme?
“It was the idea of the tune, I suppose. I had a rough demo sitting around from a couple of years ago for a song I was writing about Greenwich Mean Time.
“The subject matter wasn’t gripping enough really, but I always held on to the riff and ended up going back to it, adapting then rebuilding it, while wondering how it was actually going to fit.
“It doesn’t really fit, but I quite like the incongruous nature of that. We also wanted to capture a bit of the exuberance of that period. Just watching the footage of the crowds when they met Gagarin, to try and get that down rather than anything too literal.
“When we were recording that, with the six of them in a little circle, I decided to join them, listening on headphones, but had to get out within around 40 seconds. It was so loud, like being punched in the ears repeatedly! It was just an assault.”
So you walked away from your director-general role on this occasion?
“Yeah, I just scurried away, and talked down the line to them. It was much safer.”
The video is a revelation too, Willgoose and Wrigglesworth donning space suits then putting on an energetic dance routine before catching a bus home. And you can’t tell me that’s not them giving it some on the floor. Did it take a while to master those athletic moves?
“Oh crikey – yeah, that was hard work. My hips are still aching actually.”
Back to the subject matter, and Yuri Gagarin was a world hero after that first journey into outer space in 1961, wasn’t he?
“He was, and I find it very sad watching the footage, knowing he died only around seven years later in a plane crash.
“He seemed warm and friendly. There’s great footage of him in Moss Side, Manchester, visiting a workers’ union.
“They wanted to put the top down in the car he was travelling in, and he insisted on it – despite the rain – thinking if people have come to see me, I can stand the wet.”
While their first album involved just Willgoose and Wrigglesworth, the new one starts with a celestial choir, and includes guest vocalists Smoke Fairies too, on a Sigur Ros-style tribute to Vostok 6 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
But don’t let their past and present subject matter make you think this is all about nostalgia. Instead, The Race For Space vividly re-imagines the super-powers’ rivalry for space supremacy between 1957 and 1972, its many highlights including the first space walk, a ride on the Sputnik 1 satellite and touchdown on the lunar Sea Of Tranquility.
It’s not just the obvious milestones and triumphs covered either, PSB tapping into stirring stories of life, death and courage along the way, all to a compelling soundtrack of techno, folk and electro-rock.
They start with a musical piece built around JF Kennedy’s landmark 1962 Rice University speech, creating a logical bridge from the first album’s highly-evocative and stirring Everest, the president name-checking pioneering British mountaineer George Mallory.
So did Willgoose already know where he was headed when the first album came out?
“I knew I wanted to write an album about the Space Race, and I wanted to start it with Kennedy’s speech.
“It wasn’t until I sat down and read the transcript to highlight the pieces I wanted to use that I noticed the link. It’s perfect. I’d like to say it was a brilliant stroke of genius, but I stumbled upon it, albeit quite happily.”
“It started a long time ago, writing a song based around the Protect and Survive nuclear safety announcements. I rang them and confused them quite comprehensively.
“They took a brief bit of persuading and an extra email, but came back with the double thumbs-up and ever since have been really supportive and accommodating.
“I think they like the fact we’re giving a new lease of life to stuff that might otherwise be sitting in an archive somewhere. It seems to work as well for them as us…I hope”
Is there a similar American archive link now?
“NASA material is freely available and copyright-free, so getting hold of that – at least audio-wise – wasn’t going to be a problem. The concern was getting Russian footage and being able to use that.
“But it was another extraordinary stroke of luck really, as the BFI a couple of months before I rang inherited a whole load of Russian footage, sending me a massive list and asking which I would like!”
So here’s a deep question – is there a lesson to be learned in these troubled times? And do you think the Race for Space ultimately stopped the Americans and Russians blowing us all to smithereens?
“Who knows. It’s one of life’s biggest ironies that so much technological and telecommunication progress is driven by war.
“That’s the only way this innovation and change is pushed through with so much financial support.
“The sheer amount of things that have come out of the Space Race – and all its by-products – make this the ultimate example of the creative and technological leaps that can be made during conflicts.”
Second track Sputnik, with its Pump up the Volume-like intro giving rise to another PSB instant classic and even a little trance dance at times, gets us properly up and running, and highlights – as with the first album – that heady mix of retrospective meets futuristic.
In fact, PSB have always prided themselves on ‘teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future’. With that in mind, surely Willgoose gets frustrated if he’s perceived as someone just wallowing in nostalgia and couched in a different era.
“I guess so, because that flies in the face of what we’re actually presenting really. For me, the interesting stuff happens between the lines of the past and present, such as the secondary Space Race struggle between India and China and so on.
“It’s just re-framing the past, putting it in a more modern context, I guess.
“That all sounds pretty pretentious and highbrow though. Really, we’re just sticking a beat underneath satellite noises.”
Yes. The term ‘self-effacing’ comes up quite a lot when discussing Willgoose. He’s certainly not driven by ego.
It might not help that his bow-tie and tweed jacket image suggest Matt Smith-era Dr Who, as my youngest daughter pointed out recently. The man himself takes this all pretty well though…to a point.
“Well, that is a big issue, because he became The Doctor in 2010 I think, whereas I’ve been doing this since … well, the first gig was on the 7th of August, 2009.
“So there’s a little historical proof out there that I beat him to it, and he just needs to back off really.”
There’s fighting talk. So is that essentially why Matt Smith stepped aside for Peter Capaldi?
“I think he was obviously feeling the pressure.”
There was a mighty reaction and plenty of adulation for Inform – Educate – Entertain. Those were clearly proud days.
“Yes, but it’s weird looking back with the second album waiting to come out. So much of what happened first time around just passed us by because we were so busy and caught up in the whirlwind of everything, so you don’t really have any perspective on it.
“When we got to No. 21 in the album charts it felt strange but nice, and I think we had a gig in Newcastle that night. But you don’t really take it in.
There must have been moments though, such as when he heard his teen-year heroes the Manic Street Preachers were fans of PSB.
“I still struggle to get my head around that. It’s like two different worlds – my teenage world then this modern version.”
That first album set the bar very high. Did that give you a few sleepless nights working out how you could top that?
“As a kid I always got my homework done as early as possible, and I’ve carried that into adult life.
“I knew even before the last album was out that this was going to be the next album, but wanted to keep a lid on it. I just didn’t want to let on.”
You do realise I’m going to have to ask you now though. So where do you go after outer space?
“Well, I think I know … but I’m not going to tell you. I was listening to a Harry Belafonte calypso album the other day and that gave me the final piece of the jigsaw, as unexpected as that sounds.”
Wow. That’s already got me thinking … and looking forward to that. But this is not the place for speculation on that front. At least not now.
Moving on, anyone who’s seen PSB live knows just how technologically-reliant they are at times.
Talking to Bruce Foxton last year ahead of From the Jam’s Setting Sons retrospective tour, he confessed to concerns as to using a click track on one song, let alone trying to sync as much as Willgoose does. Has it ever gone badly wrong?
“Yeah, because it’s bound to, isn’t it. Even in the Space Race they had a 99 per cent non-failure rate, but that left over a million parts that could quite easily go wrong.
“We’re not quite up to that many, but we’ve certainly got lots of stuff being plugged in and out.
“We had one gig where we had to abandon the last song, one of the worst feelings ever. But we’ve invested in various resistant technologies since, and hopefully it won’t ever happen again. You live and learn.”
Besides, Willgoose and Wriggleworth are clearly a great team, and it’s not just them either.
“We’re the core of the band, but there’s Mr B doing – certainly in the UK, where we’ve got the space and the budget – the set design and live visuals too. And we’re adding a third touring musician, trying to expand the live musical spectacle.”
Incidentally, that will be for the tour with the Kaiser Chiefs as well as the album’s official launch parties at the National Space Centre in Leicester on February 26/27 and subsequent UK tour.”
Furthermore, PSB’s attention to detail includes the cover art, and the new LP comes in a choice of either NASA or USSR front covers, opening to a gatefold centre in which – just as in space – there is no correct way up or down.
“Again, that all comes out of the idea of playing the two sides off against each other. It’s a nice way of getting that across visually.
“Various people at various stages weren’t very happy that there wasn’t going to be a track listing, the logistics of putting the barcode on, and so on.
“But we’ve found a way through it really, and I’m glad with how it’s worked out. And there have got to be some advantages of running your own label, surely.”
Funny you should say that, I get the feeling there will be a few major companies ready to snap your hands off, but guess that wouldn’t appeal.
“I find it hard to see how we would fit in. It would have to be a very good sales pitch, and I’m not sure we’re quite doing our bit to go the other way.
“But hopefully with this album we’ll convince a few people we’re not quite such a flash in the pan and one-album wonder.”
So did PSB get to see much of the bigger bands they’ve supported so far?
“The Rolling Stones were in and out within about five minutes. The limos arrive and they go straight off. Fair enough though. They’ve been around so long and clearly get bored of the hanging around and people telling them how wonderful they are.
“We didn’t meet New Order either. We were straight off to another gig so couldn’t wait around and say ‘thanks for having us’.
“With the Manics, we were on the road with them for quite a long period. Again, you don’t want to over-stay your welcome, so try and keep a respectful distance, but we got on well and they were lovely chaps.”
Then there’s the choir and the guest vocalists on the album too. Have you been aware of Sussex dream-folk duo Smoke Fairies for some time?
“Definitely. I remember hearing them on Marc Riley’s show doing various sessions. Just through listening to 6Music, as I tend to when I’m around home.”
As a radio station, they’ve been very supportive of you.
“They have. I think it helps that we’re a bit different and they get a lot of listener response. Radio should always be about getting people engaged and responding, and we’re lucky that people do that with us.”
I gather you weren’t so sure at first as to the respectful connotations regarding the track Fire in the Cockpit. But in the end, you felt it would have been more disrespectful not to include those parts of the story.
“Yes, it was quite illuminating reading the astronauts’ accounts. They were a very pragmatic bunch and as much as they were devastated that their friends and close colleagues died in an awful way, they recognised it saved more lives than it cost in the end.
“It was a terrible tragedy but such a big part of the Space Race, and to leave that out just felt wrong and under-playing it all.”
The Other Side is another standout, on the scale of the first album’s Lit Up, and seems to sum up in less than six and a half minutes an amazing moment in history – the first NASA voyage around the dark side of the moon.
It’s one of those moments where you kind of know where it’s going, but you’re still there on the edge of the seat, for a couple of minutes transported into that Houston control room.
“I think so much of that is about the tension in his voice in the control room, and the conflict in him that you can hear him trying so hard to disguise.
“Although he talks about there being such a great tension in the air, he’s obviously trying to be the omnipotent voice of narration.
“The moment that really gets me is when they do re-establish contact, and you hear a little cheer in the background.
“It is similar to Lit Up in structure though, so I don’t think we’ll be able to play both live in the same set. But I was very happy with how that turned out.”
Yet for all that poignancy, Willgoose has said before that PSB should ultimately be about putting smiles on faces. And illustrating that nicely, there’s the sheer joy of the Apollo 11 moon landing speed trial of Go!
“Again, with Apollo 8, the Genesis reading would be better known, but it was about trying to avoid the most famous aspects. I remember listening to those call-outs and thinking, ‘Hang on a minute!’ You can tell the story in terms of descent, landing and so on.
“Essentially, it’s superficially mundane, I suppose. They land on the moon and you just have an engineer saying, ‘We have shut down’. But I find all that so exciting, with teams of highly-skilled people working very hard to realise something so special.”
We saw all that again late last year with the euphoria for the Rosetta mission from the European Space Agency team after the Philae lander touched down, on a comet a mere four billion miles away. And then there was the confirmation early this year that Beagle 2 had in fact landed on Mars after all, 12 years after vanishing.
“Yes, it’s all coming back to the surface actually, which I’d like to say this release was planned to time with.”
I don’t doubt that. This is after all a band in touch with technological advances. There’s no ‘one small step’ media soundbite though, true to form.
I have to say I was worried when I heard they were taking on Night Train for the last album though. That 1936 GPO Film Unit classic, with its famous WH Auden poem, is almost sacred ground. But again they found a way around it.
“Yes, it’s a risk taking on something quite well known. With most of our stuff we’re trying to bring material which isn’t so well known widely, and Night Mail is one of those films people are aware of, and the poem at the end is a big bit of that.
“I didn’t want to stay away from that piece entirely, but it fit the out-tro so well and gave it the rhythm. We ended up recreating our own rhythm of a train and I think that came out alright.”
It certainly did come out alright, as this master of understatement puts it. But I reckon there might well be a bigger reaction to The Race for Space when it finally sees the light of day.
Summing up, it’s been a busy five and a half years for the band. And I finished by asking just how many showed up for Willgoose’s one-man Public Service Broadcasting debut at a pub in Tooting, south London, that night in August 2009?
“Quite a few, because it was free! I didn’t look out until the second-last song, glanced up, saw the room was fairly full, panicked, and looked straight back down again!”
Only you’re not by definition an exhibitionist, are you?
“They appreciate the dry wit. I don’t think it would work if we were leaping around.”
For more details about the new album, past releases, and dates on the forthcoming UK tour, head to www.PublicServiceBroadcasting.net.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on February 12th, 2015.
And for the writewyattuk verdict on The Race for Space, head here.