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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Music in Science Fiction, or Science Fiction in Music? (Part 2)

Sixties rock ‘n’ roll and New Wave science fiction grew up together, step-siblings living on the wrong side of the tracks in the shadows of the larger culture of the Space Age. Never mind for now the question of why there’s so much lame and insipid music in science fiction. Why isn’t there more and much better science fiction in rock music?

Especially in England, the two subcultures intermingled. Science fiction writers and rock musicians: they knew each other, they hung out with the same people, they dated each other's ex’s, they went to the same parties, they shared the same drugs. So why didn’t science fiction have more of an impact on the development of rock music?

The answer, I think, is that it did, but it was largely a regrettable and forgettable impact. As with many things wrong with the world today the Sixties in general are to blame, but The Rolling Stones in particular caused the single biggest problem. 

If you go looking for science fiction-influenced rock ‘n’ roll, the usual list is pretty short. David Bowie typically comes in first, with “Space Oddity,” and perhaps some people also remember “Starman.” He actually wrote and recorded quite a few songs with science fiction content, not to mention starring in The Man Who Fell To Earth, but in a weird twist of fate, Bowie recorded his first demo tapes with Joe Meek, the man who had previously written and produced “Telstar.” Meek subsequently decided Bowie wasn’t worth further development (Meek also turned down The Beatles and Rod Stewart), and those original demo tapes, along with thousands of hours of other recordings of a veritable who’s who of Sixties rock stars, have been sitting unreleased ever since, while record companies and lawyers for artists’ estates argue over who owns exactly what.

Plenty of other sci-fi influenced music was released in the Sixties, though, by other artists working for other record labels. My personal pick for the undiscovered masterpiece of the lot is “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” which you’ll find on Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album. In 1967 Marty Balin’s lyrics were merely strange, but with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight we can see now that this track is obviously a love song Marty is singing to his sexbot. So obviously…

After a fairly small handful of highlights, though, and a few promising concept albums—Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—the list of good SF-influenced rock peters out pretty quickly. The problem with Sixties SF-influenced rock was that it soon merged with psychedelia and evolved disintegrated into “Space Rock,” a subgenre best forgotten. Before Dark Side of the Moon (which has nothing to do with science fiction; it seems to be mostly about Roger Waters’ premature midlife crisis), Pink Floyd had been a leading proponent of the idiom, with songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” By the time they got into the studio to record Meddle, though, they’d changed the lyrics of “Echoes” specifically to avoid the “space rock” label, and therefore to avoid being thrown in the same bin with—

Well, with bands like Hawkwind, for example. And Amon Düül II. And a whole lot of other freakish experiments from the late 1960s to early 1970s that are best forgotten now.

So what do The Rolling Stones have to do with all this? Aside from recording “2000 Light Years From Home,” weren’t they mostly off recording pleasant little religious ditties, like “Sympathy for the Devil,” Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Goat’s Head Soup

Well, yes, the band was. But in a story that’s been passed around science fiction writers so many times it’s become nearly apocryphal, their business organization was looking for a science fiction property they could develop into a stage show, or maybe even into a movie, to star Mick and the boys. The property they settled on was a little novel entitled A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, which because Burgess was broke and desperate they were able to pick up the rights to for the lordly sum of $500.

The stage show never materialized. The film was never made. But a few years later, when Stanley Kubrick came around looking for the film rights to A Clockwork Orange, he found he had to deal with the Stones, not Burgess, and the price—well, let’s just say that there was a bit of a markup, none of which went to Burgess.

¤   ¤   ¤

The Sixties may have had the conceit that it was all about peace, love, and understanding and all that rot, but by the time the Sixties ended (around 1975, actually) it was all about agents, lawyers, and who controlled which rights. By the time Alan Parsons set out to make his I Robot concept album, not only were Isaac Asimov’s representatives involved, but also the television production company that owned the film rights—and in the end Parsons had to change the title slightly, removing the comma from what originally was I, Robot, to resolve trademark issues.

Having been on the music side of the equation, I can tell you that it became a thorough pain in the ass. You couldn’t do anything that was even tangentially influenced by a published piece work, without first going to whoever controlled the performance rights for that work and securing permission, for which they often wanted an insane amount of cash up front. I can see why a lot of musicians said, “Screw this! It’s only sci-fi! I’ll write it myself! How can I do worse?” (And based on the sort of crap that Hollywood throws on movie screens and people buy, who’s to say they’re wrong?)

But on the other hand, having been on the writer’s side of the equation: you’re damn right I don’t want you to do any sort of musical adaptation of my work without my permission at the very least, and ideally I would like to be paid up front for giving that permission—and to get a cut of your profits from the subsequent performance or production.

Does this all seem a bit grouchy and abstract to you? Then join me tomorrow, when we’ll talk about…


or,  Please God No, Make the Hurting Stop!

1 comment:

Pete Wood said...

Pink Floyd keeps popping up as the best science fiction rock band that doesn't seem to do any science fiction. If 1984 is science fiction, then I submit that the Orwellian themes of The Final Cut, the Wall, Wish You Were Here, and, ahem, Animals. Animals, certainly qualify as science fictions. Animals, for God's sake is pretty much Animal Farm to music.