Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: 2001 and other Space Oddities

The English author Arthur C. Clarke, one of the delegates to the world’s first science fiction convention, speculated in his short story ‘The Sentinel’ (submitted for a BBC competition in 1948) about the existence of a mysterious pyramid on the Moon. This edifice was apparently to be activated as a transmitter to project signals across the Galaxy in the event of its discovery; the implication being that both Earth and Moon had received ‘visitors’ in the distant past. The story formed the basis of one of the most celebrated science fiction films of the 1960s – released even before Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on the moon – and, simultaneously, inspired a less celebrated song.

American band the Byrds had already shown an interest in science fiction themes in songs such as ‘Mr Spaceman’ and ‘CTA-102’; their principal songwriter Roger McGuinn was one of the first musicians to invest in the newly-available Moog modular synthesiser, which he purchased at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. McGuinn had previously been known as Jim, but after a flirtation with the Subud spiritual movement, its founder Bapak advised him to change his name on the basis that it would better “vibrate with the universe.” Bapak sent Jim the letter ‘R’ and asked him to send back ten names starting with that letter; as McGuinn relates, “I was into science fiction so I picked Rocket and Retro and React... Roger was the only proper name in the whole bunch of words I chose and the guru thought I was mad.” In 1968, the newly-renamed McGuinn then adapted Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’ as ‘Space Odyssey’, with co-writer Robert J. Hippard, the lyrics relating how “in nineteen and ninety-six we ventured to the moon... here we saw the pyramid, it looked so very strange”, to the accompaniment of a futuristic sound-scape generated by the Moog synthesiser.


Meanwhile, American Director Stanley Kubrick, having also been inspired by ‘The Sentinel’, was filming a version which eventually bore the title 2001: A Space Odyssey on its release in 1968. Clarke was involved in the screenplay, incorporating elements of several of his other short stories, and re-wrote his original concept into a novelisation to accompany the film; in both, the pyramid had now become an enigmatic monolith. The project even incorporated designs and drawings first used in the Soviet propaganda sci-fi film Nebo Zovyot [The Sky Calls]. While 2001 was widely acclaimed for its ambitious scope, special effects and striking imagery, Kubrick rejected the score commissioned and composed by Alex North in favour of stirring classical music, notably the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ by Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’.

After the 1969 moon landing, before the Space Age gradually faded from the wider public consciousness, there was another spate of space-themed hit singles (alongside numerous failed attempts to cash in on the space-craze), including the apocalyptic imagery of Zager and Evans’ American number 1 ‘In the Year 2525.’ The most successful, critically and commercially, of these opportunistic efforts was undoubtedly David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. The tale of Major Tom’s doomed excursion to the stars, released only days before the Apollo landing, accompanied by exotic mellotron and stylophone instrumentation, remains perhaps the pinnacle of space-themed popular music, coinciding perfectly with man’s last ‘giant leap.’