Sunday, 24 January 2016

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: A Brief Survey of the Seventies

I. Following on from the 1960s, with its space race themes and craze for all that was cosmic and mind-expanding, both David Bowie and Pink Floyd carried their pioneering work into the next decade, to great acclaim. The 1970s also saw the totalitarian state-surveillance vision of George Orwell’s 1949 novel of the nightmare near future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, provide a topical musical theme for a number of artists.

In any discussion of science fiction-related popular music of the 1970s, David Bowie looms large; on the fringes of the ‘Sixties Scene’, it was 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ which first brought him widespread attention. That song proved to be the first of several successful forays into the field of science fiction – notably Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as an album and concept (but not a Concept Album) – encompassing themes which run through the decade. Prime examples include his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, an acting role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, his incarnation as Aladdin Sane and the dystopian Diamond Dogs album. The latter grew from Bowie’s original intention to produce a theatrical version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was stymied when the author’s estate refused to grant permission; the songs ‘1984’ and ‘Big Brother’ were incorporated as part of the album. Whilst his musical and thematic content evolved over the decade, echoes of this interest in science fiction surfaced in the later, experimental albums Low (whose cover is a still of Bowie as The Man Who Fell to Earth and which contains material originally composed for the film’s soundtrack) and 1978’s ‘Heroes’ – specifically in lyrics to songs such as ‘Sons of the Silent Age.’ Bowie even revisited ‘Space Oddity’ and the saga of Major Tom at the dawn of the 1980s, in ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ complete with its ground-breaking promotional video.

Pink Floyd had emerged as a major attraction of London’s UFO Club with their live performances in the late 1960s and, as befitted the times, their early albums showcased a cosmic preoccupation in titles such as ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ A Saucerful of Secrets and ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,’ alongside the fairy-tale whimsy of wayward song-writer Syd Barrett. After Barrett’s untimely departure from the group, their albums became arguably more serious, and indeed better-selling, tracing a trajectory to perhaps their signature work, 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, credited with transforming Pink Floyd “from ambitious art-house hipsters to international superstars, while influencing virtually every rock band of the past forty years.” Differing theories have been attached to the iconic prism cover art, and the various poster and sticker inserts contained within the album’s gatefold sleeve; however its designer Storm Thorgerson stated simply that “it related mostly to a light show. They hadn’t really celebrated their light show.”

UFO Club Poster featuring Pink Floyd, 1967; The Dark Side of the Moon album cover, 1973

Before and after Bowie’s abortive stage musical, Nineteen Eighty-Four has proved to exert a persistent influence on musicians. The omnipresent “plexi-plastic eyeballs of your special friends” in the California-based band Spirit’s somewhat hazy 1970 homage to Orwell, ‘1984’ crudely conveys the notion of police-state surveillance with the ominous reminder that “you’re never out of their sight.” It was a fruitful theme for well-established artists in the following years; Stevie Wonder included ‘Big Brother’ on his 1972 album Talking Book, which opens “your name is Big Brother; you say that you're watching me on the telly.” Himself being watched by the FBI, John Lennon’s 1973 song ‘Only People’ features the line “we don’t want no Big Brother scene...” The Jam and the Dead Kennedys both incorporated allusions to Nineteen Eighty-Four into their own ‘protest songs’ of the later 1970s. The references have only proliferated in the decades since; despite the passing of the date itself, bands have continued to draw musical inspiration from the novel.

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