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When pop music and sci-fi blasted off together

When pop music and sci-fi blasted off together
09 Jul
7:27

On July 20, 1969, as the first man prepared to walk on the moon, a producer at BBC had the bright idea of playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” during its broadcast coverage. It was an odd choice, to say the least. The song is about an astronaut stranded in space, a fate nobody wished on Neil Armstrong. “Space Oddity” is among the seminal sci-fi pop songs. But timing, people. Timing.

The story is among the many luminescent episodes chronicled in Jason Heller’s “Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded” (Melville House, $26.99). Just about any sci-fi theme you can imagine — interplanetary exploration, time travel, dystopian futures, utopian futures, good robots, bad robots — were on the minds and in the songs of artists famous (Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Parliament-Funkadelic) and obscure (Klaatu, X-Ray Spex, the Kay-Gees).

For Heller, “Strange Stars” is a melding of two passions he has maintained since childhood.

He grew up an introverted kid on the Florida Gulf Coast, moving a lot, changing schools every few months. Then he saw “Star Wars.” His mind was among the many sent whirling by Luke, Darth Vader and the gang. He also watched reruns of his grandfather’s favorite show, “Star Trek.”

Soon he was ambling over to the public library and returning home with armfuls of classic science fiction, by the likes of Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert. He also found solace in music, especially when Meco’s disco-driven “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” hit the airwaves in 1977.

A pop song? With “Star Wars” music? It might as well have been a supernova exploding in Heller’s 5-year-old brain.

“It just reinforced in my mind, even at that time, that there was a connection,” Heller said by phone.

“There was a certain way that people expressed their love and appreciation and fandom of music and of science fiction that were kind of similar.

The feeling of alienation and loneliness and the ache of being away from people, those are some of the universal themes that a lot of science fiction and science fiction music of the ’70s were able to tap into, especially as mankind was starting to hurtle into outer space on a more frequent and sustained basis.”

The ’70s, as you may have heard, were a strange time. You could still find traces of the grand idealism of the ’60s, which led us to put a man on the moon in the first place. But those traces came with an increasingly bitter edge of anxiety and paranoia. Fear of overpopulation and environmental disaster was rampant. So was suspicion of technology’s rapid explosion. Sci-fi themes were in the air — and blaring out of amplifiers.

Well before “Star Wars” hit, brainy pop artists were consuming sci-fi literature and transferring the themes and stories into their music. Hawkwind, which featured future Motorhead frontman Lemmy, collaborated with the novelist Michael Moorcock (as did Blue Oyster Cult). Bowie was obsessed with George Orwell’s “1984” and starred in the film version of Walter Tevis’ “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in 1976. As early as 1968, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner was riffing off John Wyndham’s novel “The Chrysalids” in the song “Crown of Creation.” A few years later, he released one of the seminal sci-fi rock albums, “Blows Against the Empire.”

Some pop expressed its sci-fi bona fides through lyrics alone. But some managed to sound like the future. Take Kraftwerk, the German outfit that turned blips, blurps and loops into a sound that could be described as post-human. Or Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton’s elaborate and visually baroque dual enterprise that saw space as the place to get funky.

Clinton and the jazz experimentalist Sun Ra were exemplars of Afrofuturism, which viewed sci-fi and technology through the lens of the African diaspora, past and future. For a more recent, popular example of Afrofuturism, go see “Black Panther” (again). Or listen to some Janelle Monáe, the shape-shifting hip-hop/R&B artist whom Heller identifies as the brightest torch carrier of sci-fi pop today.

“She’s doing the type of thing that David Bowie and George Clinton did,” Heller said. “But I think what really has elevated her is how she has continued to shift and not just allow herself to be pigeonholed as this person who screams about science fiction. She doesn’t do it in a way that seems evasive, but in a way that seems tantalizingly ambiguous.”

“Strange Stars” stops in the early ’80s, which means it doesn’t get to the heyday of techno and hip-hop. Surely OutKast, the Atlanta rap duo who reimagined themselves as ATLiens on their 1996 album of the same name, has plenty in common with the ’70s sci-fi trailblazers.

That’s a subject to be explored in another book, perhaps to be published … in the future.

Source: http://www.postbulletin.com/when-pop-music-and-sci-fi-blasted-off-together/article_0b1b1a0a-812c-11e8-b89d-0fae9fc5871e.html

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