What rock & roll tune tells its story against the background of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity? And which sci fi-themed funk masterpiece was honored by the Library of Congress? Read on for the answers to these and other questions about the connections between science fiction/fantasy and rock and roll music.
In a previous post, I discussed music as it relates to Science Fiction in the movies and TV. In general, a songwriter can reference a literary character in any way he or she likes. But the reverse isn’t true. A writer must pay for rights to quote song lyrics in a book or story, so it’s not always easy to discern what music may have influenced a writer.
But since Bill Haley and the Comets ushered in the Rock ’n Roll era, we can be sure that hundreds of writers have written to the beat of Rock tunes. Urban Fantasy writers in particular like to draw connections to Rock in their writing. An informal survey (Okay… me looking at my own bookshelves), reveals many Urban Fantasy books and stories with titles that directly or indirectly reference Rock ’n Roll.
But the connections are there for straight-ahead Science Fiction as well. In fact, IO9.com found 100 Sci-Fi songs inspired by Rock ’n Roll. You can visit that site to see the entire list, but here are a few, plus some they missed, that I think represent the best of the lot.
The Brains of Rock ’n Roll
“39” – Queen
The original members of Queen are the most highly-degreed in all of pop music. Guitarist Brian May must be the only rock and roll star with a PhD in Astrophysics. Freddie Mercury had a Masters in Art. You have seen his work on the group’s logo, the Queen Crest. Bassist John Deacon possesses a Masters in Electronic Engineering.
Drummer Roger Taylor is the slacker of the group. He “merely” has a BS in Biology. If you’ve seen the recent movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you may remember a scene where Freddie claims to have saved Roger from a career as a dentist.
In 2015, Brian May was invited to NASA, where he joined the New Horizons team in examining the first photos of the Pluto flyby. So, it might not come as a surprise that one of May’s songs deals with a love story disrupted by the physics of relativity.
“39,” from the group’s breakout album “A Night at the Opera,” tells the story of a group of space explorers dispatched to find a replacement for a dying earth. They return to discover a hundred years have passed, and everyone they know and love has died. Hidden in what at first listen appears to be a cheerful folk tune with a skiffle beat are some of the most plaintive and haunting closing lyrics I’ve ever heard:
For my life,
The time dilation effects of Einstein’s special theory of relativity are familiar to those of us who read the literature, but it’s unusual territory for pop music. On an album best known for the bombastic anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “39” is just a musical footnote. But with its emotional punch and empirical accuracy, it may be Rock’s only true science fiction story.
Queen would also mine Science Fiction art, choosing a well-known Astounding cover by Frank Kelly Freas as the cover of News of the World.
Heroes and Villains
“Iron Man” – Black Sabbath
“Magneto and Titanium Man” – Wings
The ultimate meta-moment of Marvel’s Iron Man is when Tony Stark wages battle to the soundtrack of Black Sabbath’s song of the same name. Taken by itself, the tune is the kind of turgid, guitar heavy arena rock tune best listened to under the influence of the chemical of your choice. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the Marvel Comics character.
But that scene was awfully cool.
Paul McCartney went Ozzy and his crew one better, invoking not one but three Marvel characters in his “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Featuring not only Iron Man’s Soviet antagonists Titanium Man and Crimson Dynamo, but also the mutant master of metal, the song appeared on the B side of “Venus & Mars Rock Show,” and was a Wings concert staple, accompanied by original Marvel art.
An avowed comics fan, Paul McCartney gave Jack Kirkby and his daughter front-row seats during the “Venus & Mars” tour. Kirby returned the favor with a hand-drawn comic.
The Ones On Every List
“Space Oddity” – David Bowie
“Rocket Man” – Elton John
You can’t do a list of Sci Fi songs without including these two.
Even though Mark Watley must engineer his own survival to a disco beat in Andy Weir’s The Martian, what the movie is actually about is proving the 1972 John-Taupin Theorem of Mars climate:
Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,
In fact, it’s cold as hell.
“Space Oddity” is another tune which makes just about every “Sci-Fi rock tunes” list. Bowie would come back to the Science Fiction theme again, as bisexual alien rock star Ziggy Stardust, and even play an alien in his movie debut, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” He would also eventually tell us the fate of Major Tom, labeling him a “junkie” in the 1980 tune “Ashes to Ashes.”
Bowie also wins the award for providing titles to genre TV shows. “Ashes to Ashes” and “Life on Mars” (both the excellent BBC original and the not-quite-so-good American remake) would have been poorer without their titles. And thankfully, fully licensed to use Bowies’ music within the shows.
Speaking of licensing, in a triumph of common sense, Bowie’s music publisher agreed to extend astronaut Chris Hadfield’s license to “Space Oddity,” so the first music video ever produced in space could continue to be seen.
Included here, because that means I can.
Paul is Dead. Or Maybe Just On Another Planet
“Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft” – Klaatu
This is probably the most obscure tune on my list. Its only chart presence was for a few weeks in 1977, when the Carpenters released a cover version. But the original comes with an interesting story.
The song was written and recorded by the Canadian band Klaatu. So right off the top we have a cool The Day The Earth Stood Still reference. But when the album was first released in 1976, it was without pictures of the band or even their names anywhere on it. Everything was “Written by Klaatu,” “Produced by Klaatu,” etc.
Somehow, a rumor got started that Klaatu was actually a reunited Beatles, recording anonymously. The band’s record company denied it from the get-go, as did the founders, John Woloschuk and Dee Long, when they finally revealed themselves. But it took quite a while for the rumors to die down.
News Flash: Sixties music was kind of trippy.
“In The Year 2525” – Zager & Evans
Zager and Evans have the dubious distinction of being the only act to top both the U.S. and U.K. charts and then never have another hit.
The 1969 song stops at 1,010-year intervals, making disturbing predictions about human society at each. Writer Rick Evans is the anti-Roddenberry, predicting that we will never learn from our mistakes.
Life is Cheap and Death is Free
“Transverse City” – Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon is one of music’s most iconoclastic personalities. He began his career penning hits for artists like Linda Ronstadt. In his final years, he was David Letterman’s favorite guest, performing and talking candidly about his terminal lung cancer. His “Keep Me In Your Heart” is one of the most poignant songs ever written, but he’ll always be best known for the catchy “Werewolves of London.” He was well-read, despite dropping out of high school. “Transverse City” was directly influenced by William Gibson.
Zevon was a fan of writers. He dedicated an album to detective novelist Ross MacDonald, and served as musical director and occasional guitarist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, the famous “garage band” made up of Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, and Amy Tan.
At Least There Were No Anal Probes
“Spaceman” – The Killers
Lest you think science fiction and music quit cross-pollinating in 1980 (or that the writer is an old fart, although that is probably true), let’s fast forward to 2009 for “Spaceman” by The Killers.
The narrator is kidnapped by aliens, but returned none the worse for the experience, except for one lingering effect.
I hear these voices at night sometimes.
The song may be 21st Century, but the video, while entertaining, is strictly Eighties MTV cheese.
It’s Just Too Peculiar Here
“Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer” – Ella Fitzgerald
I work at a jazz radio station, so I am hardly going to leave off the UFO tune by none other than the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. “Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer” exhibit their discriminating taste by fleeing the earth after getting a taste of our culture, notably our television shows. And this was in 1951, decades before TV political ads.
View It, Code It.
“Technologic” – Daft Punk
Daft Punk is a “must have” on the list, since they’re robots from the future and all. Plus, their guest shot was the best thing about Tron: Legacy.
“Technologic” is textbook for the helmeted French duo, mixing up funk, techno, rock, and synth pop, with vocals that might actually be what my computer is thinking at any given moment.
I Hear The Weather in Transexual Transylvania is Great This Time of Year.
“Science Fiction Double Feature” – Rocky Horror Picture Show
Referencing classic sci fi cinema from Triffids to George Pal, Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Science Fiction Double Feature” is a smooth ballad whose pop veneer lulls us into complacency before we are thrust into the gender-bending, rock ’n roll fever dream that Brad and Janet experience.
Citizens of the Universe
“Mothership Connection” – Parliament
“We have returned to claim the pyramids,” proclaims George Clinton as “Mothership Connection” opens. Clinton, a fan of Star Trek, put together the 1975 concept album to “put black people in space.” Generally regarded as one of Parliment’s best albums, Mothership Connection was the first to feature Maceo Parker and Fred Weasley, two veterans of James Brown’s horn section, who would go on to be important jazz and funk musicians in their own right.
The Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry in 2011, noting it’s influence on the jazz, rock, and dance music that followed. So in a way, it predicted the future of music just like Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein predicted the future of science.
And maybe gave Roland Emmerich the idea for Stargate, who knows?
Just a Ramblin’ Hobbit
“Ramble On” – Led Zeppelin
“Ramble On is one of three Led Zeppelin tunes that reference characters and scenes from Lord of the Rings, along with “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Although if your girl left you to be with Gollum, it’s possible you’re better off without her.
Bonus points to Jimmy Page, who designed the mysterious “Four Symbols” logo, which looks to me like Elvish.
And the Beat goes on…
“Traveler,” Dennis W. Green’s first novel, is a sci-fi thriller in the tradition of Daniel Suarez and Dean Koontz. It has dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon, and scored in the Top Ten in the Ben Franklin Independent Publishing awards.
The adventures of parallel universe-jumping cop Trav Becker continue in “Prisoner.” The final volume of the trilogy, Hunter, is due in 2019.
A popular radio personality in his native Iowa, Dennis’s adventures as a DJ have been covered by newspapers from Anchorage to Los Angeles. He has also worked on the stage, TV, and independent film.
By day, he is the general manager of Iowa’s only jazz radio station, KCCK-FM. And if it’s 5:30 am, you can probably find him in the pool, working out with the Milky Way Masters swim club.
Follow Dennis online at http://www.denniswgreen.com, facebook.com/TravelerTrilogy, or @dgreencr on Twitter.
(This is an expanded version of an article that was originally published in PerihelionSF under the title “More Than Zarathustra.)