Lichfield Dean was born in the English Midlands and grew up reading the likes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. He earned a degree in Astrophysics from the University of Birmingham and subsequently began a career in website development because it turned out there weren’t many jobs for astrophysicists. His first book is a comedy sci-fi adventure called The Garden Wall which can be found as a free eBook at Smashwords or in print at Blurb. In his spare time he plays drums with a variety of local bands, none of which has ever attained any level of success.
“Won’t you drop me a line, ‘cos I want to know how you’re doing, when you get to the other side of the Universe,” sings the frontman of the nu-folk band in which I play drums. You won’t have heard of Satchel Blue, or our song Pub Quiz, but nevertheless it does illustrate a point – science fiction themes have permeated just about any genre of music you can think of.
Of course, the history of music and science fiction goes back a long way. The fifties gave us a number of ‘little green men’ rock ‘n’ roll numbers, and in 1962 The Tornadoes unleashed their futuristic-sounding “Telstar”, inspired by the pioneering communications satellite of the same name. More recently Muse have been flying the flag for grandiose sci-fi-themed space epics, Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” was a nod in the direction of Douglas Adams’ Marvin and Iron Maiden’s album Brave New World was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s famous work of futurology.
However, I’d like to dig a little further into the works of two of my favourite bands, and both of these are bands of the seventies, perhaps the golden era of sci-fi rock.
First I’d like to bring to the table Genesis. Their keyboard player, Tony Banks, briefly embarked upon a physics degree before becoming a successful musician so he was well-armed with scientific knowledge. Coupled with a highly imaginative mind, it’s no surprise he is notable for regularly introducing sci-fi concepts into his music.
So now it’s 1973. It’s dark. The crowd are impatient. From out of the gloom a mellotron thunders, shaking the floor and rattling the spines of the audience. Peter Gabriel steps forward, lit only in UV, his eyes glowing bright purple in the darkness. As the band kick in with a precision morse-code-like rhythm the stage lights brighten and we see Gabriel’s costume in its full glory – the coloured cape and the giant batwings of the Watcher of the Skies. This story of a mysterious alien chancing upon an abandoned Earth is perhaps the band’s most famous sci-fi tune, but it wasn’t their first – that was probably the post-apocalyptic explorations of 1970’s “Stagnation”. Later, in 1978, the band moved firmly into B-movie territory with “The Day The Light Went Out”, a tale of an alien parasite that causes havoc by blocking the sun from the Earth’s sky.
But the sci-fi motif I enjoy most in a Genesis song is to be found on 1982’s Abacab album. By this point in time, the band had pared back their sound as a response to the changing musical scene and their music had become more brittle and less lush, but as the song “Keep It Dark” demonstrates, they were still endlessly quirky and inventive.
The story here is of a philosophical nature and deals with the consequences of an alien abduction. The victim of this unfortunate episode feels compelled to lie about his ordeal upon his return in order to avoid persecution and ridicule. He spins a fairly credible yarn about an abortive kidnapping by criminals who mistakenly thought he was rich and could be held for ransom. In truth, he was taken to see a ‘world full of people, their hearts full of joy, cities of light with no fear of war’ and is saddened to have to keep this experience to himself. It’s a well-considered piece of music with a genuinely thought-provoking tale, and is a prime example of the subtle deployment of a science fiction theme.
Although I haven’t the space to discuss them all here, Genesis produced songs that could be labelled science fiction throughout their lengthy career. And you would expect no less from the next band I wish to discuss. This band is Queen.
Even more than Tony Banks, Queen’s guitarist Brian May has the perfect background for indulging in advanced sci-fi musings. It is common knowledge that May is well-schooled in science, having finally completed a PhD in astrophysics in 2007 that he’d started in the early 1970s, and he has been a regular face on the British astronomy shows. So it’s to be expected that he and his band-mates would be well-known for sci-fi-infused compositions, right? The Flash Gordon and Highlander soundtracks? “Radio Ga-Ga”? “The Invisible Man”? Yup, sci-fi aplenty, but let’s take a closer look at an altogether more innocuous tune…
1975’s A Night At The Opera is best-known as the album that spawned “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the behemoth that became their signature track, but it is in fact chock-full of great songs. For me, the most intriguing of these is certainly the country-tinged “’39”, a track whose lyrics appear to tell a simple tale of a foray into Old West frontier lands. As such the acoustic nature of the song fits like a glove. Which would be fine if it were that simple…
It was always like Queen to experiment with a wide variety of musical styles, and always like them to mash together styles that may be considered incompatible (a trait shared with Genesis in fact). So the combination of acoustic country guitar and other-worldly harmonised vocal warblings reminiscent of the Star Trek theme isn’t necessarily unexpected from a musical point of view.
But hold on… if it’s an Old West tale, why are these mysterious vocal harmonies so prominent? And in what century was the year ’39 significant? And, digging further into the lyrics, why do they set sail across ‘milky’ seas? And why do the adventurers return to the land of their grandchildren? It’s all pretty baffling and if you assume that the story is about the Wild West it just doesn’t add up.
Instead let’s look to the future. 2139 or 2239 say. And let’s assume the ship is a spaceship, and that the ‘milky seas’ in fact represent the Milky Way. Suddenly it all makes sense. May’s training in physics gave him an understanding of Einstein’s Relativity and of the Twin Paradox – the seemingly absurd notion that a spaceman travelling to a nearby star at speeds approaching that of light would find, upon returning, that his twin brother had aged far more than he had. And this is the crucial piece of the jigsaw – our intrepid explorers knew they would be leaving their families behind and that the world they returned to would be that of their grandchildren. It is a deeply sad song in many ways, with the lead character returning to meet a descendant and recognising the eyes of his wife in hers. It’s a wonderful track, blending catchy melodies, well-constructed storytelling and the highest of concepts, and is certainly a worthy contender for the coveted award of Most Sci-Fi Song Of All Time.
And so we reach the end of my brief journey into high-concept pop music. There is much I could have discussed: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust; Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds; Rush’s 2112… the list goes on. It’s a big topic, and I have barely scratched the dust on the surface of it. So I leave the rest to you: what is your favourite piece of musical science fiction, and why?