Spaced-Out Rock

Over the weekend, we remembered the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and subsequent moon walk by the crew of Apollo 11. This historic commemoration had me thinking about the importance of the space race on rock music.

Throughout the 1970s there was a fascination with space themes in rock music. This was especially captivating those bands inspired by the musical exploration of psychedelia. They wanted to combine their ambient music with lyrical and visual themes drawn from science fiction and contemporary science. As a result, we arrived at a new term: Space Rock.

There were precursors to Space Rock even in the 1950s. In 1959, British songwriter composed the instrumental song “Telstar” for the band The Tornados. It sounds like a theme song so a sci-fi show from the ’50s. The song garnered a #1 hit in both the U.S. and in England.

Fast forward almost ten years, one of the first prominent bands within this movement was Pink Floyd. In the midst of the Syd Barrett era, they had already performed space-themed songs such as “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive.”

Then, during the BBC broadcast of the moon landing in July 1969, Pink Floyd performed live their largely forgotten tune “Moonhead,” a pulsing, ambient jam to accompany the ethereal views of humanity in the heavens.

That same year, David Bowie had his first major hit with “Space Oddity.” The title was a play on the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick. Many know the song as “Major Tom,” who is the main character set to flight in space.

Both Bowie and Pink Floyd would continue their exploration of space themes through different formats. Pink Floyd’s music ventured further into the elaborate arrangements and lengthy jams that psychedelia had introduced. Consider, for example, their song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” borrows heavily from “Moonhead.” And then, their 1973 smash hit album Dark Side of the Moon continued the space themes by using the moon as a metaphor for mental anguish. Likewise, they would write the lengthy “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” as a tribute to their estranged Syd.

Meanwhile, Bowie would write tight pop songs such as “Starman” and much of the rest of the material on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as using space as a source of hope in a world experiencing decay.

Bowie and Pink Floyd were not alone in these space explorations. Another British band known as Hawkwind combined elements of psychedelia and hard rock to write spacey rock that was layered in distortion. Their 1973 album Space Ritual combined live and studio overdub material to create a sonic landscape that was out of this world.

Even Queen got in on the space themes on their massive 1975 hit album A Night at the Opera. Brian May’s song “‘39” tells the story space travelers coming back to Earth in the year 2139 after 100 years away from their homes.

British bands were not the only ones to approach Space Rock. Themes from space also influenced the Afrofuturism of the avant-garde jazz by Sun Ra.

George Clinton took on space themes in Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop (1973) and Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1975).

More recently, post-grunge band Hum had a hit in the mid-90s with “Stars.”

And even more recently, The Flaming Lips’ 2002 concept album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots made use of sci-fi and space themes to explore emotional states.

As the space age emerged at the same time as the age that gave birth to rock ‘n roll music, it is therefore no surprise that rock music looked to space for its themes and inspiration. Should we choose to go back to the moon or even to Mars, I wonder how space themes may influence another fifty years of rock music.

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