The Sounds of Silence
In salute to landing on the moon 50 years ago.
“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)
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.
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.)
Added for Good Measure
The Dark Side of The Moon by Pink Floyd
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
2001: A Space Odyssey theme song "Also sprach Zarathustra" composed in 1896 by Richard Strauss. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Nic Raine.
2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack – MGM Records. (Note, this is not the exact same as in the film. that was later released in 1996 by Turner Entertainment/Rhino Records.)
Music from 2001 Space Odyssey by György Ligeti. (Note, this includes some of the pieces that were in the film, but not necessarily the exact same.)
The Man Who Fell to Earth featuring David Bowie. (Trailer, 1976)
Space Ritual album by Hawkwind
“Space Oddity” – Wikipedia
"Major Tom (Coming Home)" – Wikipedia
“Starman” – Wikipedia
“Ashes to Ashes” – Wikipedia
“Theme from Star Trek” – Wikipedia
“4’33”” pronounced "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds" or just "Four thirty-three" – Wikipedia
The Story Of '4'33"' – The NPR 100, National Public Radio
“Planet Caravan” – Wikipedia
“The Story Behind Planet Caravan” – Black Sabbath
“Space Truckin’” – Wikipedia
“No Quarter” – Wikipedia
“The Dark Side of the Moon” – Wikipedia
“The Dark Side of the Moon 2003 Documentary: Making the Dark Side of The Moon in studio” – Directed & Edited by Simon Hilton, 2003 EMI Records. More info. on the SACD remastered 5.1 remix of Dark Side.
“Wish You Were Here” – Wikipedia
“2001: A Space Odyssey (soundtrack)” – Wikipedia
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” – Wikipedia
“David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth” – (Documentary 2017)
“Space Ritual” – Wikipedia
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.]
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.