Odes to outer space | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

Music Thursdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Space jams

Tony Sarabia:

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.

Richard Steele:            

This very weird 1962 recording was done by a British band called The Tornados. It was a novelty instrumental with sound effects that were supposed to connect to the new Space Age. The song was named after the AT&T communications satellite called Telstar that went into orbit the same year. Somehow the record-buying public “got the message,” and the record sold millions of copies worldwide.         

Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra.         
Whatever his name, he was a jazz composer, piano and synthesizer player, bandleader and “cosmic philosopher.” There were many variations on his name, but he made the legal change while he resided in Chicago from the mid-‘40s to the early ‘60s. The band that he had during that period reflected his belief that he was from Saturn (based on a life-changing spiritual experience he claimed that he had earlier in his life). He and his band wore  costumes that had a science-fiction theme with Egyptian influences. The 1972 composition “Space Is The Place” was initially written for a film that was part documentary, part science fiction and part black exploitation. Part of the story was about Sun Ra discovering a new planet. I’ll leave it at that!                     

Clearly, Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra is one of the best versions of this ode to the Moon. The list of performers who have recorded “Fly Me to the Moon” is enormous -- everybody from Doris Day to Marvin Gaye to Rod Stewart. One of the most significant anecdotes about this recording is that it was played by the astronauts of Apollo 10 on their lunar-orbital mission and then again on the Moon itself by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 landing. He was among the first humans to fly to the Moon and then actually set foot on it in 1969!                     

This 1976 gem, “You are my Starship” by Michael Henderson, was recorded on an album of the same name by drummer Norman Connors, but the vocal work was done by Michael Henderson. The song has a beautiful “other worldly” quality.  Henderson is an extremely talented musician who not only wrote and sang the composition, but he also sang all the background vocals, produced the record and was the bass player.      

Lost in Space was kind-of a cheesy 1965 family TV show about “The Robinsons” being lost and roving around the galaxy in their spaceship. It ended up a pretty successful Saturday morning show for kids. The thing that’s so interesting about the show’s theme music was its composer: John Williams went on to win five Academy Awards for his film scores. See if you recognize any of these films: Star Wars, Jaws, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and recently, War Horse. His theme music includes NBC Sunday Night Football and the NBC Nightly News.         
As that list relates to Lost in Space...you've got to start somewhere!

Most everybody’s heard a lot about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re pretty unique in that they were one of the few groups that really made major innovations in rock/pop/funk music, and later in hip-hop by literally doing a successful mash-up of all those different styles. On stage they really “blow it out.”
"Subway To Venus" was recorded in 1989 and it was on the album Mother’s Milk. It went on to become the first gold record for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” got some attention and airplay, but for my money, “Subway to Venus” was the best example of their rock/funk DNA.

As an added bonus: enjoy a favorite of intern Caroline O'Donovan's  from The Carpenters.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.