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An ode to Sputnik

On the set of Public Service Broadcasting’s space-age music video

Hazel Sheffield | November 16th 2015

On the evening of October 11th, at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Macclesfield in north-west England, a group of astronomers were giving the Lovell Space Telescope a break from its normal duties. The telescope, a giant white dish measuring more than 76 metres across and weighing over 3,000 tonnes, usually scans the skies. But tonight, the band Public Service Broadcasting were going to use it as the backdrop in the video for their song “Sputnik”, from their latest album “The Race for Space”.

Public Service Broadcasting don’t sing. Instead, the frontman, J. Willgoose Esq., mines the British Film Institute archives to find soundbites that tell stories, which they then edit together and set to music. With “Sputnik”, he wanted to celebrate the often overlooked Russian astronomers who launched the first satellite in 1957, and chose clips from Soviet propaganda films. “Will the bleep of the satellite bring people closer together in a common understanding?” one commentator asks on the track. “All of the earth shrinks, the universe stretches forth its beckoning hand in a gesture to all mankind.”

It was an auspicious evening. At midnight, October 11th became October 12th – the anniversary of the day the telescope began tracking the rocket that launched Sputnik. Not that the astronomers back then were interested in the rocket for its own sake. They had designed the telescope to look at things much further away. But as Tim O’Brien, a professor of astrophysics and associate director of Jodrell Bank, explained, “Rather than launching a beach-ball sized thing that goes bleep, the next thing the Russians might have launched is something much more alarming, like a nuclear warhead. It was actually a defence exercise.”

O’Brien was staying up late with his wife, who runs the observatory’s visitor centre, to assist Public Service Broadcasting on site. He took J. Willgoose Esq. to the building that houses the control room, where they admired the atomic clock and a pair of binoculars from the 1950s. The wide metal “U” of the control desk, with its original steel exterior, faces a wall of windows, which gives a spectacular view of the telescope. When it was built, the Lovell was the largest telescope of its kind in the world; today it’s the third largest. Its bowl reflects radar signals to an antenna in the centre that has to be cooled to -260°C to pick up radiowaves from all over the universe.

When the bowl had been turned on its side and the stage in front of it was ready, the band took their places and began playing their song over and over again in front of the cameras. Pulsing synths, swelling bass and a ticking high hat blared from speakers. Meanwhile, the bleep of the satellite, woven into the song, filled the air. It was that same bleep which was picked up by students at Columbia University in New York on an FM radio in 1957, alerting the American government that the Russians had successfully launched a satellite. With that bleep, the space race began.

Fifty-eight years later, the beckoning night sky was shrouded in dry ice and white beams of light. O’Brien watched Public Service Broadcasting from the shadows as they played along to the story of how man “for the first time in history, overcame terrestrial gravity and flew into space”.

The Race for Space is out now. Public Service Broadcasting British tour, Nov 17th to 29th

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