Jason Heller – Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded (Melville House, 2018)
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is to say that when it’s done well it is a rare and captivating thing. Who wouldn’t want to see a jitterbug about Vetruvius?
Jason Heller’s new book Strange Stars is a work of thrilling scale and intricacy. A study of science fiction’s influence on 1970s music, it is rammed with fascinating details while still being thoroughly readable. A ballet about Gaudi, if you will.
The study is bookended by Bowie songs. It opens with the first appearance of Major Tom. 1969’s “Space Oddity”, written coincide with the moon landings is a critical moment in the creation of space sound. It ends with Major Tom’s drug-addled return in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes”. Bowie is the thread that ties to whole together.
But Bowie is only part of the story. His gender-bending spaceman Ziggy may have popularized the sci-fi song but it was already well on its way to chart recognition in the works of the Byrds, Joe Meek, Jefferson Airplane and even Jimi Hendrix.
“Purple Haze,” as Heller describes in a fascinating first chapter, began its life as a long poem. Hendrix wrote it after being inspired by a 1957 novel, Night of Light, by Philip José Farmer. The former paratrooper and guitar maestro was, like many of his generation, a total sci-fi nut.
The list of sci-fi influenced artists is long and crosses multiple genres and styles. From the jazz of Sun Ra came the funk of George Clinton and late 1970s Afrofuturist electro hits like “Freak-a-zoid”. The sci-fi silliness of the psychedelic 1960s inspired prog (Yes, King Crimson, Rush), hard rock (Deep Purple, Hawkwind), heavy metal (Motorhead, Black Sabbath), and even soft rock in the form of crooner Gary Wright’s catchy pop ballad “Dream Weaver”.
There’s a lot of pleasure to be had reading this book, lying on the sofa with YouTube open on your phone, listening to tracks that you thought you knew off by heart only to discover that they were about space ships and moon men all along.
Many of these songs can be written off as 1970s era silliness (especially the many naff disco records made to cash in off Star Wars), but as Heller makes clear, all this stargazing does make a lasting impact on music.
The influence is undeniable when it comes to synths and the progression towards a more electronic sound. Many early synth bands drew inspiration from space and starships (I highly recommend the French band Droid and their single “Do You Have the Force?”). The legacy of New Wave sci-fi is critical here, however.
Michael Moorcock, himself an honorary member of Hawkwind, turned New Worlds into an unusual thing: a sci-fi magazine uninterested in space. Writers like J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and John M Harrison gave birth to a new sci-fi, one focused on contemporary visions of apocalypse. Humanity will be unlikely to reach space, they implied. We will destroy ourselves before then.
The most hopeful future for humans in this bleak techno-wasteland comes from posthumanism; the merging of flesh and circuitry. Kraftwerk, electronic pioneers, adopted the posthuman look wholeheartedly, although it was also flirted with by Joy Division and donned in a playful manner by Devo.
Heller makes the convincing case that the development of synths as instruments in their own right is tied inextricably to the rise of sci-fi music. These artists didn’t want to sound like electric versions of existing instruments, they wanted to sound like the future.
In fact, the only musical genre in the 1970s not to feature its own array of space cadets and starship troopers was punk. Even then, the occasional single like the Only One’s “Another Girl, Another Planet” couldn’t help but feature a few rocket ships and supernovas.
Interestingly, for sci-fi fans, musicians seemed disinterested in the civil war that was being fought within the genre at this time. By the late sixties the hard sci-fi of Asimov and Heinlein was displaced by the New Wave. By the end of the next decade, however, shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had made hard science cool again and the works of Robert L Forward and, once again, Robert A Heinlein, were back on top.
David Bowie didn’t take sides. He’d quote Heinlein and Ballard in the same sentence, Burroughs and Orwell in the same song. Where Bowie led, the rest followed, and sci-fi music is all the richer for it.
More than anything, Strange Stars is great fun. Brilliantly written and comprehensive in its scope. With Christmas coming up it’s a perfect present for Dad as well!
Forget dancing about architecture, singing about sci-fi is my new jam.
– Joe Darlington