Andy Simpkins ponders on the head-banging, air-punching, be-wigged and be-paunched musing that is William Shatner's Seeking Major Tom and the theme of science fiction and fantasy in modern rock music
Well, it had to happen sooner or later...Call it a macabre joke or a well intentioned but frightening Christmas present. We all know that the bewigged and rotund man of many faces (and stomachs) William Shatner, has been beavering away in the studio at his latest CD offering, and, last Christmas, the inevitable happened. The family Dunn and Dear Leader Adam Purcell bought me copies of The Shats latest offering. Touchingly entitled Seeking Major Tom, it is a collection of songs featuring some of the hall of fame of modern rock music such as Michael Schenker, Steve Miller, Steve Howe, Zakk Wylde, Steve Hillage, Richie Blackmore and a host of others. I could continue I'll but just say the cream of rock music is there.
I shall endeavour to keep a level head whilst trying to objectively construct a thought-provoking essay on rock music and science fiction whilst trying to interject reviews of a few of William Shatner's offerings from the aforementioned CD. A difficult task I know as many of my golden idols of rock music have actively taken part and played as session musicians on this CD and even to this day, I am having trouble equating what takes pride of place in my CD collection with how they have collaborated with a man who has a reputation for his...dramatic reinterpretations...of well known songs.
Rock music and science fiction have enjoyed a good working relationship and I suppose it all started with the psychedelic movement of the late 1960's. Lots of young men and women were standing around in fields making backwards guitar noises, flailing their arms around and taking trips through their chemically scrambled minds. This, along with suitably chemically enhanced music bands, provided a fertile ground for the seeds of the heavy rock movement to start growing.
Starting with bands like Cream and the Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page as their members, they started forging a sound that was both innovative and would last a generation. All that was missing was another vital ingredient...
Science fiction as a writing genre has been around for a very long time and its fusion with rock music was an unorthodox but very enduring marriage.
Rock music and heavy metal music are virtually synonymous and as it is a predominantly male-orientated form of music, although there are some very fine exceptions in the very comely form of bands like The Runaways, GirlSchool, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, Heart, Lita Ford and quite a few others, and it does deal with some very masculine subjects such as free and easy sex, partying, experimentation with drugs, riding out on the highway on either a big motorcycle or in a souped up automobile and of course science fiction, fantasy and mythology. Some bands also touch upon the occult in their music but that is a subject I eschew. I tend to avoid Speed, Death and Thrash metal as primarily it is literally an ungodly noise as well as its more unhealthy undertones of devil worship and such.
I suppose one of the first collaborations of sci-fi and music was that of the band Hawkwind and the fantasy author Michael Moorcock. He is very well known as one of the pioneers of the 'new wave' of science fiction in the mid to late '60s and when he teamed up with founder members of Hawkwind; Nik Turner and Bob Calvert, it was a coming together of some very intriguing songs and ideas.
“In Search Of Space” and “Space Ritual” were some of their early offerings but they really hit the ground running with their album “Warrior On The Edge Of Time”. The inspiration for this was drawn from Michael's ''Eternal Champion' series of novels featuring a warrior, reborn time and time again throughout history and alternate timelines, having different bodies and names but the same soul and doomed forever to remember his past lives, albeit in dreams and visions, and to forever take up arms against the forces of Chaos. This was elaborated on in a later album called “The Chronicle of The Black Sword” which featured the anti-hero Elric and his semi-sentient blade Stormbringer.
Two songs that feature heavily in my back catalogue of Hawkwind songs are 'Sonic Attack', a song penned by Michael Moorcock which many believe to be a critique of the Protect and Survive public information films shown on TV in the early 1970's and the perennial favourite of many a heavy rock collection: 'Silver Machine'. Not quite the hippy trippy song that many believe it to be, even though the song is sung by a certain rather fresh faced and younger Lemmy Kilmister from the band Motorhead. The song has rather more mundane origins and is actually about a rather battered silver bicycle that one of the band members used to own.
Needless to say, this perennial Space Rock classic is covered by the Shat. To say there is a slight divergence of singling styles would be an understatement. Lemmy has always had a voice that sounds like he has been drinking sand and finished it off with a few packets of Players Navy Cut but to hear William Shatner utter the unforgettable lines: 'it glides sideways through time, it's an electric line to your zodiac sign...I've got a Silver Machine...' in that strange staccato style of his takes some getting used to.
Pink Floyd, while their music concentrates on subjects such as loneliness, anger, isolation and madness, has been touched upon by the rotund one. 'Learning to Fly', from the album 'A Momentary Lapse of Reason', is a collaboration with none other than Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. I suppose there is a strong space connection there as band mate Christopher Franke provided the sound tracks for all five seasons of the TV series Babylon 5.
What else shall I alight upon? Well, the William Shatner version of Elton Johns ' Rocket Man' is spruced up and given a revamp. What pains me greatly is the fact that one of my all time favourite guitarists; Steve Hillage, plays on this song. My favourite albums of his such as 'Motivation Radio', 'L' and 'Open' will never sound the same again. As sagely remarked upon by one Keith Dunn, if you have seen the lampoon of the video as performed by Stewie Griffin from 'Family Guy', you will realise that the poor animator would have had to watch the video time and time again in order for Stewie to exactly mimick Shatners actions and movements.
The late, great and very lamented Freddie Mercury and the rest of the band, Queen may not spring to mind but they have made a couple of considerable forays into this field. The first offering was, of course, the 1980 movie adaptation of the classic Flash Gordon series. However, as El Presidente, Adam Purcell, pointed out and, I must confess, I had somewhat blotted this out of my mind after seeing the comedy film Ted, that the actor, Sam J. Jones, who portrays Flash Gordon pops up in the movie Ted and promptly proceeds to send himself up mercilessly. This along with the booming tones of Brian Blessed as the king of the Hawk Men uttering the unforgettable line;' Gordon's alive!! served to make the film a memorable one.
Their second fantasy film soundtrack I remember vividly as I went to see it at the cinema in the middle of that halcyon decade known as the 1980's (cue heavenly choir for the benefit of Siobhan Gallichan). It was definitely a time for wandering through time and wandering accents as well. In Highlander, you had a Scottish actor and wife-beater, playing a two thousand year old Egyptian who now lives under the guise of a dandified Spaniard and a Frenchman who was born in 16th century Scotland and now lived in uptown New York. The soundtrack is universally know for the chart-topping 'A Kind of Magic' but there are another couple of belters in the form of 'Gimme The Prize' and the emotional and haunting 'Who Wants To Live Forever'.
The well renowned rockers Led Zeppelin, although known for their heavily blues-tinged rock have made mention of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy by way of the song 'Ramble On' where Robert Plant sings of meeting a girl 'in the darkest depths of Mordor' and of Gollum and the evil war stealing her away. However, it is with the advent of Led Zeppelin IV and the song 'The Battle Of Evermore' that they touch upon The Lord Of The Rings again with a a song about an epic battle between the forces of Good and Evil. The whole song is evocative of the novels and lines like 'the tyrants face is red' and 'the drums will shake the castle walls' which is evocative of Sauron's assault on the Deeping Wall in 'The Two Towers'.
One band who have dipped a metaphorical toe in the sci fi pool, inadvertently and with a little help from Stephen King, are AC/DC. More known for their blistering guitar solos courtesy of Angus Young. However, back in 1986, Stephen King was having a film made based on his short story 'Night Of The Comet' and as a big AC/DC fan, he asked the band if they would like to provide the soundtrack for the movie. They readily agreed and a very good movie, starring Emilio Estevez came into being. Can you imagine waking up one morning to find that all machinery was turning against Humanity? That is the plot of the story as a prelude to alien invasion. At the end of the story, there is the epilogue in which a Russian 'weather' satellite, conveniently armed with laser cannon and nuclear warheads, destroys a large UFO. The soundtrack is a mixture of AC/DC album tracks like 'For Those About To Rock', 'Ride On' and a few songs written especially for the movie like 'Who Made Who', 'Chase The Ace' and 'DT'. AC/DC also provided a couple of songs for the film 'Iron Man 2' in the form of 'Shoot to Thrill' and 'Highway To Hell'
Okay, music lovers, it's time to cringe once more as we hurl ourselves (or just hurl) into the bottomless abyss that is 'Seeking Major Tom' once again...David Bowie would probably be holding his hand rather affectedly and elegantly to his brow if he ever heard The Shats version of his drugged-up space pilots testament 'Space Oddity'. However, the guitar talents of Deep Purple legend Richie Blackmore do more than justice to it. On a further note, when I die and they lay me to rest and I'm going to the place that's best, I hope it is not with a copy of 'Seeking Major Tom' in my decomposing rictus-clawed hands. I wonder what Norman Greenbaum would have thought of The Herd's former guitarist Peter Frampton collaborating with the bewigged one on his classic 'Spirit In The Sky'...
I have touched upon the multifaceted talents of Freddie Mercury and Queen but the video for 'Bohemian Rhapsody', featuring the playing of King Crimson and Asia vocalist John Wetton has to be one of the strangest I have seen for many a year...Featuring a courting couple looking up at the night-time sky and picking out the constellations, the scene dissolves into The Shats face, complete with the crescent moon as his mouth, singing a rather breathy version of the Queen masterpiece, complete with a groaned rendition of 'Galileo, Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico...'. Small wonder a review claimed that the video was”...typically bizarre...” which I suppose The Shat could have claimed as a left-handed compliment...
It is at this point in my essay, I must draw your attention to two bands who have encapsulated the marriage of rock music and science fiction perfectly. I will say that the first band were formed in the late 1970's, in the East End of London, in the wake of the abomination that was known as Punk Rock. My hatred of that genre of music is quite deep. To say that assorted bunches of snotty-nosed, glue-sniffing, class-tourist, imbecilic morons had the where-with-all to pick up musical instruments and create an atonal din that had gullible music executives reaching for their cheque books is beyond me. The only thing I will say in its favour is the fact that it gave the British music industry of the mid to late 1970's a much-needed kick up the backside, culminating in a rejuvenated music industry that saw the new decade in with the appropriately named New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. But I digress...
Out of this came the band named after a medieval instrument of torture that was to shape a large part of my misspent youth. Iron Maiden, with the core members of bassist Steve Harris and guitarist Dave Murray with vocalist Paul Di'Anno, came onto the music scene with their first self-titled offering which blew away the cobwebs of a rapidly atrophying Punk and New Wave movement with their fast and frantic rhythms, power chords and high-pitched vocals.
Containing the classics 'Phantom of The Opera' and and the instrumental song; 'Transylvania', they laid the groundwork for the shape of things to come. When Paul Di'Anno called it a day as the bands vocalist, a young man called Bruce Dickinson would step into his shoes and send the band into the stratosphere.
Kicking off proceedings with 'Number Of The Beast', this album contained the Village-orientated song; 'The Prisoner', complete with the memorable vocal sparring between Patrick McGoohan's Number 6 and the mocking Number 2 as an introduction.
“We want information...information...information...”
“You won't get it...”
“By hook or by crook, we will...”
“I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM A FREE MAN!”
With those words, Bruce Dickinson, known as The Air Raid Siren due to his high pitched and sometimes wailing vocal style, depicted Number 6's struggle against the tyrannical rule of the enigmatic Number 1 and his lackey, Number 2 in the dreamlike surroundings of The Village. This song was followed up by a sequel of sorts on 1984's album;'Powerslave' called 'Back In The Village'.
As I said previously, mythology of one sort or another features in heavy rock music and 'Flight Of Icarus' from the 1983 album; 'Piece of Mind' is no exception. I have partial memories of having this song blaring away from the juke box in my local pub, the Railway Bell, in South London, and this song does serve as a testimony to the rashness of youth as he flies too close to the sun and having the wax holding the feathers of his makeshift wings melting despite the warnings of his father Daedalus. 'Piece Of Mind' seemed to be the album upon which a lot of science fiction writing were put. The 1983 Stanley Kubrick film; 'Quest For Fire' has a mention. One of his lesser known masterworks, it concerns the travels of a group of cavemen in search of a new fire as the embers of their old one had flickered and died. Their quest takes them through many miles of danger such as hungry beasts and attacks by other tribes of cavemen who jealously want to keep the secret of fire for themselves.
However, the piece de resistance of the album is the epic 'To Tame A Land'. Based on the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert, the song chronicles the trials of Paul Atreides as he comes to the planet Arrakis in order to unite the tribes of the Fremen in order to fight the repressive forces of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV and the forces of the House Harkonnen. He is the messiah whoss coming is foretold by the Fremen, tribes of semi-nomadic humans living in the arid deserts of the planet Arrakis . At the climax of the 1984 movie, he has to drink a substance called The Water of Life which can either expand consciousness, prolong life or kill. He successfully passes the trial and literally becomes a god-like figure who is revered by the tribes of the Fremen. All of this is chronicled in the song which in my mind was a fitting end to an album which was among my all-time favourites. Strangely enough, when Frank Herbert first became aware that Iron Maiden were to release a song celebrating his masterwork, he was quite irate and said that they could include the song on the album as long as it wasn't called Dune as he was under the impression that his works would somehow be lessened by a ...pop...band.
Mythology comes to the fore once again in 'Powerslave'. And the title song deals with a fictional Pharoah of Egypt coming to terms with his mortality as he lies on his deathbed and how he would deal with the god of the underworld Horus in order to gain eternal life, notoriety and the cringing fealty of his mortal subjects.
Later sci-fi influenced works by Iron Maiden include the song 'Stranger In A Strange Land' based on the novel by Robert Heinlein. Again, the theme of a lone man being Humanity's saviour is the basis for the song as it deals with a child born on the first manned mission to Mars being orphaned when the ship crashes and subsequently being raised by Martians. Twenty years later, the young man is brought to Earth where he almost single-handedly transforms Human society through the teachings that the Martians imparted to him.
After the Interregnum of Bruce Dickinson leaving the band and rejoining some years later, 'Brave New World' continues with 'The Wicker Man' and Edward Woodward's character meeting a rather hot demise at the hands of Christopher Lee's pagan worshippers.
While the Revolution was continuing apace over here, over in Canada, science fiction and rock was already taking shape in the band Rush. Another band who was to have a profound influence on my early years . Starting off with the eponymously named debut album: 'Rush', what started as a Led Zeppelin-esque band from the Toronto suburbs in the early 1970's evolved into one of the finest fusions of science fiction and rock music that I have ever heard.
It was only upon the departure of Rush's original drummer; John Rutsey, due to health reasons and the arrival of the drummer who would remain with Rush to this very day, would Rush achieve the success they enjoy today.
Neil Peart is an intensely private person. However, he is extremely well read and articulate. This was reflected in the direction that the bands music and lyrics took. This was intimated at in their second album; 'Fly By Night' in the song; 'By-Tor and The Snow Dog', a piece of heroic derring-do and sword and sorcery and continued very much in the same vein for their third offering; 'Caress of Steel' which featured a side-long (for those readers who still remember vinyl LP's) epic called 'The Fountain of Lamneth'
However, things were not working to Rush's favour as album sales were declining and the market they had their sights set on, namely the UK, was convulsed by the unwelcome attentions of Punk Rock. They thought that if they were to go out, they would go out in style, all the while cocking a snook at the record industry on both sides of the Atlantic. However, this was going to backfire spectacularly in their faces and propel them into the annals of rock history.
Neil Peart has long been an admirer of the author Ayn Rand, whose works railed against the abominations of Communism, Collectivism and the need to think as one mind without need for deviation. The inspiration for their fourth studio album '2112' was drawn from a story of hers called Anthem. Set in a futuristic society, the concept of individuality has been abolished and everyone has to refer to themselves in the third person. The hero of the piece rediscovers electricity, leading to a conflict between himself and the ruling authorities.
This is very much echoed in the conceptual story behind 2112. Set on the worlds of a theocracy, where the populace live under the snapping banner of the Red Star of the Solar Federation,, life is grim, soulless and everyones thoughts are directed by and dictated to by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx.
Into this steps our reluctant hero who, wishing to escape the mindless drudgery of his everyday life, has found a cave and refuge behind a waterfall where he can rest and contemplate. One day he discovers a relic of the 'elder race of men' who were driven out by the Priests of Syrinx, namely a guitar. After learning to play it, he is overjoyed by the range of emotions that playing it can bring and decides to share his gift with the priesthood. However, his gift is smashed by the priests as they mock him for clinging onto the old ways . Walking home dejectedly to his abode, he falls into a troubled slumber,.. where he has a prophetic dream that the elder race of men have been gathering their forces and are planning to return to the oust the priesthood and restore their rule of joy, freedom and enlightenment
The song then ends with a booming voice saying: 'Attention all planets of the Solar Federation...We have assumed control...'
While this was an epic of a song, it raised the Left-thinking, Punk-orientated 1970's music press of the UK to babbling with rage at a perceived slight on all they held dear and Rush were unfairly and unjustly branded as 'Crypto-Fascists' by them.
The second side of the LP contains a tip of the hat to the late great Rod Serling's; 'The Twilight Zone'. Amongst other science fiction-tinged songs are 'Red Barchetta', off their album Moving Pictures. This song is based on a short story called 'A Nice Morning Drive' by Richard Foster. It is set in a near future world where motor vehicles have been made by law to withstand collisions of up to 70 mph. As a result of this, they have become lumbering tank-like vehicles called MSV's (Maximum Safety Vehicles). As a result, any older car they see on the road is subjected to a form of legalised road-rage and shunted off the road. A young man visits his uncles farm out in the country where he indulges in the now illegal pursuit of driving his uncles 50 year old MGB Roadster around the country lanes. While he is out driving, he is spotted by an MSV, or as it is called in the song; 'a gleaming alloy aircar', and a chase entails. Only by wit and breakneck speed driving is he able to evade the vehicle and then speed back to the farm to reminisce with his uncle about the golden age of motoring.
A later song from their 1984 album;' Grace under Pressure ' deals with survival in a futuristic concentration camp. A very hard song for Rush's vocalist Geddy Lee to sing as he lost relatives of his in a Nazi labour camp...
And so that brings us to Rush's latest offering. The latest sub-genre of science fiction to come to the publics attention is that of SteamPunk. This came around as a direct reaction to the joyless and Dystopian vision of the future that is Cyberpunk. SteamPunk, with its romanticised and Neo-Victorian view of the future, caught Neil Peart's attention and he started writing lyrics that dealt with such a future.
Based loosely on Voltaire's tale 'Candide', it deals with a young man, inspired by watching the mighty Steam Runners that traverse the face of the planet, touch down to travel on rails to various cities around the globe, running away to explore his world. He makes his way to the metropolis that is Crown City, where the awe-inspiring Clockwork Angels stand guard at the temple of the Watchmaker. Passing down his dictates through his order of Alchemist Priests, he is the supreme ruler who rules over everyones destiny and expects all to live their lives exactly to the minute. He is drawn in to a world of anarchists, fabulous carnivals and a headlong flight across the face of his world. He finally comes home, although disillusioned and heartbroken by what he has seen, he would gladly live through what he has experienced again and again.
Back to The Shat for a final time. When they are not combining their musical talents with the angelic voice of Jon Anderson in the progressive rock band Yes, both guitarist Steve Howe and former Yes keyboard player Patrick Moraz have both put their heads together with him. Steve appears on the very last song of the album called, appropriately , Planet Earth. Patrick Moraz and another musician; Bootsy Collins appears on the Thomas Dolby song ' She Blinded Me With Science'. While The Shat may not be gesticulating wildly like the late Dr. Magnus Pike on the song, the unorthodox way in which the lyrics are delivered more than makes up for it.
In summing up, rock music has provided a fertile breeding ground for the concept of science fiction to take root and grow. Science fiction has existed in a variety of mediums for a very long time and rock music is the latest place for that genre of literature to be expressed. Even though William Shatner has produced a CD that is both iconoclastic and strangely endearing, or a threat to all that some people hold dear, (I can hear a certain Keith Dunn raging and sharpening a knife to plunge in my throat...)may it be a long and very happy marriage...
On a final note, could this be the ultimate combination of rock music, science fiction and the multifaceted talents of William Shatner? Only time will tell...