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MAJOR TOME: Jason Heller's "Strange Stars" stuns with 70's sci-fi rock history

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BOOK REVIEW: Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller (Melville House Publishing) 2018

This past weekend I went to Tulsa to catch Elton John on his final world tour. There were songs I certainly wanted to hear, including “I’m Still Standing,” “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Candle In the Wind.”

I got to hear them all, and then some.

But when asked if there was a song I would have loved Elton John to play that night, without hesitation I replied, “I would have flipped out if he had pulled out ‘I’ve Seen the Saucers’ from his 1974 album Caribou. (I wrote a Dust Devil Dreams sync piece titled "I have seen the saucers" last March where I talk about "World Contact Day," which would influence both Klaatu and The Carpenters and the resulting song "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft"). 

The song, about a guy obsessed with flying saucers (based on 1950’s-era “contactee George Adamski, highlighted in Adam Gorightly and Greg Bishop’s new book ‘A’ is for Adamski), with the song (co-written by Bernie Taupin) featuring the following lines in the second verse: “I wouldn’t fool you, but I’ve seen the saucers / So many times I’m almost in tune / Watching them flying in formation / Thinking how I could be so immune.

It is one of my favorite UFO-themed songs (Hüsker Dü’s 1985 New Day Rising track “Books About UFO’s” is another top saucer-themed song, penned by the late drummer Grant Hart) and was surprisingly omitted, or overlooked, in Jason Heller’s utterly fascinating new book Strange Stars, which focuses, primarily, on 1970’s-era, science-fiction-influenced rock n’ roll music, with a particular focus on David Bowie, appropriately enough.

But back to Elton John. Heller, who knows his 70’s rock up and down, highlights 1972’s “Rocket Man,” of course (and he played it to rapturous applause to that excited Tulsa crowd the other night) and the odd “Take Me to the Pilot,” a song from his eponymous 1970 LP, which included “The Cage” and “Bad Side of the Moon,” said to be inspired by Taupin’s reading of Michael Moorcock’s sci-fi and fantasy novels of that era.

Moorcock would be a part of sci-fi rock bands Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult, two hard-rocking bands that play a major role in Heller’s book, which spans roughly from 1968 and the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, like me, greatly influenced Bowie’s creative muse and resulted in “Space Oddity” in 1969) and the trippier material of early 1980’s New Wave and funk.

In between those years, though, Heller takes us one year at a time to demonstrate the chronological progression of sci-fi rock noting 1969’s Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Wooden Ships,” a song about surviving after nuclear apocalypse and a song covered by Jefferson Airplane, whose guitarist/lyricist Paul Kantner would write, in 1970, “Have You Seen the Saucers?,” a song about extraterrestrials appalled by humankind’s abuse of nature, which Heller describes as “a message of ecological alarmism and self-criticism that pulls no punches and minces no words.” Kantner was always outspoken and musically volatile. He was a believer in humankind evolving to a better day where space exploration was key to that ongoing evolution.

Bowie's 1972 breakthrough album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was what really embodied the sci-fi-rock zeitgeist of the early 1970's and stretching out for another 10 years or so, with bands like Electric Light Orchestra (led by Jeff Lynne), "using sci-fi as more than window dressing," by actually featuring a huge spaceship on stage. 

It's not just rock, though. The far out fusion of Sun Ra and the deep funk of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic get appropriate attention here. And films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars (both from 1977), inspire disco dance songs at that time. 

Later, in discussing releases of 1974, Heller notes Kantner and his band, now known as Jefferson Starship, and their album Dragon Fly and the inclusion of sci-fi-loving folk singer Tom Pacheco’s song “All Fly Away.” Two years later, Pacheco would record a song called “Judge Proctor’s Windmill,” a song about the alleged 1897 crash of a UFO in Aurora, Texas and the burial of an alien found in the wreckage after it hit said windmill. I visited the site of this “crash” last year while conducting research for a forthcoming book. The Aurora cemetery is worth visiting if you get the chance.

Later, we get Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers and a reference to occult and high weirdness is songs like “Astral Plane,” “Here Come the Martian Martians” and “Abominable Snowman in the Market” gave one the impression that the quirky Richman was very open to aliens being … out there. Alternative bands like X-Ray Spex, Devo, Ultravox and Germany's pioneering synth band Kraftwerk also led the way, delving into notions of humanity's future, either evolving (as Paul Kantner hoped) or devolving into idiocy, as Akron, Ohio's Devo warned us.

Literature and film – the works of Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, etc.) and Nicolas Roeg (directed David Bowie in the 1976 sci-fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth) are of particular note in this book, as is the Star Trek TV series - rerun on TV nonstop over the course of the 1970's - and the first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

For fans of 1970's music - of all kinds - as well as the space-oriented and wild themes that many sci-fi-minded rock, pop and funk bands were embracing at the time, Jason Heller's top-shelf Strange Stars is the book for you. 

Editor's Note: And a good, accompanying book to Heller's Strange Stars would be Peter Bebergal's Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock n' Roll. Our review can be read here.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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