David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, jamming good with Weird and Gilly.
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, jamming good with Weird and Gilly.
Michael Putland

Author Jason Heller on David Bowie, UFOs, and How Science Fiction Changed Rock 'n' Roll

Hippies may have sung about tripping out on the astral plane, but David Bowie looked like he used to live there.
When The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars dropped on Earth in 1972, Bowie's androgynous alien persona entered the pop scene looking like he had fallen out of a hole from another dimension. It was as if Major Tom had crashed back to Earth after being mutated into something freaky and beautiful. And just like the aliens in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, he had come here to warp the youth and "let the children boogie" onto a higher plane of existence.

Along with fellow out-of-this-world musicians like Hawkwind and Parliament, Ziggy's interstellar success marked a period in pop culture when science fiction was having a profound impact on music. While Ziggy Stardust (which turns 46 on June 16) is the most well-known sci-fi album, there's a surprisingly long list of albums and musicians who've been heavily influenced by films like 2001, and authors like Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon. It's an intersection that author, journalist, and musician Jason Heller investigates in his engrossing new book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.

We talked with Heller about UFOs, Janelle Monae, and why he decided to focus on the '70s to tease out the many ways that popular music was shaped by science fiction.

Considering the ambitious scope of your book, was it hard picking just one decade to explore the connections between science fiction and music? How did you settle on the '70s?

The original proposal for Strange Stars that I came up with was going to span all of popular music from basically the World War II era to the present day. Whereas in the finished version of the book that you read, each chapter kind of covers a year. Each chapter in my original proposal was going to cover a decade. I had it all outlined and I was sending it around to publishers, and it was getting rejected. It seemed the common reason for the rejections that I was getting was that that it was too broad — with all the bands and artists I wanted to mention in each decade, there’d be very little room to actually tell a story or really dig deeply into any single artist. In essence, it’d be basically whisking really quickly through almost an entire century of music.

When it finally got to the point where I did have a editor interested in it — Ryan Harrington at Melville House — he told me the exact thing, but he said, ‘I want to work with on figuring out a way to make this work than just rejecting it.’ So Ryan said, think of a way to narrow it down. And that’s when I landed on the idea of the '70s as the focus of the book. David Bowie was always going to be a central figure in Strange Stars, and I just thought about how the '70s were the prime decade for him as a musician, and also for science fiction. The whole decade is perfectly bookended by Bowie: “Space Oddity” in 1969 and “Ashes To Ashes” in 1980.

And once that dawned on me, that’s when I realized that was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to restrict it to the '70s because of all these other things that could be worked into the mix: emerging technologies like home computing; innovations in music technology, with sequences and synthesizers becoming commonplace; all the ups and downs of the space program …

You’re able to cover a wide gamut of groups within that 10-year span. Was there anything you wish you had included, or that you had to leave out because it didn’t fit into the narrative you were trying to tell?

You know, obviously people define pop music in lots of different ways. Maybe this is because I used to work in a record store, but I always think about how things are shelved — how pop and rock are always separate from jazz and classical. So there was going to be no jazz or classical in the original concept … I still wound up excluding classical music (and there are a couple of examples of classical music in that era that were sci-fi) because there’s only so much I can shoehorn in one book.

What I wanted to explore was how popular culture and pop music was influenced by science-fiction cinema and literature. Once I realized what my brackets were going to be, that’s when I realized that I could work in a little bit of jazz. And of course I would have been totally remiss not to have a chapter on Sun Ra, even though as a jazz musician he had been doing science-fiction themed music for many years before the '70s rolled around. But there was something about how his music began influencing pop culture then, with Parliament. And that’s when his film Space Is The Place came out, and really helped solidify a lot of Afrofuturist ideas in the popular consciousness.

How far back were you originally planning to go in the book? You mentioned World War II. Was there a specific moment you wanted to use to springboard the rest of the book?

I was going to go back to the advent of the atomic age and the rise of the golden age of science-fiction literature and B-movies. I was also going to tie it into the first wave of UFO sightings, and how that became a phenomenon in the '70s, culminating with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in 1977. A lot of these things —the atomic age, the UFO sightings — got tied into the novelty science-fiction music that came out of the '50s and '60s.

And so, you know, the other good thing about starting Strange Stars with “Space Oddity” is that it marks the point in the late '60s when musicians and songwriters started taking science fiction, and expressing it in an earnest way rather than just using it as a silly little novelty. Songs about, uh, Martians or flying saucers. Which I love, by the way; those things are great. One thing I really wanted to get across in the book is that I don’t distinguish or make a judgment between so-called progressive artists with strong groundings in actual sci-fi, and the people who wrote novelty music. They’re both valid and demonstrative of what was going on in science fiction at the time.

Some of the most intriguing parts of your book is when you talk about these accounts that musicians like Hendrix and George Clinton have about seeing UFOs. I was wondering what your stance on UFOs was. What’s your take on that whole phenomena?

I suppose I’m agnostic on the idea of UFOs. A part of me just wants to completely discount all of it as mass hysteria, or people seeing what they want to see, or outright hoaxes — and there have been plenty of those. But the thing is, I’m also very informed by writers like Robert Anton Wilson, who talked about the idea of UFOs as Jungian archetypes …

And there’s a part of me that’s still really drawn to the idea of a metaphysical or occult view on the UFO phenomenon. So I hesitate to write things off; it’s kind of a war in my brain. When it comes to religion, there’s no war whatsoever — I’m completely atheistic. But when it comes to UFOs — I’m agnostic about UFOs but not God. I’m ready to write God off as a total invention of man but UFOs, for some reason, I’m willing to entertain the notion that they might actually exist.

There’s actually a big UFO conference that happens in Arizona, up in Fountain Hills, the International UFO Congress. I’ve gone the last two years, and the mix of people there is fascinating. A few of them come off as, you know, batshit crazy. But there are also these very lucid people where you listen to them talk and it’s hard not to believe that something really did happen to them. Whether or not it was actually a UFO or something else they experienced, who knows, but it seemed to have a real effect on them.

Yeah, exactly. To try to write off everyone who has seen or experienced something like that ... I consider myself an atheist but I’d never in a million years write off or dismiss the personal religious experience that someone else might have. I mean, that’s sacred. I might not believe in God but I’d never assume that anyone else’s religious ecstasy or experience is false or a delusion. And I think the same thing about people who have supernatural or unexplained experiences.

So when it came to Strange Stars, I thought that was a valid thread of discussion because it’s just so closely intertwined with what was going on in science fiction at the time. And it’s also expressed in the music of the '70s, so even people who didn’t read sci-fi books or watch movies were exposed to it. … Look at how music plays such a central role in Close Encounters. And there’s a couple of instances I cite in the book where the synthesizers that the aliens use in Close Encounters began to be copied by popular musicians like Bowie. So it’s all a part of this conversation.

I was reading the interview you did with Clipping about their Hugo Awards nomination, and it got me thinking about how in contemporary music sci-fi themes and subject matter, it’s genres like rap and R&B that are working with those ideas. Like with Clipping or El-P or Janelle Monae. It doesn’t seem like guitar rock — or what we call indie rock — is feeding off that current. I was wondering, had you written the book up to the modern age, what artists would you be talking about? Who’s making the sci-fi music of the future today?

I love Janelle Monae — she began as someone who was just steeped in science fiction, right? That was her entire concept, her presentation. As she’s getting more popular, as she deserves to be, she’s branching out from that. She’s not being as literal and explicit with her science fiction influence — it’s something that’s a part of a bigger narrative and aesthetic.

But it’s part of this cycle that I talk about in the book that even though there are a lot of pop artists that use science fiction themes in their music, the ones that more deeply dig into the concepts, and the canon of science fiction, are the ones that are going to be more on the fringe because it’s harder for a more mainstream audience to relate to, regardless of how popular and ubiquitous science fiction is. That’s the dichotomy: Science fiction is huge on TV and in cinema, but it’s not as popular in literature and music.

When it comes to guitar rock, there’s actually tons of metal bands that do. That’s where science fiction is still happening. I think it really kicked off when Mastodon did Crack the Skye. It’s a sprawling concept: time travel and astral dimensions, you know, crazy crap. It’s a pretty loose storyline but it’s a really amazing one.

So I think we’re at the point now where science-fiction music was in the early '70s, where the only people really making that kind of music are drawn it to as a passion. There’s no commercial game in making yourself a science fiction artist — with the exception of flukes.

Because there’s always a fluke — David Bowie was a fluke. And obviously Janelle Monae is the equivalent. Maybe that’s a little bit reductive and maybe doesn’t even do Monae enough justice as her own artist, but if there was an equivalent right now — someone who is culturally and creatively carrying on Bowie’s spirit — I’d say it’s her.

David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust Anniversary Celebration is happening on Saturday, June 16, at Valley Bar in downtown Phoenix. Jason Heller's Strange Stars is in bookstores now.

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