Rock and Roll Book Club: Jason Heller's 'Strange Stars'

Jason Heller's 'Strange Stars.'
Jason Heller's 'Strange Stars.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Jason Heller's new book Strange Stars isn't just about David Bowie, in the sense that a history of reggae wouldn't just be about Bob Marley. Bowie was the poet laureate of starmen in the decade that found popular musicians looking to space in a way they never had before, and haven't again since.

The decade was bookended by "Space Oddity" (1969) and its sequel "Ashes to Ashes" (1980). In the intervening years, Bowie's career took a cosmic trip from Mars to Berlin, with a stop in New Mexico for The Man Who Fell to Earth. That's a heavy journey, and it's one that would continue until the end of Bowie's life: in his final project, the musical Lazarus, Bowie revisited the character of Thomas Newton, still longing to return to his home planet.

Bowie was, however, far from the only rocker who spaced out in the '70s. Heller's book, which walks through the decade year by year, examines how and why SF took a special hold of rock and pop.

Most musicians who got into the genre shared Bowie's melancholic tendencies. In both film and print, '70s SF explored themes of dystopia and alienation. Coming out of the turbulent '60s into an uncertain future where technology loomed as a force that suggested as much menace as hope, many of the era's most popular recording artists followed Bowie's lead and delved into metaphors like flight, fright, discovery, and automation.

Unsurprisingly, prog-leaning rockers were at the forefront. SF narratives lent themselves to concept albums like Blows Against the Empire by Paul Kantner, whose Jefferson Airplane (later to become Jefferson Starship, and then just Starship) were filmed by George Lucas at Altamont. Kantner later reconnected with Lucas, in a sense, when Jefferson Starship made a creepy cameo in 1978's infamous Star Wars Holiday Special.

Bands like Yes, Boston, ELO, and Queen put spaceships and robots and distant planets on their album covers, suggesting the strange new worlds listeners could turn on to when they dropped their needles in their, um, grooves. Rush began what essentially became a career-long voyage through space and time; frontman Geddy Lee was and remains a devout SF reader who even began (though never completed) a self-penned novelization of the band's 1976 album 2112.

Other artists took repetitive, electronic rhythms and turned them into a futuristic aesthetic. Kraftwerk embodied the idea of musical efficiency, and Devo exploited that idea to highly ironic effect. Disco stars like Grace Jones embodied an ideal of android-like perfection (influencing later artists like "Arch-Android" Janelle Monáe), and some made that idea even more literal.

One of the biggest space-themed disco hits was Meco's "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band," which was to 1977 what Prince's "Batdance" was to 1989. Heller delights in drawing another Star Wars musical connection: before James Earl Jones was Darth Vader, he was a variety-show host. In 1973, Jones invited legendary R&B star Rufus Thomas to come on his show Black Omnibus and demonstrate the latest dance craze, the Funky Robot.

Prog-rock notwithstanding, Heller points out, African-American musicians were just as prone to catching the science fiction bug as their white peers. Sun Ra's experimental jazz-rock sowed the seeds for what would ultimately become known as Afrofuturism: "a speculative combination of science fiction and mythology that focuses the histories, tribulations, and hopes of the African diaspora through the technology of tomorrow," describes Heller. "Sun Ra wasn't inspired by science fiction so much as he was science fiction."

Later in the '70s, funk pioneers George Clinton and Bootsy Collins devised the P-Funk Mothership after sighting a UFO while fishing (on acid) in the Bermuda Triangle. "While the skipper cowered in the cabin with a bottle of booze," writes Heller, "Clinton and Collins ripped off their shirts and bared their chests to the violent sky, letting the deluge of mercury envelop them as they danced and laughed."

Those are some of the artists most closely associated with SF, but one thing you learn in Strange Stars is that damn near everyone who put out an LP in the 1970s found a way to get a science fiction song on there. A helpful discography of essential '70s SF songs includes tracks by T. Rex ("Ballrooms of Mars," 1972), the MC5 ("Future/Now," 1971), Earth, Wind & Fire ("Jupiter," 1977), and Stevie Wonder ("Saturn," 1976). Even the Carpenters covered Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" in 1977 — a song covered in turn by Minnesota's own Babes in Toyland for a Carpenters tribute album in the '90s.

Geddy Lee's science fiction novel isn't even the most tantalizing coulda-been mentioned in the book. Paul McCartney was a big Star Trek fan, and in 1976 he asked the show's creator Gene Roddenberry to write a script for a TV show that would pit Wings against other groups in an outer-space battle of the bands. Nothing ever came of it, but Roddenberry was soon busy making a Star Trek movie after Star Wars created a new appetite for big-screen SF.

When the '80s dawned, things just weren't quite the same. The Apollo program was over, and Space Shuttles were going to and from orbit in what amounted to expensive bus rides. Computers were no longer a subject of distant fascination, they were everyday realities that people used to...play Pac-Man. Synths weren't jabbing, they were lush. The Human League had a hit with "Human," crooning "I'm only human/ Of flesh and blood I'm made."

As Heller points out, that band's origins had been quite different. They were part of the lineup for a 1979 festival in Leeds called Futurama, billed as "the world's first science fiction music festival." Also on the bill: Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, OMD, the Fall, Soft Cell, the Teardrop Explodes, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, and even John Lydon's post-Sex-Pistols project Public Image Ltd. Heller vividly describes the scene.

Along with music, the Futurama Festival offered laser light shows, movie screenings, and "other sci-fi attractions." One of those attractions was people dressed as robots, who wandered the hall, brought along by Roger Ruskin Spear, a prior member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — the group that helped usher in a decade of sci-fi music with their 1968 song "I'm the Urban Spaceman." Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk called the festival "grim," "bleak," and "with gray dust everywhere": a concertgoer remembered, "the Queens Hall venue floor came off on your clothing. By the end of Saturday, everyone was a uniform bleak gray." Come Sunday, those in attendance looked a little like robots themselves.

As for Major Tom? Well...

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