Tuesday, 30 August 2016

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

II. The Concept Album

The ambitious scope of Rock – as opposed to disposable, chart-friendly Pop – grew in the later sixties from its commercially-driven origins and gradually became the province of Serious Artists, many of whom turned to works inspired by, or adapted, from the rich field of science fiction literature. Accordingly by the early seventies, the album, rather than the single, was firmly established as the ideal vehicle for such explorations. These musicians were often keen to promote the source of their conceptual material, drawing on classic pioneering works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the later speculations of Isaac Asimov amongst others, whilst George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four remained a staple across musical genres. Thus was born the science fiction Concept Album.

A notable example of literary inspiration is found in Rush’s 2112 – one side of this 1976 album details an anonymous protagonist’s struggle against the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, guardians of a totalitarian regime suppressing individual thought in the interests of a “Brotherhood of Man” with the aid of their “great computers.” Located in “the bleakness of Megadon,” one of the planets of the Solar Federation, this epic is by the band’s own admission indebted to Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem, and continues to excite debate about its true meaning.

Of the direct adaptations and interpretations of science fiction works, Rick Wakeman’s undertaking of a musical rendering of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth; was one of the more ambitious. No stranger to the grandiose gesture (this 1974 album was sandwiched by his historical epics The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Round Table), Wakeman partly self-financed the project, enlisting cult actor David Hemmings (star of Blow-up and Profondo Rosso) as narrator. Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir, in its combination of what Rolling Stone described as “pageantry and pretentiousness,” it epitomises a strand of seventies progressive rock which teetered on the edge of bombast and lays itself open to ridicule. Wakeman later revisited the project on its twenty-fifth anniversary in Return to the Centre of the Earth, this time narrated by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame. The latter effort followed his own idiosyncratic take on Nineteen Eighty-Four as concept album, with lyrics contributed by Tim Rice.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, as one of modern science fiction’s seminal texts, had already proven influential in a series of re-interpretations, notably the 1938 radio play adapted by Orson Welles, which reputedly convinced a substantial number of American listeners that the Martians really had landed. Composer Jeff Wayne went one better than Rick Wakeman, though, by securing the services of Richard Burton as Narrator, and then-popular artists Julie Covington, David Essex, Justin Hayward and Phil Lynott to record individual songs for his double-album musical interpretation. Its success was immediate, and enduring. Prescient as he was, even Wells surely couldn’t have envisaged The War of the Worlds continuing to be staged in the twenty-first century, in an extravagant theatrical production with a hologram of Burton narrating from beyond the grave...

Following a debut album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, re-telling selected works of Edgar Allen Poe, in 1977 the Alan Parsons Project chose to tackle Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. Song-writer Eric Woolfson spoke to Asimov, and found him to be “extremely friendly and enthusiastic about the idea.” Intending to explore the inter-woven narrative of the nine stories in detail, the band discovered that the rights had already been sold for film/television production (although nothing materialised until a 2004 film only loosely connected to Asimov’s originals). With the title’s comma also removed for legal reasons, I Robot the album instead covered more generic themes of man’s tendency to act in robotic fashion “as well as the dangers of uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence.” Its cover depicts the band at Charles De Gaulle Airport, then representing the cutting-edge of futuristic architecture, overlaid with a painted ‘robotic brain.’ Their 1982 album, Eye in the Sky, whilst a title shared with an early Philip K. Dick novel, was another in the long line of albums inspired by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The seventies saw the heyday of the Concept Album; by the end of the decade, changing tastes and ever-fickle fashion decreed that the lofty ambition to marry art forms via the long-playing record was not only folly, but terminally uncool (perhaps especially so if it incorporated science fiction). The idea of literary inspiration was condemned as pretentious in an era when virtuouso musicianship could be safely scorned. Names such as Rick Wakeman and the Alan Parsons Project became bywords for the outmoded pomposity of progressive rock (while Jeff Wayne simply slipped into obscurity). Many years would pass before the first signs of cautious critical re-appraisal - if not yet full rehabilitation - of the Concept Album could be detected.

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