strange stars

The subtitle ‘David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded’ neatly sums up the premise of this book. Heller begins with Bowie’s sci-fi Space Oddity, the saga of the doomed astronaut Major Tom – which was briefly used to accompany the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in July 1969 – and ends with Bowie’s return to Major Tom in Ashes to Ashes in August 1980.

Certainly, there had been sci-fi related songs before, but they tended to be one-off novelties, now people like Bowie who had grown up with the wonders and blunders of the Space Race and had enjoyed the stream of sci-fi TV shows, films and books in the 1950s and 1960s were putting these concepts into their music.

Bowie confessed that he and record producer Tony Visconti were transfixed by the imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and were drawn to watch it numerous times under the influence of a few joints. They were not the only ones and 2001 became branded as the ‘ultimate trip.’ This milestone movie, dominated by the concept of aliens who are far beyond our comprehension, combined with the Moon landing missions, made it feel like we were taking more than one step for mankind.

Classics like George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future world 1984, the thrill and implications of space exploration entertained by Arthur C. Clarke’s hardcore sci-fi and the mind-warping stories woven by Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury were all major (Tom to ground control) influences on the new generation of songwriters.

The first fully realised sci-fi concept album arrived a few months after the Moon landing courtesy of The Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children Children. It celebrated a future where humanity will become a spacefaring species, in sharp contrast to Bowie’s astronaut helplessly sitting in a tin can.

Heller dons his space suit and deftly guides us through the galaxy of sci-fi songs and genres that assaulted our senses through the 1970s to the early 1980s. On this mission, we visit the progressive rock of Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Yes and enter the orbit of metal, funk, jazz, reggae, disco, glam rock, krautrock right through to punk and the new romantics.

They are all driven to imagine the consequences of space exploration, technology, the future fate of humanity and the possibilities of contacting intelligent alien life forms. These forces (pardon the pun) were given a dramatic new thrust and popularity by the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. As Heller notes, they blasted open the floodgates and sci-fi music would finally be acknowledged as more than a niche market or novelty.

This is an impressive guide for anyone who wants to explore the ear-tingling sci-fi pop of the turbulent 1970s, and Heller very helpfully provides extensive notes and a detailed discography.