Hijack the Starship, Major Tom

One of my favorite rock albums of the early 1970s is Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s science fiction story titled Blows Against the Empire. Although the album was released under the auspices of Kantner and Slick’s ensemble Jefferson Starship, the truth is that the collection of musicians in this work are quite different than those who would make up the Jefferson Starship a few years later. Along with members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, David Crosby and Graham Nash also appear on some of the tracks. Blows Against the Empire is a science fiction story put to music. In the tale, a starship traveling the galaxies and presumably part of some earth-based space force is taken over by anarchist-leaning passengers and crew. Their intention, one assumes, is to create a new world on the starship based on mutual aid and freedom. Overtly political, as Kantner and Slick tended to be in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the album also represented a frustration with the established order of war and poverty felt by many mostly young residents of the western nations. The previous years of protest seemed to be making very little difference and the forces of reaction were growing stronger. Maybe it was time to leave the planet and start anew.

David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” was inspired by the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This tune would ultimately become one of Bowie’s signatures. The story of a space mission gone wrong, “Space Oddity” lent a cautionary warning to the exuberance many earthlings felt after watching the Apollo astronauts walk on the moon in July 1969. Bowie acknowledged his debt to Kubrick’s film. A year or two later, Bowie launched his most recognizable alias when his band of aliens known forever as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars hit the road. Bowie paid his debt to science fiction novels and stories. So did Kantner and numerous other rock musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, whose hit tune “Purple Haze” was inspired by Philip Jose Farmer’s short story “Night of Light”—a story which was later expanded into a novel.

Then, almost alone in the universe, was the British band Hawkwind. This outfit was all about science fiction and space travel. They were also about LSD and hard rock. Radical politics informed their work, too. Indeed, one of their hits was titled “Urban Guerrilla.” Their concerts were Dionysian festivals of sound, dance, serious bass lines, a nude female singer and songs of space travel and worlds undiscovered. Lemmy Kilmeister, who would leave the band and form Motorhead, played bass and sang for the band from 1972-1975. Author Michael Moorcock, best known for his science fiction and fantasy novels and also a member of the band The Deep Fix, also appeared with them. His Elric series of novels were the basis of an entire album by Hawkwind titled Chronicle of the Black Sword. On occasion, Moorcock played with the band in public.

This musical multiverse is the part of the context for novelist and journalist Jason Heller’s 2018 book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. Employing the premise implicit in his title, Heller discusses the interaction, inspiration and influence of science fiction in the world of popular music of the 1970s. In his explication, he weaves a thread through the decade that splices together the rock music of Bowie, Hawkwind and the like with the funk of George Clinton and the Mothership of Parliament/Funkadelic and its clones. He also brings what would become known as the Afrofuturism of the jazz artist Sun Ra and the music of the electronics wizard Brian Eno into the fold. Then, like a unusual and unexpected topping on a dessert, Heller includes the various Top 40 offerings of disco Star Wars themes and other such novelty records of the time. In other words, Heller’s definition of sci fi ranges from the silly to the sublime, from the utopian to the dystopian and from the hard rock of Hawkwind to disco remakes of the Star Wars theme. Naturally, always looming in the shadows are Star Trek and 2001:A Space Odyssey; both of these being perhaps the most important catalysts to the surge in the popularity of science fiction in the 1970s.

Heller’s first chapter opens with David Bowie and his friend and future producer Tony Visconti in a movie theater. It is 1969. They are both high on a marijuana-based tincture and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. From there he launches into a discussion of young musicians and their affinity for science fiction; not just the novels and the fan magazines, but also Star Trek and Dr. Who. The dystopian vision of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film A Clockwork Orange lurks menacingly in the background, along with the influence of John Brunner’s masterpiece Stand on Zanzibar. Once that chapter is concluded, Heller takes each year of the 1970s and turns it into a chapter. Each chapter combines his take on the politics and culture of that year with its music. In his telling, what began as a decade infused with music inspired by serious science fiction ultimately ends up with a somewhat silly Star Wars infused pablum that all too often is what popular culture in capitalist society ends up as. Nonetheless, Strange Stars takes these phenomena seriously. With David Bowie as a constant reference, from Ziggy Stardust to the Nicholas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Strange Stars reveals just how much of an influence the fantasies, hopes and fears of the sci-fi world played in the popular music of the 1970s. As the fiction of sci-fi has turned into the reality of the twenty-first century, its role seems to have vanished. Yet, Heller neatly resurrects it in his closing paragraphs, remembering the 2016 death of David Bowie and his last album Blackstar, whose title tune includes images of long dead space travelers inside its strange state of spacetime and compressed matter.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.