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28 April 2018

Oh, that magic feeling – the intergalactic connections between space travel and rock

 No one has made a record like Abbey Road since 1969, and no one’s been as excited about space since, either.

By Kate Mossman

An obvious point of connection between rock music and space is that astronauts, like rock stars, are often quite small. Tim Peake – mobbed in the O2 at Space Rocks, the first festival of music and space – has the compact frame of Bruce Dickinson. Nasa allows you in at just 4ft 10. Space craft are increasingly bijou, and you grow a couple of inches up there anyway.

Mark McCaughrean, a senior adviser at the European Space Agency, talks to me about Lush. He got tickets for their reunion tour, and watched standing next to Miki Berenyi’s mum. Sadly, Lush fell out again: maybe the organisers of Space Rocks will fall out too, he says, and reform in 20 years’ time. His colleague, the Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor – who helped put the Philae Lander on Comet 67P and offended the universe by wearing a shirt with semi-naked ladies on it – is a devotee of Cannibal Corpse. He looks like something from Metal Hammer, or a member of their editorial team. Above the stage hangs a small-scale model of the Rosetta spacecraft, like a 1970s lighting rig.

Guitar rock and space travel both had their gestation in the Fifties and their zenith in 1969. My issue of Life magazine from August of that year features Norman Mailer on the moon landings with a small cover line: “The Woodstock Rock Festival” (a total washout, weather-wise). The boys who grew up with Yuri Gagarin on TV discovered rock’n’roll through Bill Haley and His Comets. Jeff Beck built a boy-sized spaceship from 400 Oxo tins. When that didn’t work, he built a guitar – they all did. Brian May abandoned a PhD on zodiacal dust for Queen.

On a hot night last weekend, I listened to Abbey Road for the first time in years. The side two “medley” – eight songs recorded by Paul alone in the studio with George Martin – was some of the last material the Beatles made and still leaves me feeling as lost and excited as it did when I heard it aged four. It was recorded during the moon landing period, July and August 1969. Paul was the lonely cosmonaut spinning off into space – and then there was nothing: nowhere to go, just a magic feeling. No one has made a record like that since, and no one’s been as excited about space since, either.

Most of the audience at Space Rocks are children. They have a greater ability to process things they can’t see – magic, dinosaurs, galaxies – than adults, apart from the adults who go into space science.

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That thrilling burden of the unseen is what made all the panellists choose their jobs. For Dr Maggie Lieu, part of the Euclid research mission, it was realising that 90 per cent of the universe was dark matter. For the “space doctor” Beth Healey – who studies the effect of space conditions on the body, and lived in a wind chill factor of -93.9°C in Antarctica in order to do so – it began with an interest in those “mystical white areas” of the Earth. She points out that the audience will be almost the age of the average astronaut – 34 – at the time of the Mars mission in 2030. It’s like a magic careers fair, though the children are as likely to make it into space as they are to form successful bands.

One boy asks whether we ought to be spending all this money on space when the Earth is dying. The question – what’s the point of going to Mars, with its foul conditions, its mega radiation and the nine-month journey there, with nothing to do but watch Netflix – hangs over proceedings. The panel agrees that excitement about space has reduced (rather like excitement about rock). But when Peake concedes that, yes, we could reasonably see it all on an Oculus VR headset instead, the point of Space Rocks is clear. As long as jobs like these exist (at 29, Healey drove a tractor 1,200km across the Antarctic plateau alone, looking for hardy bacteria) then the possibility of living an exciting, nerdish life remains.

Charlotte Hatherley plays them out in an ESA space suit. She used to be in the band Ash. Now, she is a self-funding, self-producing purveyor of intense space ballads. “She has an idea and she just gets it done,” her friend tells me, impressed. Our rock stars are old now: we could send them round the Earth at the speed of light to make them young again, but maybe we don’t need to. 

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This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum