As the 1960s drew to a close, and mankind trained its telescopes on other worlds, old conventions gave way to a new kind of hedonistic freedom that celebrated sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Derided as nerdy or dismissed as fluff, science fiction rarely gets credit for its catalyzing effect on this revolution. In Strange Stars, Jason Heller recasts sci-fi and pop music as parallel cultural forces that depended on one another to expand the horizons of books, music, and out-of-this-world imagery.
In doing so, he presents a whole generation of revered musicians as the sci-fi-obsessed conjurers they really were: from Sun Ra lecturing on the black man in the cosmos, to Pink Floyd jamming live over the broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing; from a wave of Star Wars disco chart toppers and synthesiser-wielding post-punks, to Jimi Hendrix distilling the “purplish haze” he discovered in a pulp novel into psychedelic song. Of course, the whole scene was led by David Bowie, who hid in the balcony of a movie theater to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, and came out a changed man…
If today’s culture of Comic Con fanatics, superhero blockbusters, and classic sci-fi reboots has us thinking that the nerds have won at last, Strange Stars brings to life an era of unparalleled and unearthly creativity—in magazines, novels, films, records, and concerts—to point out that the nerds have been winning all along. Available from Melville House.
“A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR, AWAY.” Domenico Monardo read those lines as they crawled up the movie screen, a shiver of anticipation shooting down his spine. The feeling seemed to crackle like electricity through the audience of the theater that day. Monardo, thirty-seven years old, sat next to kids and adults alike, all equally entranced as a series of incredible sounds and images exploded from the screen: spaceships, robots, aliens, laser swords, strange worlds, a galactic rebellion.
He’d seen sci-fi films before, many of them, but none like this. It wasn’t campy, yet there was humor. It wasn’t clichéd, yet it was familiar. There was a moral to the story, but it didn’t have any of the heavy-handed sermonizing of so many of the new sci-fi movies he’d seen so far that decade. And while much of the swashbuckling tone reminded him of the pulp serials of his youth, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the special effects were cutting-edge, so vivid and believable. The film took everything about sci-fi that had captured his imagination as a boy, reduced it to its essence, and hurled it into the future—even though it took place “a long time ago.”
The film’s climax drew near. The brave pilots of the Rebellion, including the farmboy-turned-warrior Luke Skywalker, launched their assault on Darth Vader’s planet-destroying Death Star. Monardo braced himself, although he already knew the ending. The date was Thursday, May 26, 1977, and the film had opened just the day before, but he was seeing it for the fourth time. And like David Bowie—who nine years earlier had viewed 2001: A Space Odyssey over and over again in the theater, ultimately resulting in “Space Oddity”—Monardo was about to take inspiration from a groundbreaking piece of sci-fi cinema and with it make music history.
Star Wars revitalized science fiction. Bucking every setback and naysayer he had encountered in Hollywood over the past four years, George Lucas held true to the vision that had consumed him since 1973, when his treatment for a script titled The Star Wars had begun to make its rounds among producers. Studios wanted him to make something more like American Graffiti, his Oscar-nominated nostalgia piece about adolescent misadventures in the early ’60s. But Star Wars, as Lucas came to shorten the title, was a nostalgia piece in a different way. It harnessed the wonder and fun of the admittedly corny sci-fi films of yore—including Flash Gordon, which Lucas had failed to reboot—then it added pioneering visual effects and hints of a deeper, mystic mythology. It was expected to bomb. Instead, by the summer of 1977, it became a phenomenon. Lines of repeat viewers like Monardo stretched from movie theaters across the world. Some fans would dress up as their heroes, in the same way Star Trek fans and Bowie fans had started doing earlier in the decade. Overnight, sci-fi had grown from a niche to the hottest ticket on the planet.
Monardo grew up on the same space-opera staples as Lucas, four years his junior. Born in the small town of Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, halfway between Pittsburgh and Buffalo, he’d spent his childhood immersed in sci-fi. In addition to being a film buff, “I read every science fiction book there was,” he said. He was also a jazz trombonist, and by the mid-’70s he’d become a producer in the burgeoning disco scene, which enabled him to pair his love of pop with his acumen for sweeping arrangements. Seeing Star Wars brought his hunger for sci-fi roaring back. “After I saw the film the first day, and fell in love with it, I went back and sat through four showings in a row. I had to confirm that what I had seen and heard was in fact what I had seen and heard,” he said. “I recognized the genius of it. I recognized that it was going to be the biggest film of all time. And so it was easy for me after that to just fall in place.”
What fell into place was Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk. Released under Monardo’s mononymic nickname, Meco, in 1977, the album took John Williams’s majestic, orchestral score for the film and transposed it into disco. Like Lucas’s battle to get Star Wars made, Monardo’s struggle to get Galactic Funk approved was hard fought. “I had to convince the record company people that it was going to be [successful] too, and that was difficult,” he said. Eventually he won out and was vindicated: the lead single from the album, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” hit the number-one spot on the Billboard charts in October, and the album went platinum.
Like disco as a whole—which by 1977 was already being unjustly dismissed as nothing but fluff for the dance floor—Galactic Funk was much more accomplished and substantive than it was given credit for. Monardo painstakingly reimagined Williams’s original music, crafting a thrilling and thematically complex interpolation. There’s no denying that Monardo saw the commercial potential of pairing one of the trendiest genres of music with the most buzzed-about film of the year. But disco and sci-fi weren’t fads to him. They were forms of expression he deeply loved. Rather than being a cheap cash-in, as it was generally considered at the time, Galactic Funk was an extravagant tribute.
The album went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Pop Performance in 1978. It lost, fairly enough, to John Williams’s Star Wars score. Meco chased the success of Galactic Funk with another adaptation of a hit 1977 sci-fi film. Encounters of Every Kind capitalized on Steven Spielberg’s alien-visitation blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By 1979, he was emboldened to try his hand at a work of original sci-fi disco: Moondancer. As he described the album’s premise on the back of its cover, “One night I dreamt that I was at a disco. What was so unusual about the dream was that the disco was on the Moon, and among the regular clientele were many Creatures of the Night. I asked the Intergalactic Council to teleport me there to see if such a place existed. Sure enough, there it was; just as I had imagined it to be!”
Monardo continued making sci-fi disco, along with other kind of music, but Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk remained the apex of his career. His lifetime of sci-fi output has been overlooked, and he’s been lumped in with his many imitators. But Galactic Funk turned the tide of sci-fi music, popularizing it in a way that no one—not Bowie, not Parliament, not Rush—had been able to do before. It would prove to be for the better, and it would prove to be for the worse.
Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk blasted open the floodgates. Up to and including Monardo, musicians making sci-fi music risked ridicule, rejection, and, with a few exceptions, little more than cult status. Now, dabbling in sci-fi music—especially sci-fi disco—was a surefire way to get a record deal. With Star Wars being the most obvious touchstone—subtly reinforced by the fact that the Brooklyn discotheque prominently featured in that year’s box-office triumph, Saturday Night Fever, was called 2001 Odyssey—1977 witnessed a profusion of funk and disco songs that were released in the wake of Meco’s breakthrough. Even in their undisguised opportunism, though, many were intriguing. The group Cook County put a jazz-funk spin on cosmic music with “Star Wars,” while the French group Droids took their name from the robots in Lucas’s universe while delivering a sparse, synth-centered, Kraftwerkian homage titled “(Do You Have) the Force”—one of the best and most inspired of the ’70s Star Wars songs. And in Jamaica, reggae legend Rico weighed in with the dub-inflected “Ska Wars.”
Keyboardist David Matthews mashed up his various sci-fi passions with his 1977 album Dune, which included a dazzling sequence of jazz-funk songs based on Frank Herbert’s novel as well as versions of the themes from Star Wars and Silent Running. He then threw in a faithful cover of “Space Oddity,” making Dune one of the most comprehensive yet overlooked sci-fi albums in a year rife with them. Others simply followed in Meco’s footsteps by tweaking the Star Wars theme for a disco crowd, like the one-off groups Graffiti Orchestra, Bang Bang Robot, and Galaxy 42. The ensemble Geoff Love’s Big Disco Sound issued Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Other Disco Galactic Themes in 1978, likely hoping someone would confuse it for the better-selling Close Encounters of Every Kind by Meco.
Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn’t quite as big a sensation as Star Wars, but it reinforced sci-fi’s box office ascendancy. The film hit theaters in November of 1977, after the summertime fervor of Star Wars had cooled off; accordingly, it’s a more self-serious movie, a masterpiece of contemporary speculation that drew on J. Allen Hynek’s popular ufology books while dramatizing the psychological impact of extraterrestrial contact. If Star Wars was escapist, Close Encounters returned sci-fi to the domain of everyday life. But unlike so many of the message-heavy sci-fi films of the early ’70s, Close Encounters blended a profound statement about human identity in the Space Age—one on par with 2001—with Star Wars’ big-screen spectacle and awe. It even did so with music as a central premise. A haunting, five-note melody—played in the movie by a scientist on an ARP 2500 synthesizer—is used to communicate with the aliens. As Inside the Actors Studio’s James Lipton pointed out, it’s telling that Spielberg’s father was a computer engineer and his mother was a concert pianist.
Despite its musical theme, Close Encounters didn’t inspire anywhere near the quantity of musical homages as did Star Wars. Many artists, though, chose to use the sudden upswing in sci-fi to make more original sci-fi disco and funk—bolstered, no doubt, by P-Funk’s recent Mothership christening. Earth, Wind & Fire, whose leader, Maurice White, had already expressed an interest in futuristic topics and stage costumes, released “Jupiter” in 1977, a song that crystallized the group’s previously nebulous association with sci-fi. As in Close Encounters, the lyrics detail a visit from an alien traveler with a message of harmony rather than conquest, singing the praises of “a distant planet from where I come.”
In the early ’70s, a keyboardist named Andre Lewis of the funk group Maxayn visited Stevie Wonder. The Motown superstar had begun using a room-sized bank of synthesizers called TONTO, an acronym for The Original New Timbral Orchestra. It had been built by Malcolm Cecil of the electronic duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, whose 1971 instrumental “Cybernaut” conveyed both robotic mechanicalness and interstellar grandeur. Looking around at the massive amounts of wires, components, and controls that comprised TONTO, Lewis was less than impressed. “In a couple years,” he predicted, “this will be in a little box you can carry around. It doesn’t need to be this big.”
Lewis—a little cocky, perhaps in an effort to overcome his shyness—was, of course, right. Synthesizers were on the cusp of becoming relatively miniaturized and innovatively portable. The future was something that transfixed him. He’d played in the studio with the like-minded souls of Labelle, adding synthesizer to their 1972 album Moon Shadow. While in Maxayn, which was led by his wife, Maxayn Lewis, he contributed a flurry of spacey sounds to 1974’s “Moonfunk,” a synth-drenched instrumental that was just a touch ahead of its time. The unsuccessful single was the band’s swan song, but Lewis had a backup plan. After signing to Motown as a solo artist—and becoming Wonder’s labelmate in the process—he followed in the footsteps of David Bowie and George Clinton by adopting a sci-fi alter ego.
Mandré, as Lewis became known, released his self-titled debut album in 1977 along with his first single, “Solar Flight (Opus I).” The album featured a cover illustration of a robot—his mirrored face smooth, inscrutable, and reflecting the image of a keyboard—dressed in a tuxedo. The synth-driven music contained therein, “Solar Flight (Opus I)” being a prime example, portrayed funk as an interplay between supple cosmic forces and harsh advanced technology. With Star Wars going nova, P-Funk on the rise, and sci-fi disco filling dance floors, Mandré’s timing couldn’t have been better. Yet his music was just a little too ambitious, just a little too mad-scientist, to catch on with the masses. It didn’t help that Lewis, who preferred tinkering in his studio, was averse to publicity and live performances; when he did venture out into public as Mandré, he started doing so wearing a custom-made mask that resembled the robotic character he’d created for himself.
After two more albums of a similar sound and concept in the ’70s, Mandré Two and M3000, he left Motown to focus on working behind the scenes in the music industry. But he left behind a body of work that reverberated—and that his contemporaries were surely paying attention to. The long-running funk band War released “Galaxy” in 1977, a song with the familiar sci-fi theme of escaping Earth’s troubles via space travel, and it opened with an epic synthesizer intro. The same year, long before having their hugest hit, “Word Up,” a then-unknown band named Cameo released “Funk Funk”; it included a spoken-word intro involving the crew of a spaceship about to land on an alien planet, clearly a nod to Star Trek, right down to the overly logical science officer. The group Tropea converted spaceflight into jazz-funk with “Short Trip to Space,” again laden with synthesizers, while Space Project’s song “Conquest of the Stars” from 1977 presaged their Disco from Another Galaxy album a year later. And Laurie Marshall pulled no sci-fi punches on his 1977 single “The Disco Spaceship.”
Sci-fi disco—a hybrid that would have been laughably noncommercial even a year prior—was suddenly unstoppable. The collective of groups Cloud One, Universal Robot Band, and Bumblebee Unlimited—which revolved around producers Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael—released cosmic dance singles like 1977’s “Spaced Out” and 1979’s “Space Shuttle Ride.” In France, a band called Computer split the difference between Droids’ android-like sounds and the star-spanning arrangements of Meco, resulting in “Nobody Loves a Computer Because a Computer Does Not Dance”—an endearingly weird song that came complete with lonely robot vocals rendered through voice modulation. The French electronic ensemble Space infused their 1977 single “Tango in Space” with jerky synthesizers and melodramatic sci-fi flourishes, topped off with astronaut costumes. The most formidable electro-disco song from France in 1977, however, came from a synthesizer-wielding studio whiz named Jean-Marc Cerrone. Building on the futuristic disco that Giorgio Moroder forged with his breakout hit for Donna Summer, “I Feel Love,” that year, Cerrone crafted “Supernature,” a monstrously catchy concoction of science-lab electronics with lyrics that presciently warned about genetically modified agriculture—surely the most danceable song ever to do so.
Parliament, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so sold on disco. Playfully yet with a hint of true antipathy, the group’s 1977 album Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome railed against this rising tide of disco—which had been boosted immensely by an infusion of science fiction, P-Funk’s not-so-secret weapon. The Placebo Syndrome in the record’s title alluded to disco itself: it became the opposite of all that was right and pure in George Clinton’s cosmic mythos, the Dark Side to the Force that was the Funk. Interestingly, Parliament member Fuzzy Haskins had released a dance-floor-friendly song in 1976 titled “Which Way Do I Disco,” in which he laments his distance from the band. At the time, Haskins was embroiled in a financial dispute with Clinton that would lead to his acrimonious departure in 1977. “The Mothership just disconnected me,” Haskins sang, “But the discotheque I know will protect me.” To P-Funk purists, it was as if Haskins had gone over to the dark side.
Excerpted from Strange Stars, copyright © 2018 by Jason Heller.