Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, And The Decade Sci-fi Exploded, by Jason Heller
Melville House 2018, ISBN 9781612196978
It is something of a relief as a critic when you are given a book to review by someone you know, and it turns out to be brilliant.
I’ve known Jason Heller online for the thick end of ten years; we met on The AV Club back before it was a branch of Gizmodo, where I was a somewhat enthusiastic commenter and Heller was a music critic, whose passion for the material he covered was infectious even if you weren’t particularly into the music he was examining. Since then, Heller has written for Pitchfork, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Rolling Stone. He’s also a lifelong science fiction fan, who won the Best Semiprozine Hugo award for Clarkesworld in 2017 (with Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace, and Kate Baker).
His first book, Strange Stars, combines his two loves of music and SF. Specifically, it looks at how pop music and science fiction have combined and enriched each other, with a specific focus on the decade between David Bowie’s two key single releases in the genre: ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 and ‘Ashes To Ashes’ in 1980, with a final chapter bringing the story up to date. Bowie died during the completion of the book, adding an extra poignancy to it all.
This decade covers much of my teenage years: I was thirteen when Star Wars was released in 1977, and many of the songs and albums Heller mentions were in my meagre vinyl collection or were current plays on the radio – Bowie; Bonzo Dog’s ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman’; Rush’s brilliant-but-Randian 2112; Genesis’s ‘Watcher Of The Skies’; Brian May’s clever and haunting General Relativity song ‘’39’, tucked away on Queen’s A Night At The Opera; Spizzenergi’s ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’. Needless to say, I was hit with a lot of nostalgia reading about those strange and hectic times, and the songs that helped me survive them. It was a very different time to be a SF fan: the first Star Trek convention had only taken place in 1972 (I went to my first one in 1980) and fandom was still mostly propagated by word-of-mouth and an ad-hoc network of snailmail fan clubs and fanzine publishers – very different from this world of expensive conventions attended by tens of thousands, billion dollar genre blockbusters and mass online fandoms. Aside from second-hand and library books and the odd bit of telly, often the only hits of ‘sensawunda’ available were the references in these songs. Heller is a little younger than me – about eight years, which nudges him just outside of that cohort – but we’re both from lower working class roots and came to the genre in similar ways.
Aside from such life-long favourites, there were a lot of surprises for me too: Heller’s research has been exhaustive (but never exhausting to read ). As well as the usual suspects, he explores deeply into many overlooked works which explored SF themes in music early on. (One of the more fascinating discoveries for me was the prog rock band Julian’s Treatment: founded by Dominican/British artist Julian Jay Savarin, their music explored a dense space mythology of Savarin’s creation in the album A Time Before This.) The rise of German kosmische music, which led to the influential cyborg electronica of Kraftwerk, also gets its due.
He also dives deep into funk and disco music which explored these themes: from Sun Ra’s cosmic jazz and George Clinton’s P-Funk projects, precursors of the rising Afrofuturism movement, to the silver-jumpsuited disco spins of Meko’s Star Wars arrangements to Hot Gossip’s ‘I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper’. Of particular note to Forteans, he also covers the history of songs about UFOs; from flying saucer/little green men novelty records to ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ by Chris De Burgh and ‘Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft’, best known from its cover version by The Carpenters. (He also notes such parallels as London’s UFO Club playing host to the nascent Pink Floyd in the late ‘60s.)
Each chapter other than the last focusses on a specific year: one of the joys of this approach for me was seeing how various scenes and players in both music and SF overlapped extensively. One key example being the importance of the New Wave of science fiction, based around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine: aside from the influence of its writers such as JG Ballard and Moorcock himself on various musicians, Moorcock’s own work with bands such as Hawkwind, Blue Öyster Cult (whose extensive non-Moorcockian mythos, created by manager Sandy Pearlman, is also covered in depth) and Moorcock’s own outfit The Deep Fix have their importance firmly displayed here. Often, these links are as informative and delightful as those shown in a contemporary documentary series of key importance to many modern writers, such as Warren Ellis – James Burke’s Connections (1979). There is no higher praise for this approach. (Among many which surprised and delighted me was the connection between Blue Öyster Cult, Patti Smith and Arthur C Clarke, circa 1973.) Heller has a knack of making key moments of the history rich with emotion – his description of the first performance by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars sent chills down my spine.
Bowie’s work remains the spine of the book: Heller begins the book with a prologue about the importance of his seeing the Glass Spiders tour in his youth, and Bowie’s final creative act, the release of Blackstar and his death two days later, provides a fitting coda.
One can make minor quibbles: some favourites are given less attention than one might like (conspicuous by absence due to the timeline is ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’ by The Timelords, the early KLF incarnation covered in depth by The Grail’s John Higgs); the final chapter, detailing the start of the ’80s but also jumping some 30 years to Bowie’s death and astronaut Cdr. Chris Hadfield’s orbital cover version of ‘Space Oddity’, is needfully sparse compared to the preceding in depth pages. But these are small points on a book which is both a thorough look at its chosen subject matter and a passionate love letter to it.
Science fiction and popular music continue to combine in fascinating ways, from Janelle Monáe’s queer Afrofururist works to Saul Williams’ cyberpunk concept album Martyrloserking. Jason Heller’s book could not be more timely.
(You can find Heller’s playlist of some of the key songs mentioned in the book here.)