The Sounds of Silence

In salute to landing on the moon 50 years ago.

 
 
 
Space is a vacuum: the only song capturing the verbatim resonance of space is John Cage’s perfectly silent 4’33”.
 

“The Sounds of Silence: How the idea of space travel shaped rock music.” [print title]
”How music about space became music about drugs: The rise and fall of space rock, from David Bowie to Radiohead.” [online title]
MIT Technology Review, June 26, 2019 (Jul/Aug 2019 – The Space Issue)
Space
by Chuck Klosterman. Illustration by Keith Rankin.

The rock era and the space age exist on parallel time lines. The Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, the same month Elvis Presley hit #1 with “Jailhouse Rock.” The first Beatles single, “Love Me Do,” was released 23 days after John F. Kennedy declared that America would go to the moon (and not because it was easy, but because it was hard). Apollo 11 landed the same summer as Woodstock. These specific events are (of course) coincidences. Yet the larger arc is not. Mankind’s assault upon the heavens was the most dramatic achievement of the 20th century’s second half, simultaneous with rock’s transformation of youth culture. It does not take a deconstructionist to see the influence of the former on the latter. The number of pop lyrics fixated on the concept of space is massive, and perhaps even predictable. It was the language of the era. But what’s more complicated is what that concept came to signify, particularly in terms of how the silence of space was somehow supposed to sound.

The principal figure in this conversation is also the most obvious: David Bowie. In a playlist of the greatest pop songs ever written about life beyond the stratosphere, 1969’s “Space Oddity” would be the opening cut, a musical experience so definitive that its unofficial sequel—the 1983 synth-pop “Major Tom (Coming Home)” by German one-hit wonder Peter Schilling—would probably be track number two. The lyrical content of “Space Oddity” is spoken more than sung, and the story is straightforward: an astronaut (Major Tom) rockets into space and something goes terribly wrong. It’s odd, in retrospect, that a song with such a pessimistic view of space travel would be released just 10 days before Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface. That level of pessimism, however, would become the standard way for rock musicians to write about science. Outside of Sun Ra or Ace Frehley, it’s hard to find serious songs about space that aren’t framed as isolating or depressing.

Bowie wrote about outer space a lot throughout his career, often brilliantly and seemingly any time he couldn’t come up with a better idea. The character of Major Tom was revisited in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” except Tom was now a drug addict. “Life on Mars?” certainly seems like a space song, but the lyrics are too surreal to denote anything literal. Bowie made an album in 1997 titled Earthling that used the cosmos as context for where we already were. The most notable entry in his entire catalogue is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a 1972 concept album about an alien who becomes a rock star. It would earn Bowie the unofficial position of poet laureate of outer space.

Still, there are three details about Bowie’s cosmological obsession that complicate the conventional wisdom. The first is that “Space Oddity” was not inspired by NASA, but by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s fiction based on fiction. The second is that Bowie’s space fixation usually focused on aliens coming to our world (as opposed to us going to theirs). This is the case not only in his music, but also in his 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The third detail is that Bowie generally used space as a narrative device. He did not try to give his music a distinctly non-terrestrial feel (half the songs on Ziggy Stardust are about aliens, but the music is textbook glam). The only time he directly tried to interpret the imaginary sonics of space—cold, mechanical chords devoid of hooks—was on the original version of “Space Oddity.” Still, the singularity of that interpretation can’t be minimized. The influence of his attempt had real ramifications. It remains ground zero for the ungrounded.

Read the article »

 

 
 
Because space rock songs tended to be long, meandering, and performatively trippy, they weren’t much played on commercial radio, with one notable exception: Pink Floyd.
 

Space Music

Far above the moon” a space song playlist by MIT Technology Review on Spotify.

 
The video features footage of David Bowie performing Space Oddity at his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

The video features footage of David Bowie performing Space Oddity at his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

 

YouTube videos for songs in the “Far above the moon” graphic:

  • Space Oddity by David Bowie (Love You Till Tuesday version, recorded 1969)

  • Space Oddity by David Bowie (1972 version)

  • Space Oddity by David Bowie (2019 Mix, recorded 1997)

  • Major Tom (Coming Home) by Peter Schilling (Apollo 5 version)

  • Major Tom (Coming Home) by Peter Schilling (Space Shuttle version)

  • Starman by David Bowie (1972 version)

  • Starman by David Bowie (1972 version with trippy pics :-) )

  • Ashes to Ashes by David Bowie (2014 Remaster)

  • Theme to Star Trek composed by Alexander Courage (Circa 1966)

  • 4’33” by John Cage (performance by William Marx. 4’33” of silence in three movements)

  • 4’33” by John Cage (with introductory remarks by Daniel C. Piper, Ph. D., Curator of the Musical Instrument Museum.)

  • Planet Caravan by Black Sabbath (Original lyrics, 1970) [A space journey]

  • Planet Caravan by Black Sabbath (alternative lyrics version) [A love song]

  • Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple (Live, 1994)

  • Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple (Compilation of scenes from several sci-fi movies and television shows.)

  • Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple (Live in London, Remastered, 31 minutes for the hard-core Deep Purple fan.)

  • No Quarter by Led Zeppelin (Original version from album Houses of the Holy. 1973)

  • No Quarter by Led Zeppelin (Live at O2 Arena London, Celebration Day 2007.)

  • Paranoid Android by Radiohead (Released as the lead single from their third studio album OK Computer (1997).)

 
 
The last major rock album that felt like music from space was arguably Radiohead’s OK Computer, but the connection was ancillary. The band was simply using the instruments, tunings, and tempos that have become associated with space-age pop. The audience felt the correlation more than the artist.
 

Added for Good Measure

 

Related Articles

Three More for the Road

  • The Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel (From the Concert in Central Park, Sept. 19, 1981) [While this tune is not associated with space travel, it does invoke silence which is universally present in the vacuum of space. Furthermore, the subject article title begs this song.]

  • Lido Shuffle – Boz Scaggs
    [No, this tune has nothing to do with space, but it’s a fun way to conclude.}

  • One For My Baby (and One More for the Road) – Fred Astaire dancing and singing to "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Song written for him to perform in the movie "The Sky's the Limit" (1943). Words by Johnny Mercer and music by Harold Arlen, dance by Fred Astaire. Song has been recorded multiple times by Frank Sinatra. [No, this tune also has nothing to do with space, it’s simply a fun way to finish.]

 
 

Fred Astaire in “The Sky’s the Limit” performing One More For My Baby (and One More For The Road)

 
 
What has happened, it seems, is that our primitive question about the moon’s philosophical proximity to Earth has been incrementally resolved. What once seemed distant has microscoped to nothingness. When rock music was new, space was new—and it seemed so far beyond us. Anything was possible. It was a creative dreamscape. But you know what? We eventually got there. We went to space so often that people got bored.
 
 

 
 

Webmaster’s Note: I prefer the title from the printed version of this article: “The Sounds of Silence: How the idea of space travel shaped rock music.” The other title seems judgmental and dismissive, and perhaps can lead one to perceive it’s all about the drugs, which I would argue it never is. Yes, drugs were often involved. However, to focus on that is to lose sight of so much more. I suggest one look beyond the drugs. Would one dismiss Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra because they drank booze? Alcohol is a drug after all, just one that traditionally meets with greater social acceptance in western cultures.