Feature / January 16, 2018
As the end of the 1970s approached, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the space-age fantasies the West had been nurturing for twenty years led nowhere real, or at least nowhere permanent, and that terrestrials were seeking some kind of emotional repository for the dreams they had been dreaming, as well as a pressure valve for their multiplying tensions. Three films released between May and December of 1977—Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever—articulated the starry-eyed mood, each in its own way; and, as has often been the case, it was a rogue’s gallery of dreamers, chancers, fantasists, and unscrupulous hacks that proved most effectively able to channel the zeitgeist. The hodgepodge of sci-fi glitz and dancefloor excitement that resulted coalesced into something potent and optimistic—even utopian—which gave cosmic magnitude to everyday life, suffusing it with the throb of the infinite: if raw thrust wasn’t going to provide us with a better destiny among the stars, four-to-the-floor beats and flashing laser-balls just might.
Who could have imagined that the market-driven fusion of otherworldly imagery, technological innovation, and social ritual that became space disco would transcend its copycat origins and become something for the ages? Give capitalism its due, though: some of the eddies formed in its insatiable wake have turned out to harbor beautiful and profound little pieces of pop culture resistance. So it was with space disco. With that in mind, we invite you to join us on a glittering ascent up through the atmosphere to dance among the very heavens.
The sheer amount of stuff (much of it junk) that was pumped out over the genre’s relatively brief lifetime makes anything more than a cursory overview impossible, so purists be warned, this is a selection of the 10 LPs and singles that, for us, best evoke space disco’s fusion of intergalactic glitz and mystery, dressing-up-box absurdity, and dancefloor propulsion.
Meco’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk (1977) certainly has to be considered the founding document of space disco, giving form to both the genre’s artistic and commercial characteristics. The aesthetics are all here: a strings-and-horns-heavy rendition of famous space-oriented music, with dashes of synthesized sound, released at a sufficient BPM to be played as uptempo disco numbers in dance clubs. Meco was definitely the biggest hitmaker of the space disco era: the “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band Theme” single, which pushed together two distinct orchestral movements from the LP’s A-side, was a Number 1 hit in October 1977.
Meco was the nickname of group founder Domenico Monardo, a trombonist who’d moved from jazz into pop, while adding producing to his résumé in the 1970s. Meco was a science fiction fan from childhood. He dove into Star Wars over its opening week, seeing the movie five times in its first couple of days in theaters in 1977. The secret to Meco’s success (other than choosing to cover the score of one of the most popular movies in the history of Hollywood) was twofold. First, he made surprisingly modest and tasteful use of stereo space-age sound effects (ably produced by synth legend Suzanne Ciani); second, he possessed a keen sense of instrumentation and rhythm honed over his years in the music business. The basslines in “Star Wars Theme” bounce exactly how a disco bassline should, all while adhering to the orchestral melodies of John Williams’s brilliant score. His rendition of the “Cantina Band Theme” offers all kinds of little jazz variations and flourishes. In a weird way, these Earth-bound jazz sounds end up putting the listener right back into that grubby bar on Tatooine. The B-Side of the album, the “Other Galactic Funk” of the LP’s title, is a collection of B sides, with no connection to Star Wars or, to my untrained ear, anything particularly “galactic” or “funky.”
I think the biggest revelation, listening to Meco in 2018, was suddenly remembering how often the various movements on Side A were used as interstitials on the television of my childhood. I remember at least a couple of local UHF stations that showed syndicated kids’ programming on weekday afternoons using both halves of “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” during bumpers. On the national level, CBS used this single for their NFL pregame show from 1977 to 1979. Like a lot of library music, Meco’s pop arrangements of John Williams’ Star Wars score married those worlds of pop and classical in a way that made them perfect music for those moments in media between the programs.
Combining the twin 1970s disciplines of “Disco” and “Space Shit,” this 1978 single by Sarah Brightman, backed by lycra rocketeers Hot Gossip, seemed destined to rule both the galaxy and the UK pop charts, where it reached final orbit at a respectable number 6.
Hot Gossip was formed by dancer Arlene Phillips in 1974 and was best known for their steamy dance appearances on the Kenny Everett Video Show, where “Starship Trooper” was performed to an enraptured nation, left bereft of big-haired space vixens in a post-Barbarella world. Brightman was an able frontwoman for the controversial troupe, who put the wind up many a Mary Whitehouse with their skimpy spandex, Vivienne Westwood-esque bondage costumes, and interracial dancing.
Eight years later, Brightman would ascend to sometimes controversial international fame as a musical theater diva under the wing of husband Andrew Lloyd Webber. Her breakout role in The Phantom of the Opera (which featured an improbable scenario wherein the machinations of an oddball composer allows an inexperienced, vibrato-heavy ingenue to rise through the ranks of the music world like a nepotistic meteor) would be the first of many stage triumphs.
Her breakout hit is a hodgepodge arrangement of stellar references. Snatches of Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind appear in the melody, while the lyrics name drop Flash Gordon, Darth Vader, and even an acrimoniously trademarked droid, who is described as being “devoid of emotion.” Unfair, when George Lucas’s characteristic writing skill memorably allowed protocol droid C-3PO to showcase a rich gamut of moods ranging from “camply fretful” to “oil bath.”
“Starship Trooper” is an enjoyable piece of space junk, and, if it screams cash-in, it at least screams it with style.
Takes You Higher (1978) is the first studio album from the band Ganymed, who were either aliens from the Jovian moon that shares their name (English spelling, “Ganymede”), or a disco outfit from Vienna, depending on how much you buy into the myth. The band appear as their alien alter egos on the album cover, the men sporting Henson-lite creature masks, complete with protruding teeth, elongated snouts, and eyes on stalks that hang downwards, so the effect is something like a crestfallen warthog. Female vocalist Pulsaria (real name Doris Czerwenka) does not have a mask, which is somehow even odder than if the entire band dressed in E.T. drag.
The album is named after opener, “It Takes Me Higher,” which was also the band’s biggest hit single, a disco track with a muscular baseline and a catchy hook, repeated in male vocalist Kroonk’s (Edmund Czerwenka) gravelly monotone, all lightened with a dusting of synth and Pulsaria’s breathless vocals. It’s a great tune, and very danceable, but somewhat restrained compared to the rest of the album. Likewise the second single release, “Saturn,” a surprisingly chilled-out piece of ambient electronica, and I suspect technically the best track on the album. Still, if you’re listening to a band dressed as slightly comical aliens, it’s not really what you’re here for.
The real magic happens when the band commits to the absurdity of their concept in tracks like “Hyperspace,” the tale of an astronaut lured to his doom by a space siren, dramatized by the agonized howling and thrashing guitar of Kroonk as he tries to resist soporific waves of synthesizer and the seductive cooing of Pulsaria, or “You’re a Wonderful Girl,” a bouncy, Osmunds-esque pop song about a space trucker and his sex android. My personal favourite is “S’Punk,” a riotously camp glam rock anthem bursting with scarcely-veiled sexual innuendo, detailing the adventures of an intergalactic malcontent turned “energy vampire.” Our eponymous hero tells his story with a disaffected snarl, while Pulsaria calls his name ecstatically in the background, with the highlight a gleefully unhinged monologue part way through, where S’Punk menaces the listener in broken English, daring us to “Let my tentacles come and get you!”
The overall feel of the album is one of exhilarating nonsense, filled with catchy, uplifting tunes, and wild flights of intergalactic fancy, but there is an air of undefinable magic too. Takes You Higher is so bizarre that it constantly underlines its own status as artifice, rendering it almost uncanny and introducing a feeling of wistfulness for the sort of unabashed, continuity-scorning imagining that most of us leave behind with childhood.
With a title evoking Yul Brynner’s 1975 pandemic thriller The Ultimate Warrior and a wistful cod-Asian melody reminiscent of The Water Margin, the Japanese TV adaptation of the classical Chinese novel of the same name broadcast on the BBC from 1976, “The Ultimate Warlord” came barrelling out of Birmingham (UK) courtesy of Daniel Boone, who’d had a US hit six years earlier with “Beautiful Day” (and who was also part of the entertaining Intergalactic Orchestra).
First released in 1978 and then covered almost immediately in 1979 by Canadians The Immortals, both versions are great: while the original reverberates with stentorian horns and the pounding thud of glam rock, the cover takes a more finessed approach, offering up a female warlord and throwing in some convincingly orgasmic moaning (a disco staple since Donna Summers’ phenomenal “Love to Love You Baby“), though both share the “Knowing Me Knowing You“-esque a-ha’s and cavernous synth stabs. “The Ultimate Warlord” compresses a lot into a brief narrative arc, but its final message remains enigmatic: are we “people down on Earth” being warned we’re about to be wiped out or simply being given a bit of a motivational talking to? We cannot know, but either way, its cosmic momentum is undeniable.
Music From “Battlestar Galactica” And Other Original Compositions
by Giorgio Moroder
It was inevitable that Giorgio Moroder, whose previous year’s From Here to Eternity engineered the course of futuristic electronic dance music, would try his hand at the hedonistic merging of sci-fi and disco—the latter’s popularity in the first place was largely the result of his chart-topping work with Donna Summer. Meco may have beaten him to Star Wars, but all’s fair: Battlestar Galactica was even more suited to plunder, the show a near-perfect encapsulation of the space disco ethos (until Buck Rogers in the 25th Century inherited the title), and Moroder’s 17-minute suite is as slick as the sheen of a Cylon. Soundtrack composer Stu Phillips had already done a disco riff on his potent Battlestar Galactica theme, but Moroder puts it to shame. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the sped-up version of Tartaglia and The Space Angels‘ “It’s Love, Love, Love” (which makes a memorable appearance in the pilot) is not quite as good as the original. That could be nostalgia talking, though.
Side B’s “Evolution” is an influential Moroder classic, and it appears here for the first time. What begins as a minimalist dance beat overlaid with electronic warbles continually evolves (get it?) as Moroder adds layers of electric and acoustic guitar, percussive effects, and of course a banquet of undulating synths. The chorus melody is shimmering and beautiful, a reminder that Moroder did some unforgettable soundtrack work, and the instrumental epic for me is a somewhat bittersweet reminder that dreams of the future were once this innocent and ambitious.
Cosmic Curves, which We Are the Mutants featured here, is space disco’s Jane Eyre, or maybe its Fear of Flying. The work of a young English musician who had upped sticks for Munich, the LP developed out of the success of the single that preceded it, “Automatic Lover”. Over a superstructure of slick club beats, Cosmic Curves (which contains personal favourite “Meteor Man”) wove together folk, prog, disco, and musical theater into what Jackson called her “rock, electronic, space musical”: a disco Bildungsroman, equal parts melancholy and astral bliss—and a perfect pop record.
Clad in amazing cover art courtesy of comic artist Francis Bergèse, Star Peace opens with that staple of all good space music: starpilot chit-chat, this time courtesy of “Captain Bannister” welcoming us aboard “Starship 5-oh-5.” First track and hit single “(Do You Have) The Force” is Space Disco incarnate—a yearning melody punctuated by laserblasts and droid chirps and burbles over a pounding backbeat—and the rest of the album maintains its promise until it closes with the rather beautiful exploration of inner space that is Side B’s closer, “Renaissance De L’amour.”
Precision-tooled to have young people losing their minds, Star Peace perfectly encapsulates space disco’s three-minute mission to deliver up the timeless awe of cosmic mystery in the form of throwaway ephemera. And you’d have to be inhuman not to want to frug to it.
There was a good reason sci-fi soundtracks played such a prominent role in the formation of space disco: “official” soundtrack LPs were pricey; knock-offs were not. After Meco’s brilliant and bestselling adaptation of Star Wars, it was a free-for-all. Could something as dark and eerie as, say, Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Ridley’s Scott’s Alien be repurposed for maximum ass-shaking? Why, yes, it could!
Nostromo was Englishman Kenny Denton, a musician, producer, and engineer who released only two singles under the pseudonym (if you’re slow, Nostromo was the name of the besieged cargo ship in Alien). The other was the disco-fication of John Barry’s The Black Hole theme. Both are surprisingly effective and contemporary sounding. Even though “Alien” apparently gained some play in clubs at the time (there’s even a sample of the beast’s dying squeal!), I think “The Black Hole” is even better: lush and replete with quirky laserblast effects; and, unlike Meco’s stab at the bleak and lovely Disney film, this one actually resembles Barry’s score.
An unlikely collaboration between a former Ye-ye girl from Paris and half of Chic, “Spacer” is one of the songs that has defined not just how we perceive space disco but how we perceive the entire decade of the 1970s that preceded it. There’s no mistaking that Chic wrote, produced, and played on it, and yet “Spacer” has a personality and charm of its own, in no small part thanks to the adorably wonky English in which Sheila eulogises her spacefaring beau: a hand-kissing cosmic ladies’ man who hates oppression and protects us all.
After its buoyant, upbeat beginning, the track gradually grows more urgent until Nile Rogers suddenly pulls out a raw-as-fuck solo over the hyperspace-smooth backing that powers the whole thing into another dimension. If you don’t dance to this, you don’t deserve space.
Music From Star Trek/Music From The Black Hole
By 1980, as the glut of Star Wars and Close Encounters-inspired science fiction had settled comfortably into cinemas, the average SF fan was spoiled for choice. In 1979, two big-budget films by prominent studios—Paramount’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Disney’s The Black Hole—were released, both more influenced by the slower, more cerebral sci-fi of the late ’60s and early ’70s (like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris) than Star Wars‘s many pulp-fantastical progeny.
Fittingly, Meco’s 1980 album covering selections from both of these films’ scores is a bit more stately, although still pretty funky. It’s interesting to see how Meco’s approach evolved in the three years since disco’s appeal had peaked. There’s maybe a little less reliance on those stately disco strings, fewer outer-space sound effect gimmicks; perhaps more slap-bass and Nile Rodgers-style guitar, especially on the first couple of tracks of The Black Hole side (almost none of which resembles anything from the Disney film’s John Barry soundtrack).
Either side of the Music From Star Trek/Music From The Black Hole LP would make adequate music for disco dancing but, again, it feels more constructed to be interstitial library music, which is absolutely no insult! The dynamic rhythm laid underneath Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme (later to be used as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation) feels more like the theme song for an action-packed early-’80s version of TNG! Overall, the album is less lush, more hard-driving. By 1980, Meco’s music—and maybe all of disco/post-disco in general—is less Quaalude, more cocaine.