The Future Will Happen This Year: Space Rock

RIGHT NOW we’re gonna go back, way back, back before there was FM radio, quadrasonic sound, mellotrons, or any of the other futuristic trappings that make “space-rock” a term that might have some meaning for you.

Back to 1956 or so when Joe Bennett & the Sparkletones sang “me an’ my baby, cruisin’ thru outer space,” when Buchanan & Goodman had piles of hit records with Flying Saucer in the title, when Betty Johnson was courted by a “little blue man,” when a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple-people-eater joined a rock band, and when Billy Lee Riley & his Little Green Men stepped to the mike at Sun Studios in Memphis and wailed:

“Well the little green men, they were real hep cats
Rockin’ and rollin’ to the crazy flats
They were three foot high, hit a few bars
Brought rock & roil all the way from Mars…
Flyin’ saucers rock an’ roll, flyin’ saucers rock an’ roll”

THE SPACE TIME WARP

Regardless of what the history books tell you, sci-fi rock was one of the major forces in fifties rock & roll. As far back as 1952, Ike Turner and Frankie Brenston had a hit called ‘Rocket 88’, about a souped-up Olds. In ’54, the Medallions scored with ‘Buick ’59’, which predicted that the 1959 Buick would have, among other accessories, a “jet-propelled overdrive.” By 1956 Chuck Berry had a car that could sprout wings and zoom into the sky when the cops got too close. And all this time the radio kept giving bulletins of impending invation from outer space, culminating in 1964 with ‘Martian Hop’ by the Ran-Dells, in which we learned that all the Martians really wanted to do was “throw a dance for all the human race.”

With Sputnik in the sky and Mad Magazine at its apex of cultural relevance, there was nothing that could quite capture the teenage imagination the way rocket ships and flying saucers did. Like that movie Teenagers From Outer Space, in which a kid had the honor of saving some luscious high school blonde from being eaten by a gigantic arthropod by arriving in the nick of time with his dad, who happened to command a space fleet from another galaxy. I mean, if you think math is boring now, you should’ve taken it in the fifties. You needed these kinds of daydreams to get through the day.

So sci-fi rock occupied a secure niche in the hearts of every goony kid back then. If a new Chevy was sharp, a rocket car and a ray gun were even sharper. There’s no time like adolescense for digging the far-out. I could go on and list 300 or more space novelty records, but who cares? They were all dumb. And they sounded just like everything else, anyway. Why nobody thought to use theremins, I don’t know. They were around from at least the early fifties, but the only use anybody could find for them was in scoring sci-fi thrillers.

The first use of such devices in rock music, to my knowledge, occurred in 1966. A San Francisco group called the Anonymous Artists of America (never recorded), part of the Kesey scene, had this thing they called a “synthesizer” that made all manner of odd noises while they sang typical acid-rock songs. Around the same time a New York group, known as Lothar & the Hand People were regarded as somewhat of a novelty because their act featured a theremin. It, too, was used only for its gimmick value. Space-rock this was not.

It will come as a surprise to those who know them only for their laid-back steel guitars, but the Byrds were the real mentors of space-rock. McGuinn was a sci-fi nut, a builder of robots, and also a fan of Coltrane, Sun Ra and the spacier jazz figures. So it wasn’t too unnatural when he recorded a song called ‘C.T.A. 102’. But it freaked the shit out of us folk-rock fans. The title refers to a distant galaxy from which regular radio pulses were picked up before astronomers had figured out what pulsars were. It was speculated that we might be receiving signals from an intelligent race. McGuinn’s song goes:

“C.T.A. 102, we’re over here receiving you
Signals tell us that you’re there,
We can hear them loud and clear.
We just want to let you know
That we’re ready to go
Out into the universe
We don’t care who’s been there first…”

All this backed by ‘Tambourine Man’ guitars mixed with – theremin and synthesizer noises! All right, it was about time. The amazing part of the song, though, is yet to come. Another verse starts but is heard only through a heavy filter, so that it sounds cold and distant. Then, over it, we hear several seconds of dialog in the most chillingly alien voice/language I ever hope to hear. How he did it, I don’t know. The voices don’t translate backwards, sideways, fast or slow. They are nothing like any human tongue. They’re downright scary.

McGuinn had, in one shot, caught the feeling of radio astronomy and the unthinkable distances of stellar space, and the abstract, unhuman reality of the void. His other notable foray into space-rock was ‘Space Odyssey’, a song adapted from an obscure science fiction story, years before Kubrick had the idea of making it into a movie. But although it also had some good synthesized effects, the arrangement was too ecletic to be pure space. Using backwards guitar like a bagpipe drone, the song features a chanted, tribal sort of vocal. The ultimate effect is Scottish.

The form was now established, however, and it wasn’t long in being perfected. Taking off from McGuinn’s conception of space as cold and inhospitable, bereft of the romantic associations it held for kids in the 50’s, a number of groups by 1967 (including even the Rolling Stones with ‘2000 Light Years From Home’) were experimenting in full-fledged space-rock. Foremost among them, of course, was Pink Floyd.

ENTER, PINK FLOYD

Their first album, PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN was heavy science fiction through and through, conceptually far advanced over yet thoroughly a product of the early Flower Power mania in England. The spirit of Flower Power was brotherhood and all that, yet Pink Floyd projected a feeling of frightening, abstract technology in their music, and seemed quite unsettlingly at home in those surroundings. Of course, all of them were notoriously unhinged, to the extent that guitarist Syd Barrett left the band and had himself committed after this album.

Without getting into the other factors that made PIPER a remarkable LP, let’s look at the two overtly science-fictional songs. ‘Astronomy Domine’ (on the British pressing) establishes the basic underpinnings of space-rock; steady, monotonous drumming, suggesting the relentless velocity of space travel, and sharp, hard-edge rhythm guitar chording, representing the unthinkably strong, firm metallic power of a space craft. Outer space ambience is provided with the addition of weird organ sounds and the de rigeur synthesizer whooshes. All of it combines to create the impression, still somewhat romanticized, of travel through space. The song itself seems to suggest a tour of the solar system;

“…Jupiter and Saturn
Float around and ’round eternally.
Nepture, Titan, stars can frighten…”

So the fearsomeness of space is brought up again, yet from the way the song starts (with a voice reading off planetary names like a Greyhound dispatcher) it’s obviously a routine tourist flight. Their idea seems to have been that space can be frightening, but only if you think about it.

They thought about it all right, and ended up in deep space with ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, which stretched the very limits of studio technology to create an amazingly believable picture of travel between the stars. This song provided the model for a number of attempts to capture the same feeling, most notably the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dark Star’, but none surpassed it.

After Barrett’s departure, Pink Floyd seemed to rely more heavily on eerie organ sounds and increased synthesizer garble to create space effects, and their second album, SAUCEFUL OF SECRETS, seemed more a paranoid space fantasy than an attempt to portray a commonly acceptable stereotype of what space is all about. The title song and ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ were passable, but in future albums Pink Floyd seemed to become preoccupied with mental space, and I rather lost interest.

I look at it this way. The reality of space is, I’m sure, unimaginably profound. Think about infinity long enough and you can’t help going crazy. Who wants to do that? Like in the 50’s, space rock at its best was still a vehicle for teenage fantasy. A bit more sophisticated, but something a kid could relate to and get off on speculating about. Go for a joyride to Saturn? Wow! Meet up face to face with infinity? Forget it. The way we prefer to think about space is much closer to Star Trek than to Cosmic Consciousness, and that’s the simple truth of it. It’s also why Pink Floyd has never transcended the limits of their undergound appeal.

Many still consider Pink Floyd a space-rock group, but I can’t see it. That second album, with its cover full of Dr. Strange, Andromeda, and rockets blasting into snowflake saucers, was their last overt effort within the genre. Always a serious and rather intellectual bunch of guys, they moved from there into more symphonic compositions such as ATOM HEART MOTHER and doing the music for various art films and ballets. Their show now includes lights, dancers, projections, fireworks and all sorts of special effects, but their last two albums, MEDDLE and OBSCURED BY CLOUDS, have found them getting into a fairly conventional pop-rock style, including even a couple of three-minute singles. Pink Floyd, for all their sophistication and avant-garde cultural accetpance, have been left behind.

By 1969/70, when Pink Floyd began wandering from the path, others were getting into space rock, although with many the emphasis was more on electronic effects and sound experiments than on any scientifictional subject matter. Or vice versa, as in the case of Jefferson Airplane/Starship, where an apparent overdose of Heinlein had Kantner & friends attempting to whitewash their sophomoric polemics with a veneer of science fiction – without success. The best piece of miscellaneous space-rock from this period is probably David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ (currently a hit, for reasons we’ll investigate later) which has its share of sound effects, but relies on a simple, common daydream level story line for its impact.

THE ARYANS IN SPACE: AMON DUUL II

While all these isolated stabs at the form were taking place in the English speaking world, something far more exciting was brewing over in Germany. A group called Amon Duul II was attracting phenomenal crowds with a strange music grounded in Teutonic myth images, filtered through their own case of the traditional German fascination with Eastern philosophy and the occult, and based on a combination of the space-rock sound perfected by Pink Floyd and the San Francisco style of free-form jamming.

The meaning of Amon Duul’s music, if any, is pretty much impenetrable to Western ears. We can assume, from the chanting and offkey vocals reminiscent of some forms of modern jazz, that something avant garde is going on. But the music itself leaves no question. Their first album, PHALLUS DEI, is one long collection of spacy jams and babbled German singing. The next two albums, their best in the opinion of many, brought this style to refinement and included some of the most bizarre music ever heard on this world. YETI, a two record set with an indescribable, nightmarish cover, contained two full sides of improvisational raga-rock that would’ve done Quicksilver proud, along with their hit single ‘Soap Shop Rock’ and several other indistinguishable songs.

This wasn’t really space music, beyond the churning rhythm guitars out of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and an occasional ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ soundlake. There were odd sounds all right, produced mostly by Floyd-like organ rather than synthesizer, but nothing you could point to and identify as part of the space-rock sound. Amon Duul were, in fact, never a space group. Fans of science fiction have a distinction they make between that literature, with its concern for extrapolated technology and “hard” science, and what they call fantasy fiction, dealing with realms of the mind as well as with myth, folklore, and the purely imaginary. Space-rock breaks down into these same categories. The Byrds were into pure SF, Amon Duul were strictly from Fantasyland, and Pink Floyd crossed from one to the other and often straddled the boundary.

Amon Duul have made the definition somewhat hazy themselves at times, such as on their third album, another double set titled DANCE OF THE LEMMINGS, or, in German, TANZ DER LEMMINGE. The cover of this one had the same falling horses and misty, superimposed images as before, but it opened to reveal the control panel of a spaceship, the viewscreen showing a planet below, stars above, and floating elephants ahead. Most of the album had the sound of deep space, a combination of early Pink Floyd and Stockhausen’s ‘Kontaktte’. There’s little doubt that Amon Duul was familiar with the work of Stockhausen, and it really shows here.

I first heard about Amon Duul from Lester Bangs, who had German pressings long before any of the records were released in America – a real connoisseur of dementia. He once described Amon Duul’s music in these pages a couple years ago as follows: “…gothic, medieval, cruel and visionary…, they aim for the most exalted, mysterious, Wagnerian, Nietschean supernoise, the Music of the Spheres!” Right again, Lester. No group in the world can match Amon Duul’s keen instinct for hitting on the awesome, underlying reality of the collective Germanic subconscious. ‘Wie Der Wind Am Ende Einer Strasse’ and ‘Deutsche Nepal’ from their latest album, WOLF CITY, are about as spooky as any music has ever sounded, the latter evoking swirling gusts of icy snow and the emergence of an ancient Frankensteinian horror from some Transylvanian cave, as the echoing voice of a demented Hitler shrieks garbled nonsense into the wind, punctuating his speech with bursts of manic laughter.

Amon Duul, currently Germany’s most popular group, set the stage for a renaissance of German rock that has recently received some coverage in the American press. Groups such as Tangerine Dream, Guru Guru, Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh, the Can, Neu, Klaus Schulze, Wallenstein and others are thriving, and many of them appeared this February at a giant space rock festival held in Paris, the importance of which can be judged from the fact it was sold out far in advance.

Ohr Music, which manages most of these groups, sent me a letter in which they were very careful to differentiate between what l called “space-rock” and the music of these groups, which they described as “Kosmiche Musik.” I’d like to quote briefly from that letter: “There is a great difference between space and cosmos, respectively the medium of cosmic music, the medium of time. You may find out this difference most distinctly if you listen to our record of Ash Ra Tempel and Timothy Leary (a rather peculiar album, recorded during Leary’s stay in Europe – GS). There are seven levels of consciousness on Seven Up. Four of them (first side of the record) happen in the dimension of space, the circuit of destiny. Against this the second side with its three levels of consciousness plays in the time. That is musically electronic music and from the point of view of Timothy Leary high energy. Space rock is the kind of music which has been left in the old musical patterns and it is only covered with a new packing. Against this cosmic music liberates the listener in his own fantasia, and gives him the liberty of a voyager through time.”

I’d have to go along with that. Not with the seven levels and all that bunk, but with the basic distinction between this music and space-rock. Spacy it is, but much closer in mood to electronic music and avant-garde classical and jazz experimentation. Yet groups like Amon Duul helped lay the groundwork for a large scale outbreak of space-rock in England and America, indirectly by helping expand the boundaries of what rock could be (boundaries which were rapidly shrinking as psychedelia wore off and was forgotten) and, more directly, by contributing a member to an English group that was on the verge of making space music commercial on a mass level for the first time – Hawkwind.

HAWKWIND: SPACE FOR THE MASSES

Formed in mid-1969 by Dave Brock, John Harrison and Mick Slattery, and joined shortly by DikMik, Nik Turner and Terry Ollis, Hawkwind (originally Hawkwind Zoo) built an early reputation by appearing outside the gates of rock festivals and playing free, allowing bystanders to climb up on the back of their truck and join in. Naturally they became known as a people’s band, and their psychedelic orientation (not to mention diet) produced an interesting effect. Their music, because of its proletarian origins, remained basic and primal, centered around a steady, repetitive bass, drum and guitar sound that almost anyone could play. Around this structure they evolved a visionary mentality which, in the true psychedelic tradition, contained a hodgepodge of mixed-up occultism, utopian exhortations, and above all a vast, cosmic frame of reference.

This image and their ability to grow and become more imaginative within it, led them to develop a solid cult following who believed that somehow Hawkwind embodied the Answer to the Great Question. And Hawkwind, by developing a cryptic, mysterious system of expressing and identifying themselves, fed this image and built it to the point where their following today has taken on the semblance of a religious movement.

Musically, they started out on their first album (HAWKWIND) with those hypnotic rhythms previously described, garnished with Turner’s freaked-out saxophone and vague but ostensibly meaningful songs like ‘Be Yourself’, ‘Mirror of Illision’, ‘Seeing it as You Really Are’, and ‘The Reason Is’? They sound like the titles of Black Oak Arkansas songs, but with Hawkwind the compelling rhythm is all. They’re not preachers. And ironically, by reducing their message to a mesmeric chant, they manage to drum it into their listeners’ skulls with more force than Dandy Jim Mangrum would believe possible.

Somewhere along the line, they lost Mick Slattery and John Harrison, gained Dave Anderson from Amon Duul, Lemmy, Bob Calvert and Del Dettmar, and replaced Terry Ollis with Simon King on drums after the former “freaked out.” They also made the acquaintance of British science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock, editor of the controversial SF magazine New Worlds and author of a series of stories detailing the adventures of a longhaired, psychedelic teenage hero of the future. Moorcock identified instantly with Hawkwind and they, SF readers and fans of his, welcomed his ideas.

Out of this meeting of minds came a new direction for Hawkwind, involving some pretty strict science fiction concepts like space travel, time travel, computer consciousness, Galactic empires and space wars. This approach also brought about a change in Hawkwind’s sound. Harmonicas and saxophones receded to be replaced by synthesizers and audio generators. All ephemera was trimmed away, leaving the basic raw space drive sound introduced by Pink Floyd way back when.

Their second album (IN SEARCH OF SPACE) featured ‘Master of the Universe’, a classic refinement of the basic space-rock sound. Tireless tomtom drumming, simple two-chord guitar rhythm, voices intoning the title lyrics and the whole ting surrounded by a universe of swirling, shooshing synthesizer noise. The whole album’s like that, and it’s great.

This was a natural evolution for Hawkwind. Their interest in space needed only to be sparked by Moorcock’s viewpoint, and their music already contained the elements of the sound they needed to represent these ideas. The clean, streamlined sound of this album is. by design, evocative of the precise technology involved in space travel, while the synthesized sound suggests the sense of adventure and excitement we associate with science fiction movies, Star Trek and so-on. Together with Hawkwind’s increasing rise of stylized symbology in their ads, posters and album posters, these factors combind to create a strong, attractive, imagination-sparking image; a return to the level of teenage appeal space-rock enjoyed in the fifties, that has brought the group to a height of popularity in England and an impending captivation of America.

Their appeal lies in the simplicity of their approach along with the suggestion of veiled meaning behind the well-developed imagery, as well as the fact that their music ties in perfectly with the present state of pop culture. Ten years ago, it was J.D. Salinger; later, it was Tolkien; now, those who comprise the pop culture constituency (high school and college kids, and post-intellectuals of all ages) are going apeshit over science fiction and comic books. Star Trek has become an institution, years after its cancellation. This wave of interest represents an enormous potential following for Hawkwind, who do for the Isaac Asimov brand of SF what early Country Joe & the Fish did for Tim Leary’s brand of psychedelia.

And yet – Hawkwind did not commit themselves wholly to that image. This album and the following one did not tell space stories, they merely provided the backdrop for each listener to invent his own. The group is proud of its ambiguity, and rightly so. IN SEARCH OF SPACE was accompanied by a booklet titled “The Hawkwind Log,” and I have seen as many explanations of what it was about as I’ve seen reviews. On one level, it’s the story of a spaceship that crash-landed in our solar system many ages ago. On another, it’s a message to the Terrans of today: “Technicians of spaceship Earth, your Captain is dead. Your Captain is speaking, your Captain is dead. Our oxygen is running out, our fuel is running out, our food is running out, our space is running out…” And on yet another level, it’s merely a collection of hippie cliches and yoga charts. Read into it what you like – as with Hawkwind’s music, it serves as a mirror for our own fantasies.

Their third album (DOREMI FASOL LATIDO) also purports to tell a story, but as before there are countless ways to interpret it. It is their best album yet, solidly exciting all the way through, and it’s selling like crazy in America as well as Europe. It also finds Hawkwind on the verge of their first American tour.

THE SPACE RITUAL

For some time now Hawkwind has been performing a sort of space-rock opera known as ‘The Space Ritual’, involving a troupe of dancers as well as their usual, massive collection of light and sound technology. Moorcock spent many months with them preparing the story line, the songs and the accompanying booklet, and if the music is anything like the booklet it should be a real scorcher.

“Purple light from the dials washed over his face and as he readjusted the coordinates, his consciousness soared into channels of fire. He thought of the six musical orb sensors resting in their piles in the hold below. Each humming slightly from their numatic influx drivers. Six gleaming towers of chromium, custom built by the master craftsmen of Xenon. Smooth. Efficient. Waiting. He thought of the charter. And his mind flashed to the words engraved on the crystal…We the representatives of the Galactic Union, with the authority delegated to us by our Great Mother and in accordance with the Brotherhood of Men, send greetings to the leaders of planet Terra…”

This pamphlet is far less ambiguous than its predecessor. It tells, in a fairly straight-forward manner, of the entry of Earth into the Galactic Union. The songs fit in vaguely, illuminating other aspects of a future in which space flight is common, and hinting at vast conflicts of which sonic attack is one hazard:

“In case of sonic attack follow these rules:
Do not waste time blocking your ears.
Do not waste time seeking a ‘sound proofed’ shelter.
Try to get as far away from the sonic source as possible.
Do not panic.
Use your wheels. It is what they are for.
Do not attempt to use your own limbs.
You have only a few seconds to escape.
Think only of yourself.

From all accounts, the ‘Space Ritual’ is something that has to be experienced. It’s easy to imagine what a dynamic group they must be live, but beyond that lie whole dimensions of difference. When Hawkwind performs, every member of the troupe and every piece of equipment on stage is arranged and positioned, in accordance with various theories involving everything from astrology to the directionality of sound waves. All this information is neatly charted in a bound manual that accompanies the tour.

I spoke recently with Nik Turner and the group’s manager, Doug Smith. They both seemed fascinated by the prospect of affecting people directly, physiologically, with pure sound. Sonic attack. They also hinted that sci-fi would begin so play a lesser role the music, evidently, would suggest its own context without she sited for definition.

We’ll have to wait and see on that one. Meanwhile the implications of Hawkwind’s success have become manifest. Their last single, ‘Silver Machine’ (the story of a futuristic teenager and his shiny new space-time machine) was Number 2 in England and sold millions of copies all over the world. DOREMI FASOL LATIDO began showing unexpectedly large sales within days after release in the U.S.; in England it debuted as Number 16. The program director of a big AM Bill Drake station in the midwest put all ten minutes of ‘Brainstorm’ on the air. Hawkwind, it appears, has made space-rock commercial.

No reason it shouldn’t have been, except that Pink Floyd and Amon Duul and company always made the stuff so scary, so real and therefore inaccessible to mass consciousness. It’s not far from the repetitive chording of ‘Master of the Universe’ to ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’. Yup, space-rock becomes space-age bubblegum. And that’s no cut; bubblegum music is the essence of basic commerciality.

We see the evidence all around us. Chris Hodge had a single last year on Apple called ‘We’re On Our Way’, sold from the point-of-view of saucer-people en route to Earth for the purpose of spiritual education. The Rowan Bros. had a single called ‘All Together’, which seemed like an invitation to meet them halfway. Both records were space rock all she way, from the beat to the overloads of synthesized garble. Both made the charts, and were fantastically commercial, beautifully produced records, from major record companies.

That they signify something is, to me, beyond question. The same goes for David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, which is not on the charts without reason.

Space-rock is here. It’s not one of the leading trends, but it’s in the Top Ten and rising. All that’s needed to bring the whole thing together is a hit single by Hawkwind. Something like, for instance, ‘Psychedelic Warlords’, which could be the ‘Monkees Theme’ of the seventies. And with any luck, the future will happen this year. Hope so – we’ve waited for it long enough.

© Greg ShawPhonograph Record, March 1973

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