Monday, November 18, 2019

Strange Stars

Strange Stars, by Jason Heller
June, 2018  Melville House

Jason Heller’s book focuses on science fiction-themed pop muisc of the ‘70s, with a few detours into the ‘60s and ‘80s; his definition of “pop” encompasses soul, disco, prog, and kraut. David Bowie is the unifying thread; in his intro Heller states that Bowie was at the forefront of what he terms “sci-fi music,” a term I don’t think Bowie himself would’ve used – I mean if you went back to the mid-‘70s and told Bowie he was doing “sci-fi music,” he’d probably look at you like you were crazy and then go back to drinking milk out of his baby bottle and snorting mountains of coke.

Heller is a few years older than me; he opens Strange Stars with a flashback to when he was fifteen in August 1987 and saw Bowie in concert for the first time. I was twenty when I saw Bowie in concert for the first (and only) time; this was in September 1995, when he toured with Nine Inch Nails. This was in Pittsburgh and I recall it being a great show, with an obscure group called Prick opening the ticket (Prick being run by some guy who gave Trent Reznor his start before NIN), followed by Nine Inch Nails. Once NIN was done their set the stage went dark and Reznor played a saxophone (or something), and suddenly you heard Bowie’s voice singing. A very cool moment. Bowie then did some songs with Nine Inch Nails, who gradually left the stage so that Bowie’s band could fully take over the show. I remember a lot of the audience left at this point, which I found disappointing.

Well anyway, prior to this I only knew Bowie through his hits, but I’d picked up the recently-released Outside CD. After this show I went down the road of Bowie fandom for a few years, picking up the majority of his catalog on CD or LP. Somehow though I moved on and these days I rarely play Bowie’s music, though I do think Diamond Dogs is pretty cool. And to tell the truth while I liked Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, I never loved it. Heller clearly feels different, as Ziggy Stardust gets a lot of focus, and indeed Heller not only inspired me to give the album a listen again but to also check out Simon Goddard’s Ziggyology (2013), a sort of pseudo-hagiography of Ziggy.

Bowie unifies the book, given that he initiated the ‘70s focus on sci-fi rock with 1969’s “Space Oddity” and then closed it with 1980’s “Ashes To Ashes,” which declared Major Tom a “junkie.” But this book is not solely about David Bowie. Actually it’s not so much about any one thing as it is a year-by-year overview of sci-fi pop music, with a focus on rock in the first half of the decade and then on a tide of increasingly-banal space disco in the latter half of the decade, the majority of it inspired by Star Wars. There’s also some stuff about punk and New Wave; I found the first half of the decade much, much more interesting.

Typically I stick to older rock books, as I feel something has been lost in today’s rock journalism. If you read old issues of Rolling Stone or Creem or Crawdaddy, you often get highly-literate pieces that are borderline exegeses, often pretentious but just as often thought-compelling. In particular Sandy Pearlman of Crawdaddy did these awesome essays which too explored science fiction’s intersection with rock music (what a shame he never published – and never completed? – his early ‘70s “Altamont cospiracy theory” rock book History Of Los Angeles, which only appeared via a twenty-page excerpt in Jonathan Eisen’s 1971 collection Twenty-Minute Fandangos And Forever Changes).

But you don’t get anything so probing here; you don’t get anything like that in today’s rock journalism, particularly journalism about classic rock. Instead, today’s rock writers have become historians, cataloguing instead of analyzing, thus Strange Stars is mostly a compiling of this or that event in “sci-fi music” of the era. Sentences are capably constructed, chapters open with brief snatches of scene-setting, hypens are egregiously employed. But there’s not a whiff of personality. In this way the book is about as bland in the narrative department as another recent classic rock book, Goodnight, L.A., and re-read value is similarly low.

I personally prefer a little more flash and flair with my rock writing; I mean give me something like Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age any day. Or even Lester Bangs, who I never liked as much as others because most of the time he just seemed to bitch for the sake of bitching. But at least his personality was evident – not to mention his creativity. Another thing missing here is that rarely does Heller describe what the music sounds like; similar to so many of those early Rolling Stone reviewers, for the most part he sticks to the lyrics. I can’t understand how a rock journalist could ignore the music itself, but so many of them do it; Heller isn’t alone in this. But, given that the theme of the book is science fiction, it’s understandable that he focuses on the lyrical sci-fi content of the songs in question.

Heller opens up with a brief overview of where sci-fi music was, pre-“Space Oddity,” in particular with a cool appraisal of CSN’s “Wooden Ships.” The chapter on 1970 is when the book really kicks in gear, as it was this year of course that Paul Kantner released Blows Against The Empire a sci-fi hippie rock opera which I love to death (and I reviewed here). Honestly though I felt that Heller could’ve explored the album a bit more, but throughout he just sort of notes this or that sci-fi album or song, quickly describes it, and then moves on to the next topic. I felt that the topic warranted a little more examination, not the least because there isn’t exactly a ton of sci-fi rock out there. Instead of getting into the banality of late ‘70s soul and disco Heller could’ve just elaborated on the actual sci-fi rock output of the early-mid ‘70s, but that would just be my preference.

Heller’s contention is that the success of “Space Oddity” sort of inspired other rockers to unshackle their inner nerds and do ful-on sci fi music, even if they didn’t get a release – such as, most notably, Pete Townshend’s incomplete Lifehouse concept, another topic that could’ve been greatly expanded upon here. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust of course took it to a whole ‘nother level, and Heller includes interesting tidbits about the character from the interview William Burroughs gave David Bowie in an issue of Rolling Stone, such as the factoid that Ziggy was killed by “black hole kids.”

As the ‘70s progress we get into krautrock and prog, the latter of which I’ve never really been into, and the former of which I can only take in small doses. Given the “pop” tag in the book’s subtitle (“David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded”), Heller too often breaks away from the more interesting world of rock to see what soul and jazz musicians were doing, so far as sci-fi music goes. In this regard we’ll get breakdowns on this or that soul song that deals with space themes or aliens or the future, and while it was interesting I would’ve preferred more material on the rock artists. I mean the guy spends a lot of print on the complex mythology of the Parliament-Funkadelic universe, and it would’ve been nice if he’d spent half as much time on Kantner’s sci-fi output, which too evolves a continuing theme over several albums.

Heller’s knowledge of the era is vast, and the book often had me heading to or Youtube to check out this or that obscure artist. But sometimes Heller veers a little too obscure, particularly when examing the science fiction-themed music of black soul musicians (sorry, “African-American Afro-Futurists”).  Which makes it very odd that Heller inexplicably overlooks more noteworthy material. Off the top of my head, here are some ‘70s science fiction albums Heller missed – obscure, yes, but all of them were released on major labels: 

Sounds Of Genesis: Journey To The Moon
Buddah Records, 1969 

This super-cool LP features a gaggle of studio musicians doing groovy, sub-psychedelic instrumentals, interspersed with actual recordings from the Apollo moon landing. Recently I discovered a modern day record that follows a similar path: The Race For Space, by UK electronic outfit Public Service Broadcasting, from 2015. But whereas that one uses atmospheric sampled sounds to tell its space-themed story, this LP is all about the mod rock vibe, complete with period-mandatory electric sitar. And with tracks like “Space Rock” and “Ninteen Ninety-Nine,” it’s definitely in the sci-fi mold, and somewhat similar to 101 String’s awesome Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000, from 1968. That one isn’t mentioned in Strange Stars, either, but then Heller restrains himself for the most part to the 1970s only, with an opening chapter that looks at sci-fi rock from 1969 and a closing chapter that looks at sci-fi rock from 1980.

Jimmie Haskell: California ‘99
ABC Records, 1971

Haskell was a film composer who here did a “thematic fairytale” of a rock concept LP, set in the far-flung year of 1999. Possibly one of the more elaborate packages of the era, the sleeve folds out (and keeps folding out) into a big wall map of the United States of 1999, complete with a “marijuana insect corridor” in the midwest. The belabored backstory has it that the US has gone bankrupt and renamed itself “California,” with legal dope and etc, and the story concerns a young man who has been tasked by the Big Brother government to find three “lifemates” instead of performing his otherwise-mandatory military service. Groovy orchestral stuff that would sound at home on the Barbarella soundtrack trades off with spoken word passages (complete with cool sonic trickery), random moog freakouts, and the occasional rock song (including an arbitrary cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Guest list includes Joe Walsh, who sings and plays guitar on two tracks.

John Keating: Space Experience and Space Experience 2
Columbia, 1972 and EMI, 1975

How very, very strange that neither of these get a mention in Strage Stars. This is far-out cosmic easy listening moog music, the first one going for a sci-fi soundtrack vibe, the second one incorporating some funk into the mix. Granted, it’s all instrumental, but still – Heller mentions a few instrumental sci-fi records in the book, but somehow missed both of these. Same goes for the two albums Keating recorded under the name Nova: An Astomusical Odyssey (1971) and Nova…Sounds Of The Stars (1974.)

Donovan: Cosmic Wheels
Epic, 1973

Lambasted in its day, this was Donovan’s response to the glam movement, complete with mystic-celestial inner art and sci-fi themed tracks like “The Intergalactic Laxative.” Overall the album’s pretty cool, boasting a psychedelic space rock vibe.

Kenny Young: Last Stage For Silverworld
Warner Bros. Records, 1973

I also reviewed this one here. This is another sci-fi concept record, again set in the future ‘90s – 1997, to be exact, and also concerning a pair of young lovers trying to find each other in a totalitarian society.

Neil Merryweather: Space Rangers and Kryptonite
Mercury, 1974 and 1975

I also reviewed Space Rangers here; both it and the followup Kryptonite were influenced by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, per Merryweather himself. Tracks like “King Of Mars” and “Star Rider” are pure sci-fi rock and thus perfect fodder for Strange Stars, but neither album is mentioned.

Various Artists: Flash Fearless Versus The Zorg Women Parts 5 and 6
Chrysalis, 1975

Perhaps the most inexplicable miss Heller makes. Flash Fearless was the rock opera equivalent of a big budget flop; produced by Who bassist John Entwistle under his “John Alcock” pseudonym, the record spoofs Flash Gordon, clearly tapping into a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe. Alice Cooper sings on two tracks, Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas shows up, and Entwistle plays bass throughout. Another of those elaborate deals, the LP came with a big comic book explaining the clunky storyline (which the album itself doesn’t really stick to). Curiously, Heller appears to be aware of one of Cooper’s Flash Fearless tracks, “Space Pirate,” mentioning it in passing toward the end of Strange Stars, yet he doesn’t state the album it came from. This is a shame, as Flash Fearless isn’t bad at all, and certainly deserves space in a book that’s devoted to sci-fi themed ‘70s rock!

Alien: Sons Of The Universe
Elektra, 1979

Another inexplicable miss; not only is Sons Of The Universe a sci-fi concept album, the concept actually extends to the band itself – per the detailed story on the inner sleeve, the members of Alien are aliens! Descendants of Atlanteans, even! The story has it that, ages ago, some ancient aliens came along, took some Atlanteans back to their home planet, a planet devoted to music, and now their descendants have returned to Earth to spread their musical gifts. No one’s credited by their real name, and it looks like the LP only got very limited release, with still no CD issue. It doesn’t sound so much like a product of 1979, though; it’s more of a cosmic soft rock sort of thing, sometimes poppy, sometimes with David Gilmour-esque guitar work, and with only the most subtle of disco touches on certain tracks. It’s not a perfect album, but I’ve played it a lot and I like it, and it should’ve been included in Strange Stars.

Probably one of the more frustrating things about writing a book like this is that you’re locked in at a certain point, and thus even if Heller did realize he missed some of the above, it might’ve been too late to edit the text. This is one of the better things about running a blog (other than the fame and fortune, of course); I can edit and revise at any point. But still, you’d think that these above records – and I’m sure I could think of more besides – would’ve warranted an inclusion in the book, particularly given that Heller will devote pages to incredibly obscure space-themed songs by soul singers.

And this really is my main problem with Strange Stars. Important (or at least interesting) material is sidelined so that “diversity” can be introduced into the fold. I mean Jefferson Starship’s “Hyperspace” alone deserves a probing examination, but it’s rendered to nigh footnote level, same as the other sci-fi songs the group turned out in the ‘70s. But then we’ll get overlong digressions on this or that disco band or soul group that tried to tap in on the success of Star Wars. There was I think even potential to discuss sci fi rock that didn’t get made, like the Grateful Dead’s proposed soundtrack for Venus On The Half-Shell, or even Sammy Haggar’s planned sci-fi concept album.

But as the ‘70s progressed the wild and wooliness was replaced by a slick blandness, thus I found myself skimming through the final chapters of Strange Stars. The untold soul and disco groups who did Star Wars cash-ins became mind-numbing after a time, and I’ve never really cared about punk. Save that is for the Misfits (Glenn Danzig era only, of course!), but given the “1970s” constraint Heller only allows himself a brief mention of their “Teenagers On Mars,” thus ignoring their sci-fi heavy Walk Among Us, from 1981. And the New Wave stuff I totally skipped.

Bowie comes and goes in the text; per Heller, Bowie’s interest in sci-fi music waned after 1974’s Diamond Dogs, but Heller still provides some interesting details about his later albums, particularly Low (1977). I could’ve done without the writeup on Bowie’s 1979 appearance on SNL, totally not seeing the revelatory aspect of the freak-hairdoo’d mime type who danced behind Bowie during his performance and went on to a brief career of New Wave music. I did though find it cool that Bowie released a 12” mixing “Space Oddity” with “Ashes To Ashes,” something I only learned about via this book, but after listening to it on Youtube I don’t think the songs were segued together as neatly as Heller does.

But overall the book presents a cool concept, and Heller discusses the topic with enthusiasm. I would’ve preferred more of an in-depth study of the various sci-fi worlds these musicians created...again, something similar to what Sandy Pearlman was doing in the mid-‘60s. And hell, Pearlman was just writing about the Byrds and stuff; imagine if he was still doing rock reviewing when Diamond Dogs and whatnot came out (instead of serving as lyrical guru for Blue Oyster Cult). 

For that matter, I think limiting himself (somewhat loosely) to the ‘70s also hampered Heller; Jimi Hendrix was the most sci-fi of all rockers, and starting the book in say ’66 would’ve allowed him to be covered more adequately. And if the timespan of study had been expanded to the mid-‘80s, Heller could’ve explored Katner’s overlooked followup to Blows Against The Empire, 1983’s Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra, which replaced the acousto-hippie vibe of the former with a sort of cold ‘80s punk-metal vibe. Well, at any rate maybe Heller could do a sequel.

Oh and PS – I see the blog is now up to 200 followers. Thanks, everyone!


John said...

Good review. I agree with you about current Rock journalism. Much of it is dull. I was a devoted reader of Crawdaddy which IMHO was way more insightful (and hipper) than Rolling Stone (still have my Hendrix and Joplin obit issues). Today, I think the Brits do a better job of Rock writing. Rolling Stone in the meantime, has devolved into a mostly political rant rag. I've been meaning to read this book and your review spurred my interest again.

Russ said...

Thanks for the review; I've been thinking about getting this book and now it doesn't seem so urgent. Here's another I'm curious about:

Let us know if you're familiar with it.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! Russ, that book looks right up my alley, thanks for letting me know about it. You might also want to check out that "Twenty Minute Fandangos" book I mentioned above, as Sandy Pearlman sort of goes into a similar path in his "History Of LA" excerpt.

Russ said...

I'll look into it; thanks again.

Felicity Walker said...

I’ve never seen David Bowie in concert, but like you I was born in the mid-1970s and started listening to him in the mid-1990s, during that same period where he collaborated with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Eart hl i ng was the first Bowie album I bought, and my favourite track was “Looking for Satellites,” with “Little Wonder” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” being second and third favourites.

I’ll have to look up both the music mentioned in the book and the missed ones you suggested.