The Race for Space
Public Service Broadcasting (PBS for short) are a trio based in London, whose music usually involves historical audio documents with a mix of jazz, rock and electronic.
Each one of their album revolves around a specific theme, usually inspired by modern/contemporary history, and includes a vast amount of archival audio footage, recording, and samples, with very little vocals on top.
The general tone celebrates achievements of both US and Soviet Union, emphasising each step as a human endeavour that transcends borders and politics.
Between music, vocals and engineering, the album involved another 35 people, which is something you can only perceive after listening to it a few times: some of the instruments are particularly subtle and deserve special attention.
Each song has a different personality and it's difficult to attribute a general genre to the entire album, but I can feel a general underlying cohesion which makes it that I rarely listen to one song and prefer to just play the entire record.
1. The Race for Space
The album opens with rearranged fragments of US President John F. Kennedy's speech given at Rice University, Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962. The speech sets the tone of the entire album, celebrating mankind's efforts to reach beyond the stars:
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'
Well space is there and we're going to climb it
And the moon and the planets are there
And new hopes for knowledge and peace are there
And therefore as we set sail we ask God's blessing
On the most hazardous, and dangerous, and greatest adventure
On which man has ever embarked – John F. Kennedy
It's difficult to listen to this speech without anticipation, especially knowing what would happen 7 years later.
The second track, Sputnik, takes us to the Soviet Union in 1957, to tell the story of the first object ever sent into space, the low Earth orbit satellite Sputnik 1.
In Sputnik, the original sounds of the unmanned spacecraft gradually become part of the main beat and gradually build excitement for the beginning of "man's cosmic existence".
The man made celestial body, for the first time in history
Overcame terrestrial gravity and flew into space
All men of all nations recognise this as a great achievement
In an age where the race to conquer space has become an all-absorbing factor
The era of man's cosmic existence
Once again, the accent is on how people can be united by such an important event:
All over the world, people are tuning in to the 'bleep bleep bleep' of the satellite
A dream cherished by men for many centuries comes true on October the 4th, 1957
If Sputnik makes you tap your feet, then Gagarin will make you dance: to tell the story of the first ever cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, PBS wrote an explosive song, a mix of funk, brass, marching band, you-name-it tune that captures the euphoria of such an important moment.
The jump into the unknown is not something to be scared of:
The World's first cosmonaut
The first to open the door into the unknown
The first to step over the threshold of our homeland
Gagarin himself appreciated his new vantage point:
Astronaut to Earth: I can see forests, rivers, [?] all around
Everything's so beautiful, it's wonderful, it wonderful…
4. Fire in the Cockpit
After Gagarin, Fire in the Cockpit is a cold shower and a stark reminder of the risks and cost of exploration, telling the tragedy of Apollo 1, where three astronauts lost their lives due to a cabin fire during a test.
The entire song revolves around the sound of static and deep keyboard tones, with a cello entering midway as we listen to the words of NASA's description of the events. It's a sad song, but exhibits the composure and respect owed to people who lost their lives while trying to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.
In E.V.A.1 we hear the story of Alexei Leonov, Alexei Leonov completed the first spacewalk in 1965, spending 10 minutes outside in open space.
It's interesting how the music almost stops when the astronaut leaves the spacecraft, mimicking the silence of the vacuum of space. The few piano notes we can hear really complement the marvel of Leonov's words:
I'm on the edge of the opening
Of the airlock chamber
I feel excellent
I see clouds and the sea
I am beginning to move away
6. The Other Side
The Other Side takes us one step closer to the moon landing, focusing on the Apollo 8 mission, where for the first time a manned spacecraft completed an orbit of the moon, but from the unusual point of view of ground control.
We hear voices and recordings from the control room, where ground control monitors the spacecraft as it's about to reach the blind side of the moon. The excitement and anxiety are palpable: to complete a lunar orbit, Apollo will temporarily lose signal with earth.
Once again, the music tells the story without words, getting quiet during loss of signal and exploding into a liberating instrumental when Apollo finally replies back to Houston. The event is incredibly significant:
The unmanned lunar spacecraft traversed the moon perhaps over 10, 000 times
But this is the first that a man aboard reported to his compatriots here on Earth
Valentina is a celebration of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to ever go to space n 1963 (and to this date, the only one having ever been in a solo mission).
The song, which features choruses from The Smoke Fairies, is a graceful instrumental without any other vocals. J. Willgoose, Esq. writes on the matter:
One of the biggest problems with the material we use, from the period we address, is that it almost totally devoid of any female voice.
It is often said that history is written by the winners, but it would be equally if not more apt to say that it has overwhelmingly been written by men. Of the footage I obtained of the first woman in space, all of it featured her voice being translated by male voices.
Rather than yet more men - us, in this case - attempting to speak on her behalf, it seemed more appropriate to ask a guest singer to provide a female voice, so we tried a different approach with 'Valentina' and I'm very glad we did.
The story of the Apollo 11 and the first crew to land on the moon in 1969 represents one of the most important moments of human history. Once again, PBS decides to focus on the point of view of the people on the ground, to celebrate the often unseen work of preparation, monitoring, incredible engineering that made the whole thing possible.
Go! is giant checklist, where we hear the flight director Gene Kranz go through all the checks needed to make sure that the descent on the moon will be successful. It's so interesting that the landing itself is just a couple of verses in the middle:
Tranquility base here, The Eagle has landed
The repetition in the dialogues provides the rhythm of the song, which matches the excitement of the mission with upbeat percussions, synth and keyboard.
Go! is a reminder that we can achieve the impossible if we work together.
The Apollo 17 mission, the last in the Apollo program, represents the end of an era and the last time we landed on the moon.
Tomorrow reflects on its significance: as a species, we managed to leave our own planet, albeit temporarily, and look beyond to a completely unexplored universe.
While it's not possible to separate the space race from the politics that fueled it in the first place, it's also a testament to the effort of thousands of people over decades, to literally take us where no one has ever been before.
As an outro, Tomorrow tempers the excitement of the previous songs and focuses more on choruses and keyboard, painting a picture of anticipation of what's gonna come next.