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Science Fiction in music. If you’re looking for some sounds to accompany your other-worldly reads, this survey of tracks will get you off to a good start.

Ummagumma

Yes, that is the title of a song, or more accurately an experimental sound work by progressive rock band, Pink Floyd. The track, an assemblage of percussive patterings, yelpings, pantings, and squeals, culminating in incoherent mumbling in a Scottish accent (by Ron Geesin) creates an intriguing, funny and deeply weird narrative of sorts. The playful track features on the early Floyd album, Ummagumma, possibly the ultimate sci fi rock album of the period. The lengthy reworkings of earlier works like Astronomy Domine, with its pulsing, spacey imaginary journey in sound, the album is unlike anything else produced in the period (the late 1960s). It is also, in hindsight, rather pretentious. And none the worse for that.

Bands like Pink Floyd were striving to push the boundaries of what rock music could do. Either that or they simply wanted to produce a soundtrack for people out of their skulls on LSD. Anyone smoking primo hash at a party while listening to Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun might swear the high was better than anything they could imagine. On the latter point, I was still a schoolboy at the time, so of course I never touched the stuff!

While some of the music may have been drug inspired, almost certainly some of it came from some other source, I feel. Floyd tracks like Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun may well have been prompted by scifi books or films.

Other groups drew references from fantasy. The progressive rock band, Caravan, for example, created an amusing little ditty called C’thulu Thlu:

From the forest down below
Came a voice that cried “no”
Something seemed nearly dead
Making me feel so cold
Even the trees seemed to fear
There was something unreal
Couldn’t see very far
And the sky had gone dark

Hardly poetry, I know, but I am sure old H.P. would appreciate the tribute.

Amon Duul IIThen we move into even stranger territory, with Germanic groups like Kraftwerk (the fathers of electro pop), with their robotic mini symphonies. And, one of my personal favourites, Amon Düül II, who, like Pink Floyd, were somewhat symphonic in their approach to composition.  The German group, like some others, notably the Franco-British ensemble, Gong, were formed out of a commune. CID In Uruk, Hawknose Harlequin and A Short Stop at the Transylvanian Brain Surgery are among the evocative tune titles. The titles alone evoke stories, but the wild, experimental music sends you to places a lot of other music doesn’t reach.

And then there is Hawkwind, whom the wider public probably know best from their not particularly good “pop” song, Silver Machine. It says something about their intentions, influences and direction that fantasy master, Michael Moorcock, was occasionally known to perform with them. X in Search of Space, Quark, Strangeness and Charm and It is the Business of the Future to Be Dangerous: just a few album titles that have science fiction pressed into their very vinyl grooves. I urge you to go and find some of this music for yourself. Try youtube to start with.:

HawkwindHawkwind

Amon Duul II

Pink Floyd

I’m no musicologist, so I won’t even attempt to describe the compositional niceties of all this weird music. What I can say is that you will find compelling mixtures of electronic experimentation, warped blues, bizarre jazz, and even funked up folk music in much of the music that inspired a generation of drug-addled, science fiction addicted youth of the 1960s.

Government warning: toking up while listening to Hawkwind and reading The Stealer of Souls may be hazardous to your health.

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2 Comments

  1. Ah, yes, indeed, Gary. I love Yes, and Starship Trooper is fabulous. The double album, Tales of Topgraphic Oceans, well, I never quite got it, though maybe a listen now with fresh ears will change my opinions. Tangerene Dream, absolutely. Jean Michel Jarre was too poppy for my tastes, though.

  2. A nice round-up of some music I haven’t played in a long time. How about a Part II featuring Yes – Starship Trooper, Turn of the Century, Gates of Delirium – and acts like early Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre? In the 70s they sounded like pure SF beamed in from the future.

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