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Songs to spacewalk to

Public Service Broadcasting make the space race come alive in a one-off gig at London’s Science Museum

Hazel Sheffield | January 26th 2016

Last Friday, the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum in London opened late to host the electronica band Public Service Broadcasting. Their latest album, “The Race for Space”, is a musical exploration of archive film footage and sound clips from the American and Soviet space missions between 1957 and 1972. The Science Museum doesn’t usually hold gigs, but PSB’s frontman, J. Willgoose Esq, said they had always dreamed of playing there. “Not many bands can say that!” he quipped.

While PSB put the finishing touches to a makeshift stage in the museum’s IMAX theatre, including an LED-encrusted model of Sputnik on a robotic arm, guests wandered around the exhibition and drank Russian-vodka milkshakes at the bar.

The Science Museum set wasn’t all space songs. “Everest”, from 2012, wrapped shuffling drums and lively synths around footage from the 1953 film “The Conquest of Everest”, blown up on the huge IMAX screen. Willgoose started mining the British Film Institute archives for footage four years ago and hasn’t run out of ideas yet. They played “London Can Take It”, setting crashing drums and a banjo riff to footage of the 1940 propaganda film about the blitz of the same name. And Willgoose’s electric-guitar solo soared with the planes in the 1942 Leslie Howard film “The First of the Few”.

Public Service Broadcasting don’t sing. The human voices on the band’s songs are most often taken from old recordings. But “Valentina”, their ode to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly into space, marks a departure. For this track, Willgoose used breathy vocals by the British pop duo Smoke Fairies to add a dream-like layer to twinkling guitars.

During this song, all eyes were on the screen behind the band where Valentina was shown training at military camps in Soviet Russia. She trampolined in hiking boots, jogged through grass, and walked through leafy grounds wearing a brown, flowery short-sleeved dress, flanked by military men in full uniform. In another clip, she sat on a rock alone, gazing out at sea.

On the morning of June 16th 1963, when she was just 26, Tereshkova travelled into space in a 7.5-foot-wide, rust-coloured ball called Vostok-6. Onscreen, we saw her in a spacesuit zipped inside a baggy orange overall, heading to a Russian spaceport by bus. She was sealed inside Vostok-6 for two hours before it was fired into the stars on the top of an enormous R-7 booster rocket that had been built to carry nuclear bombs in the 1950s. On the way up, she called out: “Hey sky, take off your hat! I’m coming to see you!”

Half a century later, Vostok-6 has landed on English soil for the first time as part of the Cosmonauts exhibition. Its rough-hewn, resin surface is burned away in places to reveal aluminium hexagons beneath the skin. If you could get beyond its glass case, you’d smell something not unlike burned 1960s cookware handles. Before the gig, a small crowd gathered in front of Vostok-6 and used a mirror on a stick to see the silver insides of the earth-coloured egg.

Seeing the spacecraft is one way to revisit the space race and marvel at the bravery of people like Tereshkova. It’s difficult to imagine the smiling young woman from the films climbing inside that alien orb. But Public Service Broadcasting’s music breathes life into these objects and lends majesty to their tales. It may be the closest we can get to the giddiness of the era.

Public Service Broadcasting European tour, Feb 7th to May 28th

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age Science Museum, London, until March 13th

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