Sunday, 23 August 2015

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: Space Age Pop

The Soviet-American Space Race, which began in earnest following the Second World War, intensified during the late 1950s and early 60s, and increasingly captured the world’s imagination. Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight of April 1961 preceded the American Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969, and the sudden proximity of ‘outer space’ posed a series of questions for science fiction. Long before it was defined as a genre, a substantial strand of literature had been concerned with the possibilities of exploring the cosmos, and discovering life on other planets; from Lucian’s True History to H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, through the fantastic journeys which filled the pages of the early science fiction magazines, the lunar voyage had become a staple topic. Now that which had been fantasy was about to become reality, how would its practitioners respond? Whilst authors pondered the ramifications of this re-shaped future, the instant, often ephemeral, world of popular music, seized on the possibilities in myriad ways. 

An eccentric London-based record producer and former RAF radar operator, Joe Meek, utilised the primitive technology of his home studio for the distinctively strange sounds conveyed in ‘Telstar’, an opportunistic celebration of the launch of the communications satellite of the same name in 1962, which relayed the first live transatlantic television feed. The song – bizarre even to modern ears – an instrumental featuring the Clavioline, also spanned the Atlantic, reaching no. 1 in both UK and US pop charts on its release the following year. Meek, a troubled character, never reaped the rewards of his innovation, becoming embroiled in a legal dispute on the origins of ‘Telstar’, eventually settled in his favour in 1967; tragically Meek had killed himself (and his landlady) three weeks earlier. To some extent ‘Telstar’ and its composer suffered from the taint of the novelty record, of which there were a profusion on space themes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Joe Meek in his studio

The sub-genre known as Space Age Pop music in the late 1950s and early 60s was largely an American phenomenon, capitalising on the commercial production of ‘stereo’ records from 1958 onward. These early discs were often advertised as maximising the stereophonic potential of the home hi-fi system (envisioned as taking pride of place in the hi-tech ‘space age bachelor pad’ of its modern male consumer), a rapidly expanding market in the post-War USA. The style and content of the genre itself, as practiced by artists such as Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Esquivel was essentially conservative, often using traditional instrumentation for adaptations of standards interspersed with original compositions and more in the nature of ‘easy listening’, ‘lounge’, or ‘mood’ music, which it is now generally designated as. Clarity of sound was its main selling point, with occasional effects in the mix to display the latest advances in recording technology, serving to demonstrate the overall aural superiority of stereo to mono discs.

 Two sides of Space Age Pop

Slightly more adventurous, and operating at a tangent to these artists, were Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, credited as being among the “first to create electronic music for the general public,” at a time when it was still either the preserve of the academic avant-garde, or fodder for novelty records. Perrey had been introduced to the Ondioline, one of the instruments that succeeded the Theremin, by its French inventor, Georges Jenny, and was working in the USA as a salesman and demonstrator of that unusual instrument when he met Kingsley, a German-Jewish refugee and self-trained classical musician. Without the advantages of digital technology, the two worked with tape loops and meticulous splicing, each tune taking weeks to produce. This painstaking work was unveiled in the 1966 debut Perrey-Kingsley album, The In Sound from Way Out, which influenced future generations of musicians from the Beastie Boys to Stereolab, containing such inventive space-titled tracks as “Unidentified Flying Object”, “The Little Man From Mars” and “Visa to the Stars.” They later embraced the Moog synthesizer and went on to productive and innovative careers as solo artists.

                           The influential first Perrey-Kingsley album, and a performance at the end of this US TV clip

There was even a curious Soviet equivalent to Perrey-Kingsley and the outer fringes of Space Age Pop in Vyacheslav Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments, active from the late fifties to the eighties, which incorporated theremins and later branched out into self-designed early synthesizers and recorded highly original material. As officially-sanctioned artists, one of the rare popular groups allowed to record on the prestigious state label, Melodiya, Mescherin’s Orchestra had to tread a fine line between their more experimental leanings and the need to remain in favour with the authorities – hence, such ideologically-sound titles as “On the Collective Poultry Farm.” Nonetheless, few acts in West or East have had such impressive sci-fi credentials; a specially-commissioned version of the Socialist anthem ‘Internationale’ was broadcast into outer space from the Sputnik satellite, Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts were fans, and the Orchestra provided the soundtrack to the 1959 Soviet science fiction film Nebo Zovyot [The Sky Calls]. The latter “tells of the ‘space race’ between two future nations competing to become the first to land a spacecraft on the planet Mars,” and was re-made in the US as Battle Beyond the Sun.

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