The Last Flight

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It’s striking to reflect that Public Service Broadcasting, and their stirring archival narratives for cinematic rock, electronics and orchestra, have been with us since 2009. Led by instrumentalist-auteur J. Willgoose, Esq., these masters of conceptual pop historiography have depicted humankind scaling Everest and confronting Nazism on 2013’s Inform- Educate-Entertain, and launching into the cosmos on The Race For Space in 2015. 2017’s Every Valley then examined societal struggle via Britain’s coal industry, while 2021’s Bright Magic was a dizzying portrait of Euro-metropolis Berlin. 2023’s This New Noise, recorded live at the BBC Proms, was a love letter to the national broadcaster in its most elemental form. In each case, what was removed in time and specific in nature became vital and universal, as the human spirit was fathomed and saluted.

Now the band will consider a quite different, and more personal, type of heroism. The Last Flight concerns the final voyage of America’s pioneering female “aviatrix” Amelia Earhart. In 1922, aged just 25, she flew higher than any woman before her. In the years that followed she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, set multiple speed and distance records, and mixed with the highest and the best. In 1937 she found a new ceiling to shatter and announced that she would circumnavigate the globe. Taking off from Oakland in her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra aircraft on May 20, she crossed the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. On July 2, she and her navigator Fred Noonan left Papua New Guinea to fly to Howland Island in the Central Pacific. She never made it, and instead ascended to the level of myth reserved for the bravest adventurers.

J. Willgoose, Esq. admits that Amelia Earhart took over his imagination by a circuitous route. “I wanted to do a woman-focused story, because most of the archive we have access to is overwhelmingly male,” he says. “I was initially drawn in by her final fight, rather than the successes that she had, but the more I read the more I became fascinated by her. Her bravery and her aeronautical achievements were extraordinary, but her philosophy and the dignity that she had… she was an outstanding person. The final flight is the spine of the journey: the story jumps off at different points, and examines different facets of her personality, her relationship with her husband, her attitude to flying, her attitude to existing, really. It sounds facile, but even her face contains multitudes.”

The album itself is similarly full of life-force, evoking adventure, speed and freedom as well as the psychological depths of a unique and admirable individual. In the former category, the deep twangs, angelic choir and propulsive backbeat of the heartbursting “Towards The Dawn” is another PSB gold-standard hymn to flight, after 2012’s “Spitfire“: it’s joined by the soaring machine-funk of “Electra”, the album’s first single and a paean to her aircraft. Berlin voice Andreya Casablanca, who appeared on Bright Magic, joyously helps state Earhart’s epoch-transcending philosophy of life on “The Fun Of It”: “I do it because I want to.” Other guests include This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables on sweetly ominous narrative “The South Atlantic”, and EERA on “A Different Kind Of Love”, a calm-before-the-storm which articulates Earhart’s progressive attitude to marriage to her husband George Putnam.

Yet, there is always the knowledge of her fate. This is rendered with almost unbearable poignancy on closing song “Howland”. Over orchestral ebbs and swells, Earhart’s increasingly urgent transmissions and the impotent replies of US Navy radio operators are only half legible, and the sense of finality is devastating.

“It’s not one of these modern parables which says, ‘Failure is not the opposite of success,’” says J. “She paid the ultimate price. Failure didn’t make her stronger. It killed her, which was a great loss to wider society in all sorts of ways. But she had this drive within her to do these, on the face of it, insane things. She gave herself, I think, less than a 50% chance of survival when she flew the Atlantic alone. To put yourself, willingly, in those situations… I think it says something about that drive at the heart of humanity, which really elevates us as a species.”

With research commencing in early 2023, work began in late June and concluded on May 1 this year. It was mostly recorded in PSB’s southeast London studio, with one day for strings at The Church in north London with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket lent Eno-esque pedal steel.

There were, however, challenges. Relevant contemporary audio sources were either non- existent or, like certain somewhat wooden screen interviews with Earhart in the thirties, unsuitable. Faced with a dearth of material, a new method was devised. Listeners may be surprised, as this one certainly was, that the album does not feature original first-person testimony, but dialogue newly recorded by actors. This was then sensitively manipulated to give believable thirties sonic characteristics and distortion.

“It became almost like writing a script,” says J., who used Earhart’s first-hand writings including 1937’s Last Flight as a start point and can confirm that the best biography is Susan Butler’s East To The Dawn. “The actor Kate Graham read Amelia, not as an impersonation. It was more about finding her own way through the voice, to inhabit the persona. We were recreating archive, reverse engineering it, which we have done a bit in the past.”

Intriguingly, Kate Graham read some of her lines accompanied by the original sounds of a thirties bi-motor cockpit interior. “What would it feel like trying to fly through heaviest monsoons that you could possibly experience, or when you realise you’re running out of fuel, and this is it?” muses J. of this immersive approach. “The thing that was most resonant, I suppose, was playing that atmosphere while we were recording the lines for Howland. I think we both felt we needed a moment after that. It’s quite a thing to experience, even vicariously.”

After a minute’s silence, some “genuine” audio follows: the eternal sound of the waves, wind and birds of Howland Island, courtesy of the US Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. “We, as listeners, make it to the island, even if she didn’t,” says J., wistfully.

In January, there were claims that Earhart’s lost aircraft had been located on the Pacific floor. But, as The Last Flight so elegantly and poignantly demonstrates, even if the mystery of her disappearance were solved, her legend will not be contained or diminished.

“The Last Flight isn’t doom-laden or covered in grief,” says J. “There’s adventure, freedom, the joy of being alive. The reason why she wanted to fly was to find the beauty in living – ‘to know the reason why I’m alive, and to feel that every minute.’ The flight did fail, but she was right. Of all the people we’ve written about, I have the deepest respect and admiration for her.”

In troubled times, with freedoms under threat and clouds on the horizon, Amelia Earhart’s example shines brighter than ever. Engineers of time and space, Public Service Broadcasting have encapsulated it with eloquence and heart. Come, now. The cockpit door is open and the engines are roaring - it’s time to fly.