Outer space on the dance floor: from the avant-garde to Star Wars commercialism and beyond.
Meco's disco version of the Star Wars theme hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1977, selling two million copies internationally. Space Disco had taken off and it remained in orbit for nearly a decade. At its best, Space Disco sounds less like Meco's effects-sampling gimmickry and more streamlined and pulsing like Giorgio Moroder's synth-instrumental "Chase" (1978). Though an instant cliché, commercially, Space Disco can be far more dynamic, too: fatuous or subversive, sexual or sexist, unifying or diversifying, utopian or dystopian, bringing wonder or apocalypse, offering escape or reflection. Space Disco did not begin with Star Wars, at any rate, its long fuse reaches back decades.
The pop culture phenomenon of Space Disco can be seen as a logical extension of the Space Age, its accompanying sci-fi sensibility, and the evolution of music-making technology. The Space Age began with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, effectively beginning the Space Race, and intensified the popular imagination's focus on futurism and worlds beyond our own. Theremin-driven scores for sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), as well as the first all-electronic score for Forbidden Planet (1956), had already established the outer space soundscape: hovering tones, propulsive pitches, sonic waves from a galaxy away, abstracted melodies, radar repetitions. These scores relied on technology that quickly evolved over the next two decades, pivoting on the breakout Moog synthesizer that would be heard across genres.
The retrospectively named genre Space Age Pop served as a soundtrack for the Space Age from the mid-'50s into the mid-'60s, aligned with era advances in stereophonic sound and high fidelity (hi-fi) home stereos. Sid Bass's From Another World (1956), Les Baxter's Space Escapade (1958), and Dick Hyman's Moon Gas (1963) featuring Mary Mayo are stellar examples. Though not electronic music, the subgenre quirked-up standards like "Sentimental Journey" inside a space frame. Latin sensation Esquivel is surely the "father" of the genre. His landmark album Other Worlds Other Sounds (1958), though its cover envisions a dancer on the moon's surface, offers no explicit space theme to connect the tracks, only arrangements marked by newfangled studio wizardry.
Deliah Derbyshire, an eccentric British pioneer in electronic music, created the iconic Dr. Who theme in 1963 at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where she was surrounded by imposing computers and switchboards. New electronic instruments represented the future of music and their blinking, circuitry-riddled looks, much like their beep-bips and "ziwzih ziwzih" sounds (to borrow a Derbyshire title), linked up easily with a future-tech vision of spaceship interiors. Even the terminology sounded futuristic, with modulators, wobbulators, oscillators, sine waves, vacuum tubes, and magnetic tape loops.
Much early electronic music experimented with dissonance and cacophony more than melody, widely perceived as weird but inaccessible. The In Sound From Way Out!, released in 1966 by master innovators Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, aspired to create zippy little songs that "might be heard soon from the jukeboxes at the interplanetary way stations" -- according to the original liner notes. The space theme is explicit across all tracks with titles like "Unidentified Flying Object", "The Little Man from Mars", and the utterly goofy "Barnyard in Orbit". The Moog synthesizer, making its debut of sorts at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, did the most to bring electronic into the mainstream because it was able to be commercially manufactured.
Outer space, as audio aesthetic or fantastic theme, opened up music beyond the burgeoning electronic genre. Prog Rock, so-called Krautrock, Space Rock, and the Berlin School all overlapped in the late '60s and early '70s. The first genres to incorporate synthesizer and rock instruments, they also broke away from traditional song structures, extending song length and thereby expanding the sense of space within a song, be it an inner space (e.g., dreamscape) or outer space. Cosmos-prone pioneers in these genres include Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Cosmic Jokers and, above all, the electronic music collective Tangerine Dream.
Jazz and funk channeled their own outer space mythologies. Alabama-born jazz master Sun Ra, who claimed a mystical link to Saturn, more or less invented Afrofuturism in the mid-'50s (though the term would not be coined until the '90s by critic Mark Dery). Sun Ra started his decades-long output with avant-garde records like Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra Visits Planet Earth (1958) but is most known for free-jazz works like Space Is the Place (1973) that combined outer space themes and Egyptian exotica. Space's personnel list refers to the backup singers as Space Ethnic Voices.
Mark Dery writes: "African-American voices have other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come. If there is an Afrofuturism, it must be sought in unlikely places, constellated from far-flung points." Dery sees an Afrofuturist sensibility in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (1968), Herbie Hancock's Future Shock (1983), and of course Parliament and its leader George Clinton, whose alter ego, Starchild, first emerged in the 1975 hit "Mothership Connection" that integrates lines from the traditional spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" into its outer space party scene. Also noteworthy are Pharoah Sanders' "Astral Traveling" (1971), Billy Preston's "Outa Space" (1971), Ornette Coleman's "Science Fiction" (1972), Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes' "Cosmic Funk" (1974), LaBelle's "Space Children" (1974), Undisputed Truth's "UFOs" (1975), and Dexter Wansel's space one-off Life On Mars (1976).
Now we've reached disco, which can be traced back to the early '70s, to underground dance clubs in Philadelphia and New York City where blends of soul, funk, salsa, and pop were popular with African-American, Latino, and gay patrons. Though a number of disco hit-makers came along to define the genre, like Gloria Gaynor or The Village People, most relevant here is synth-master Giorgio Moroder, whose major hit for Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" (1977), featured the Moog so drivingly that it inspired widespread incorporation of synth into dance music.
The era of Space Disco, 1976 to 1986, predates and outlasts yet is roughly parallel to the Star Wars franchise: Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). Groundbreaking and wildly popular video games piqued ears for space sounds as well, with Space Invaders released in 1978, Galaxian and Asteroids in 1979, and Vanguard, Defender, and Galaga in 1981.
Even as it veered sharply mainstream, disco was rooted in the marginal and -- dare I say -- alien? It's easy to see only the blockbuster successes of the above-mentioned films, as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Movie (1979), and Flash Gordon (1980), as the reason for surging space sounds and themes in disco, but there's more to it. According to Daryl Easlea's book Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco, "aliens were swamping popular culture," be they actual extraterrestrials on the theater screen, or in disco music where otherness prevailed: gays (Village People, Patrick Cowley, Sylvester), blacks "subliminally appropriating white symbols of power" (Chic in their business suits), and sexually powerful women (Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Amanda Lear).
The following list of 25 contributors to Space Disco takes five different angles on the genre.
Avant-Garde Deep Spacers refers to those whose contributions are more abstract, creating a deep "space groove", if you will, as if listeners have settled in for a long flight through velvety Andromeda. Spawn of Star Wars includes dance tracks that either directly refer to or obviously lift from the Star Wars movies. Selections under Intergalactic Kitsch reveal the campy sense of humor inherent to a good deal of Space Disco. Since women in this genre and during this era weren't generally found at mixing consoles, manipulating the technology, the next category focuses on their vocals, a gathering of Cosmic Chanteuses. The last category, The Mothership Electro, covers a later period in the Space Disco era when burgeoning hip-hop overlapped with electronic music and drew on an Afrofuturist mythology.
These contributors may have produced single songs, whole albums, or oeuvres that fit into the Space Disco genre. Their contributions may have been major hits or obscurities with cult status. Their countries of origin include Aruba, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, and the Unites States.
Avante-garde Deep Spacers
The four-octave, often free-form stylings of Asha Puthli, world music pioneer from Bombay, India, were first heard on jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction (1972). Her solo albums over the next few years fused East and West while alternating between psychedelic funk and pop balladry. Her one space-themed song, "Space Talk" from The Devil Is Loose (1976), achieved underground immortality with its saunter-encouraging bass, spaceship synth, dip-and-soar vocals, and softly clipped lyrics like "Space talk, taking a space walk space".
Several hip-hop artists have sampled the song, including The Notorious B.I.G. on his Life After Death album (1997). In 2009, the song was transmitted into deep space, at the speed of light, as part of a celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.
Manzel's "Space Funk" (1977), much like their "Midnight Theme" (1979), were singles without albums, brief yet funk-powered instrumentals that waited two decades to be rediscovered, and honorably sampled, by hip-hop artists like De La Soul, Cypress Hill, and Childish Gambino. Leader of the Lexington-based trio, Manzel Bush, juxtaposes his vibrant, multi-frequency keyboards against driving bass and mounting strings as it's all set a-strut with high-hat drums. A timeless ride.
Dopebrother Records remastered Manzel's few tracks for a CD titled Midnight Theme (2004). "Space Funk" is also available on the excellent compilation Spaced Out: 10 Original Disco Funk Grooves (2007).