Today is the worldwide celebration known as Yuri’s Night. The event is held on April 12th every year to commemorate space exploration milestones and is named for Yuri Gagarin, a Russian who was the first human to launch into space in his Vostok 1 spaceship in 1961.
So for this week’s Music Thursday, Richard Steele and I offer up some of our favorite space-themed songs. These are tunes about flying into space, visits from space, intergalactic love, rock n' roll and space and more. Strap in and take a sonic ride with us.
I bought the debut album by the B-52’s after seeing them on Saturday Night Live in January of 1980. I was smitten by the dancing, the music and the lyrics. Kicking off the album is "Planet Claire" and what a way to begin an album.
The walkie talkie beeps, along with the reference to the theme of the old TV show Peter Gunn, lend the song its overall distressing feel. The song’s vocals begin with that eerie ‘ahhh’ from Kate Pierson, giving way to Fred Schneider’s robotic and menacing storytelling.
“Planet Claire has pink air, all the trees are red, no one ever dies there, no one has a head" is a lyric that makes me want to take a spaceship to that faraway place. This album became the party soundtrack for me and my group of friends. I was back at Val’s Halla Records in April of that year to snap up Wild Planet, the follow up to the B-52’s debut and one that continued with the dark danceable music with yet another space themed song.
Let’s travel from "Planet Claire" to Mars. When we decided on this theme I naturally gravitated to David Bowie’s catalog. There are many choices; from "Space Oddity" to "Life on Mars" and "Ashes to Ashes."
"Five Years" may not seem like a natural for lots of folks but for me it makes perfect sense. This is the opening track off the classic, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” It’s a concept album that tells the story of an alien who comes to Earth with a message of peace, love and hope as earthlings face the last five years of their existence. The alien becomes Ziggy Stardust the rock star who self-destructs; "Five Years" sets up the whole drama.
The song tells the reaction of one person who realizes that the earth is facing its inevitable end. Bowie’s songwriting is beautiful and poetic and the song is quite sad. This version is taken from a British music television show called the Old Grey Whistle Test.
Time for love of the intergalactic kind: "A Funky Space Reincarnation" is from Marvin Gaye’s 1978’s Here My Dear. This was the album he cut to pay for alimony and child support for his ex-wife Anna Gordy - hence the name. Gaye had planned on recording what he called "a lazy album" because the royalties wouldn’t be his anyway. But the emotions of his ill-fated marriage to Anna took over the music, and it ended up chronicling that period of his life.
This song though seems to break away a little bit from the overall theme, but it could be argued that it’s a song about hope. It’s basically about a parallel universe where in the future Marvin is the captain of a "space bed" and he meets a woman that reminds him of Anna. It clocks in at over eight minutes and did peak at #23 on the R&B charts. Not bad for an album that upon released was panned as bizarre. Today though, Here My Dear is considered a classic.
"Two Little Spacemen in a Flying Saucer" is a gem of a novelty song by Ella Fitzgerald that was released in 1951. I don’t know much about the song’s composers Elaine Wise and Arthur Pitt, but the song is included on a compilation I own called Ella Fitzgerald 1951: The Chronological Classics. What is clear from the lyrics is that these two little men don’t think much of us earthlings. As a matter of fact, they think we’re pretty stupid.
For my last pick we head to southern California for a song where an earthling is begging an alien to take him away. "Mr. Spaceman" comes from the 1966 album Fifth Dimension by The Byrd’s. The country sound is a precursor to the bands deep exploration of country music on its classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the great Gram Parsons.
Upon its release, some in the music press termed the song “space rock." But it does have more of a country feel. Mr. Spaceman was written by Roger McGuinn as a sort of meditation on extraterrestrial life. Mr. Spaceman peaked at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100.
There you go, a fun and wild ride into a musical space-age.