Outer space on the dance floor: from the avant-garde to Star Wars commercialism and beyond.
The French Conquer Space
Of all the avant-garde deep spacers, none were deeper into space than the brilliant French group Space. Their albums Magic Fly (1977), Deliverance (1977), and Just Blue (1978), as innovative as they are inviting, sold 12 million copies worldwide. "Magic Fly", the first and biggest hit, seems campier than it is if watching the video, which features the band in spacesuits. Space, however, took their mode of disco quite solemnly. Their ambient-funk instrumentals are lush yet aerodynamic for tender orbit in wide-open darkness, while the occasionally featured female vocalist entrances with soulfulness no less than revelatory.
Didier Marouani, who founded the group, went on to compose the first opera for synthesizer and choir; Space Opera (1987) also became the first CD to be played in outer space -- by Russian cosmonauts at the then newly established space station Mir.
A number of other electronica pioneers and popsters came out of France, like Pierre Henry, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Cerrone, but most deserving of inclusion here is Bernard Fevre, whose three instrumental albums, released 1975-'77, veer increasingly beyond the earth's atmosphere. With no song over three minutes, these albums feel like abstract montages of interplanetary touring.
Fevre is now known more for his work as Black Devil and the cult disco masterpiece Disco Club (1978) that channels the spacey instrumentation of his previous albums while adding aggressive beats and filtered vocals. Disco Club was so ahead of its time and obscure that when it reemerged on CD in the 2000s, new fans either doubted its '70s origin or assumed Black Devil's follow-up, 28 After (2006), was also from the '70s.
Harald Grosskopf came out of Krautrock and the space-obsessed Berlin School of electronic music. He founded Ash Ra Tempel and collaborated with The Cosmic Jokers and Klaus Schulze. His solo debut Synthesist (1980), all instrumentals made using a Minimoog, a primitive sequencer, and an 8-track reel-to-reel, is considered a cult classic. It's ambience with gravitational pull, in turn droning and celestial, tranceable and danceable. The album was reissued in 2014 by independent label Bureau B.
Further Listening: Automat (Italy), Moon Birds (France), Space Art (France), Yellow Magic Orchestra (Japan), and Zodiac (Latvia).
Spawn of Star Wars
For most people who remember the disco '70s, mention Space Disco and the name springing to mind is Meco, whose disco spin on John Williams' Star Wars theme to this day qualifies as the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time. Seeing Star Wars on its opening night in May of 1977 changed the life course of Pennsylvania-born record producer Meco Monardo.
Sound effects -- like the iconic pew-pew, the lightsaber hum, and droid R2D2's "voice" -- constitute the most obviously electronic aspect of Meco's reinterpretation. His album Music Inspired By Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk (1977) was followed by Superman and Other Galactic Heroes (1979), Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album (1980), Music From Star Trek and the Black Hole (1980), and Ewok Celebration (1983).
As with Meco Monardo, seeing Star Wars inspired Droids founder Yves Hayat to recreate the "space opera" feeling on vinyl -- and he did so without bowing to John Williams' score. The two-part "(Do You Have) The Force?" alludes to the classic Star Wars line "May the Force be with you", but otherwise the all-instrumental Star Peace (1978) whizzes toward its own apogee.
It's a laser-clean slice of space disco at a mere 32-minutes total, very rare and expensive even after release on CD in 2004. The infectious "Shanti Dance" is included on a compilation of French electronica titled Cosmic Machine (2013), its liner notes imagining the Droids "lying on a beach of diamonds sipping electric cocktails in the company of a few Venusian mermaids".
Before her eminence in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, soprano Sarah Brightman led a dance troupe turned music group called Hot Gossip and their debut "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper" was a top ten hit in England in 1978. The song is a pop melange of space references (Darth Vader, Starfleet, Close Encounters) and space battle sound effects, all in service of a colonization theme: "Hand in hand we'll conquer space".
"Love in a UFO" (1979) has more hook, with lyrics about spaceship abduction and sex between human and android: "Oh what a trip it was, so cosmically orgasmic / I'd no idea he was an android made of plastic!"
Time magazine reported in 2015 that Brightman may be going to space for real, soon. She and husband Andrew Lloyd Weber composed a song ideal for her to sing in microgravity but, sadly, her plans for a ten-day stay aboard the International Space Station are for the time being suspended.
With Return of the Jedi (1983) came the merchandisable Ewoks, a whole village of spear-ready teddy bears. MB4's song "Ewok Celebration" begins "Yub nub, eee chop yub nub". Meco's disco version tries to rise above the childish banter of the Ewokese with a rap bridge, while the Italo version by MB4 blends in the original Star Wars theme. Either way a goofy gimmick.
MB4's inexplicable B-side, "Do, Do, Phone Me", is the gem here. MB4, by the way, is better known as MBO of Klein & MBO whose classic "Dirty Talk" (1982) is considered a major influence on early house music.
In Europe as Space Disco converged with Italo, the hairsplitting category of spacesynth emerged and Koto's two instrumental hits "Visitors" (1985) and "Jabdah" (1986) are considered among its best. "Visitors" contains a sample from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (1982) and the 12" offers a six-minute "Alien Mix".
As for "Jabdah", that title alludes to Jabba the Hutt of Return of the Jedi (1983); the misspelling was a way to skirt copyright. A plucky synth track, its cold bounce serves as a counterpoint to the guttural Jabba voice in the background. As is often true of the period, one is better off avoiding the ghastly music video, in this case featuring Anfrando Maiola hopping at his synth in a martial arts keikogi.
Further Listening: Bang Bang Robot (France), The Electric Moog Orchestra (Brazil), Galaxy 42 (US), Patrick Gleeson (US), Boris Midney (Russia)—all of them Meco imitators from 1977-'80.
Picture a band of five bald Parisian men painted silver, the drummer flanked by golden gongs. They all wear black and silver jumpsuits. While superimposed against a tawdry galactic backdrop, they perform a Space Rock-Disco cover of Canned Heat's hippy classic "On the Road Again", alternating between natural and vocoder-filtered vocals. This is the title song on Rockets second album, released in 1977, which also offers the more purely Space Disco entry "Cosmic Race".
Titles like "Space Rock" and "Sci Fi Boogie" suggest a self-awareness of the kitsch inherent to their act. The band kept up their costume-play for album after space-themed album throughout their most successful period of 1977-'82.
Ganymed's butch Space Disco prompts more stomp than hustle. Pummeling bass energizes the best of their three space-themed albums (1978-1980), layers of rhythm rubbing against each other. Gerry Edmond's often gruffly masculine voice borders on homoerotic, even in call-and-response with Yvonne Dory's coolly served vocals. Their big debut hit in native Austria, "It Takes Me Higher", reminds my ear of "Supernature" (1977), Cerrone's disco classic with the strange eco-horror theme.
"Hyperspace", "Future World", "We Like You (The Way You Like Us)", and "Death to the Alien" also enthrall. Ganymed does go kitschy at times. As well, each band member adopted an alien pseudonym, like Kroonk and Pulsaria, the men wear creature masks made of rubber, and their debut album cover may win the prize for quality kitsch in a genre that produced some of the hokiest cover art imaginable.
Disco Dream and the Androids is the name given to both a studio "project" and its resultant one-off album, realized by a descendant of German composer Richard Wagner whose British firm, Electronic Dream Plant, manufactured synthesizers. Andrew Wagner intended his project to be "a spoof concept space fantasy album" and was surprised to find it taken seriously by fans.
In spite of its kitschy cover, weightless lyrics, and the spasmodic "pew-pew" effects, however, a mastery of the Wasp Moog and the Roland 700 synthesizer guaranteed serious beats. It's also, according to Wagner, the first time a purely computer-generated "phonetic voice" was used on an album. For backup singers he chose a very real trio known as The Thunder Thighs, famous for singing the "colored girls" part on Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (though it doesn't seem they themselves are "colored"). For now Disco Dream and the Androids is rare and expensive, even used copies on vinyl, but all six tracks can be found hovering about the YouTube sphere. Start with the nine-minute opener "Dream Machine".
"The Disco Spaceship" (1977) is an irrepressible Space Disco obscurity by a Welsh-born vocalist and occasional drag artist who was popular in Canadian gay clubs throughout the mid-'70s, Laurie Marshall aka Laurice. The song celebrates unity through dance and sex -- "Venus gettin' down with Mars" -- while advanced lifeforms look down on earthlings for making more war than love. Laurice's hand-at-mouth wa-wa-wa tribal call makes for an unforgettable approximation of the vocoder. The 12" was mixed at Electric Ladyland Studios in Greenwich Village, surrounded by Lance Jost's psychedelic spaceship murals that would end up serving as cover art for "Disco Spaceship".