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July, 2008 : Essay:

Science Fiction Rock (1969-1979): David Bowie and Gary Numan

Science fiction was very good to David Bowie. His first big hit, "Space Oddity" (1969), describes an astronaut who succumbs to a mind-expanding rapture of outer space while in orbit, obviously inspired by the "journey into the monolith" trip near the end of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The single's release was delayed to coincide with the first Moon landing, whereupon the song rocketed to #5 in the UK charts (1969), but this was not enough to get it on the US charts.

Bowie was no stranger to science fiction, and a few of his earlier songs have science fiction themes. "We Are Hungry Men" (1967) depicts a breathless scientist, a self-proclaimed messiah, who has just come up with a new technological solution to chronic overpopulation—only to find that the crowd he is talking to has come up with the old solution of cannibalism. "Cygnet Committee" (1969) tells of a cultural revolution that starts off with sweetness and light but then turns ugly, ending with the revolution's "love machines" killing civilians in the streets. "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" (1969), which first appeared as the B-side of the "Space Oddity" single, is a fantasy vignette about a strange boy, a "missionary mystic of peace/love," whom the unsympathetic mountain villagers try to hang as a witch (in a surprisingly brutal twist, the mountain sends an avalanche to kill them and save his boy).

After the success of "Space Oddity," Bowie dabbled a bit more along the same lines with a couple more songs. "Saviour Machine" (1970) returns to Kubrick's Space Odyssey, this time for the computer HAL, who is installed as the titular dingus to rule a golden age of Earth—for a while, at least, until the machine becomes bored with the god-like power it has and turns to more Satanic pursuits. "The Supermen" (1970) is a Lovecraftian story of bright Atlantean übermensch and their dark end.

Bowie's early albums reveal a spectrum of musical styles including folk, music hall, psychedelia, and a bit of heavy metal. Science fiction had shown results, and he reinvested heavily, aiming squarely at pop rock as the vehicle. The resulting masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), is a concept album about a Martian with a message of peace and love, a popular messiah who is unfortunately destroyed by his own excesses. The story is told through several different viewpoint characters: a young man who reacts to the somber newscast declaring that Earth will soon die of an unspecified, unstoppable eco-disaster; (1) a few tunes later, two kids hear a strange new song on the radio, the first sign of the coming extraterrestrial and his message of hope; (2) two tracks after that, Ziggy arrives in all his androgynous glory, concert footage narrated by a fan; (3) then Ziggy himself sings his dream of being a British pop rock star; (4) one pop hit later comes the title track, in which Ziggy's manager summarizes Ziggy's brief career as having begun with bright hope but ending in dark corruption; (5) and the album concludes with a narrator addressing a Ziggy who wanders the streets like a real or figurative ghost, meeting a hint of hope/redemption at the very end. (6)

So it is all a reworking of the messianic heroes in "Wild Eyed Boy" and "Hungry Men" into the meteoric rise and fall of a rock star ("when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band," as the title song goes), but the eleven tracks include several catchy pop tunes that became hits. Beyond the overall concept, the science fiction content is relatively light, with a toss-off reference to the "droogs" of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) in the song "Hang on to Yourself." This album, Bowie's fifth in six years, made him a true pop star, reaching #5 (UK) and #75 (US), and the character of Ziggy Stardust proved to be highly marketable.

Bowie's next album, Aladdin Sane (1973), has less science fiction content than Ziggy Stardust. The album's main theme is one of social collapse, which was hardly confined to genre at the time. The song "Drive-In Saturday" is the most science-fictional, portraying a dissipated future where the dwindling population is being encouraged to watch old porn movies in an attempt to teach them biological reproduction techniques. These film showings are perhaps sponsored by extraterrestrials ("the strange ones in the domes") in the manner of zookeepers trying to get captive pandas to procreate by showing them videos of pandas mating in the wild. The album hit #1 (UK) and #17 (US).

But Bowie had not yet given up on genre. In fact, he was investing even more heavily in it, trying to incorporate the biggest established works he could.

Diamond Dogs (1974) is a concept album about a post-apocalyptic world, blending Orwell's 1984 (1949) with Bowie's gender-bending glam rock—Bowie had initially wanted to make a rock musical version of 1984, but the Orwell estate denied him permission. The Orwell content of Diamond Dogs is still rather high, as evidenced by such song titles as "Big Brother," "1984," and "We Are the Dead" (the famous line uttered by Winston Smith just before being captured by the Thought Police).

"Future Legend" opens the album, painting the post-apocalypse landscape in broad strokes of vivid color in a few spoken lines: "And in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City....This ain't rock and roll. This is genocide!"

The story, such as it is, seems to be about a Party member who is gay—whether this is a scandalous secret or a prerequisite for Party membership is unclear. This "Winston Smith" surrogate is stunted and dead inside, nearly suicidal. Then he meets a life-reviving "Julia," a self-professed rebel, who is in this case a cross-dressing, glam-rocking teenage boy prostitute. (The pedophilic details are almost cringe-worthy: at one point the boy hooker says, "I'm glad that you're older than me, it makes me feel important and free." [7]) From there on, Orwell's basic story follows its course: the happy lovers are separated and broken so that all love flows from the individual to the State.

Diamond Dogs hit #1 (UK) and #5 (US), going Gold the same year.

After completing this science fiction trilogy of sorts, Bowie abandoned the genre in his music for the rest of the decade. A later album, Low (1977), is largely electronic music with a certain science-fictional texture, but none of the content. During the same period Bowie starred in Nicolas Roeg's science fiction movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), his casting based largely on the proven market-draw of Ziggy's character, which had a strong resemblance to the hero of the movie (an extraterrestrial from a Mars-like desert planet who comes to Earth on a mission but ends up getting trapped in decadence and corruption). This was an ironic twist, because Bowie had been trying to shake off Ziggy for years, but neither of his subsequent creations (Aladdin Sane of Aladdin Sane, and Halloween Jack of Diamond Dogs) could emerge from Ziggy's growing shadow. With this transition to film in mind, perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that science fiction used Bowie for the movie after he had so successfully used science fiction as a tool for his music.

If there is a real market for something, then it can be successfully imitated. The rise of Gary Numan in the late 1970s shows the continuing consumer demand for science fiction rock after Bowie had left genre behind.

Numan's early punk-influenced tunes, released in 1978, failed to make the charts, but the science fiction themes on début album Tubeway Army (1978) got enough attention for the album to sell out. The opening track directly references Philip K. Dick's novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) in its first line: "‘Flow My Tears,' the new police song." (8) Another track, "Steel and You," begins Numan's highly profitable work with androids. A third tune has the line "Do you know that friends come in boxes?", an allusion to Michael G. Coney's novel of a similar name, a text Numan would source again more deeply. (9)

The sound of the album Tubeway Army is rather close to the bright pop rock of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, substituting post-punk details for the by-then thoroughly defunct glam rock. But Bowie had moved on in the six years since 1972, and Numan seems to have followed his lead, such that Numan's next album is a melding of Bowie '72 science fictional content and Bowie '77 electronic music form. On the science fiction content front, Numan was clearly doing his homework, and doing it thoroughly: where Bowie made use of big names like Kubrick and Orwell, Numan was going for the lesser-known but more authentic works of Philip K. Dick and Coney.

Replicas (April 1979) is a concept album heavily influenced by both Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Michael G. Coney's Friends Come in Boxes (1973). Philip K. Dick's most famous book is about a bounty hunter who tracks rogue androids on a polluted Earth—these androids, murderous escaped slaves, are like pod-people in that they take the places of existing humans and they have no empathy at all, a flaw that can be detected through an empathy test. Once discovered, the fake people are killed. Coney's novel is also about androids, but in this case they are created in order to house the brains of deceased humans—brains that are kept alive in black boxes, entities known as "friends." Coney's androids live and care for "friends," knowing that their own personalities will be destroyed so the friends can inhabit their bodies.

Numan knits these two different texts together by positing "gray men" (authority figures decked out in matching gray overcoats and hats) who administer tests to determine who is real and who is not. "Friends" are electric robot companions that still cause sadness to humans when they break down: "You know, I hate to ask, but are friends electric? Mine's burned out and now I've no one to love." (10) "Machmen" (which sounds like "mock men") are human/machine hybrids, being robots with outer layers of human flesh. To this Numan adds wandering extraterrestrials (11) and robots that go on murderous rampages, not unlike Bowie's "strange ones in the domes" and "love machines," respectively.

Replicas is not so much a story as it is a description of a mental condition and a nightmarish place. The protagonists are young men who have memory problems, powerless individuals who are preyed upon by pedophilic men and machines alike. Their memory problems include false memories ("I was in a car crash, or was it the war, but I've never been quite the same. Little white lies like 'I was there'" [12]) and self-identity dissonance ("I couldn't recognize my photograph" [13]). There is also a more general amnesia: "Yellowed newspapers tell the story of someone. 'Do you know this man?'" (14) depicts authorities trying to identify an amnesia victim or a criminal, while other lines trace half-memories and missing time: "And just for a second I thought I remembered you"; (15) "And the light fades out and I wonder what I'm doing in a room like this?" (16) All of this recalls the sort of trauma often associated with UFO abductees.

The place is a wild, gloomy city, rather a lot like the Interzone of William Burroughs crossed with The Village of Patrick McGoohan's TV series The Prisoner (1967-68). It is centered on The Park, a landscaped arena where humans (perhaps those who fail the test given by the gray men) are hunted by Machmen and robots, a gory spectacle sport best viewed from the safety of the overlooking restaurant Zom-Zom's.

As in the case of Bowie's work in Diamond Dogs, there is cringe-worthy pedophilic content. Where Bowie's boy hustler is gritty and grimy, yet still romantic and full of street-power, Numan's analog is a powerless victim. In one encounter with a taxi driver, he sings, "[T]he driver wants to touch me...I try to back away but he's so strong I just can't move. Maybe I don't want to anyway." (17) A chance meeting in a stairwell leads to grotesque intimacy: "I could feel his mind decaying only inches away from me." (18) A pattern of police coercing sexual favors from unwilling young men is brought up twice: the aforementioned taxi driver "mentions all the old cop bullshit" (19) at the beginning of his advance, and another song has the singer accosted by an authority figure: "I saw him turn on like a machine in the park, saying 'Please come with me.' You know you've been there before." (20) Then there are the "Rape Machines" wandering the supposedly safer streets outside of the deadly Park: "You wouldn't believe the things they do." (21) It is as if the questionable sentiment of 1962's "Go Away Little Girl" had been replaced seventeen years later with an unambiguous Hold Still Little Boy.

The sound of Replicas is techno rock, a bridge between the rock of Tubeway Army and the techno pop of The Pleasure Principle (1979). Replicas hit the right notes to capture #1 (UK) in 1979. While the title seems like a sly acknowledgement of being a "copy" (of Bowie), it eerily predicts the term "replicants" used for androids in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), the movie version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Furthermore, while the accomplished electronic music artist Vangelis composed the soundtrack for Blade Runner, still it sounds more like Numan than earlier Vangelis work, and sounds nothing like Bowie's electronica. If Bowie was banking on Kubrik's proven success, Numan was betting on the unknown, a gamble which happened to pay out quite handsomely.

Numan followed with a second album that year, The Pleasure Principle (1979). This is a techno pop record, a light version, and guitar-free. There is no unifying science fiction theme, just a scattering of androids, robots, and engineers. Still, the bouncy single "Cars," about a Ballardian sort of driver more at home in his vehicle than in his house, became Numan's biggest hit, driving up to #1 (UK), #10 (US, 1980), and charting worldwide. With all this going on, Tubeway Army was re-issued and made it to #14 (UK). What a year for Gary Numan, with three of his albums charting, and two of them striking #1—and what a year for science fiction rock!

Works Referenced

1 David Bowie. "Five Years." The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. EMI Records, 1972. [back]

2 David Bowie. "Starman." The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. EMI Records, 1972. [back]

3 David Bowie. "Lady Stardust." The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. EMI Records, 1972. [back]

4 David Bowie. "Star." The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. EMI Records, 1972. [back]

5 David Bowie. "Ziggy Stardust." The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. EMI Records, 1972. [back]

6 David Bowie. "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. EMI Records, 1972. [back]

7 David Bowie. "Sweet Thing." Diamond Dogs. RCA Records, 1974. [back]

8 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Listen to the Sirens." Tubeway Army. Beggars Banquet, 1978. [back]

9 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "My Love is a Liquid." Tubeway Army. Beggars Banquet, 1978. [back]

10 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Are Friends Electric?" Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

11 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Praying to the Aliens." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

12 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Down in the Park." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

13 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Me! I Disconnect from You." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

14 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "The Machman." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

15 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Are 'Friends' Electric?" Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

16 Ibid. [back]

17 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "It Must Have Been Years." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

18 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Me! I Disconnect from You." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

19 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "It Must Have Been Years." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

20 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "The Machman." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

21 Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. "Down in the Park." Replicas. Atco Records, 1979. [back]

Copyright © 2008, Michael Andre-Driussi. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Andre-Driussi

Michael Andre-Driussi has been studying anime for several years. His articles on sf anime in general have appeared in NYRSF. His main claim to fame, however, is Lexicon Urthus, a dictionary for the New Sun, now in its long awaited Second Edition.


Jul 1, 03:35 by IROSF
Do you have something to say about Bowie, Numan, or SF rock in general?

The article can be found here.
Jul 10, 19:41 by Janine Stinson
Interesting piece. Does the writer have any plans to continue on the subject of SF rock for IROSF?
Jul 11, 01:24 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Thank you for posting, J. G. Stinson!

I don't have any plans to continue on the subject of SF rock. The title might make it seem like one in a series, but I really just wanted to establish from the get-go that the essay was only about a ten year span of time and only the two artists.
Jul 12, 18:11 by Marti McKenna
I think it would be great to cover bands like Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden (I think?) who wrote about Tolkien's work. Maybe someone else wants to tackle that...
Jul 13, 13:51 by Janine Stinson
Actually, I'd had the idea some years ago to try selling a longer work on sf in rock music, but hadn't gotten around to pitching the idea to any publishers (and didn't have much besides notes anyway). Thanks to Michael Andre-Driussi and Marti McKenna for replies to my comment. That's motivation enough for me to begin working on an article in this area.
Jul 16, 20:02 by Nader Elhefnawy
Also worth noting--for whoever is interested in writing more about this area--are some interesting connections between SF rock and SF other mediums in that era, among other things the song writing careers of noted SF writers John Shirley and Michael Moorcock for Blue Oyster Cult and other groups, the inspiration Moorcock's character Elric the Eternal Champion provided to a lot of bands (incidentally, my review of a reissue of the Elric stories will appear on Strange Horizons this Friday), and the first Heavy Metal film (a little later, but still relevant to the subject).
Jul 18, 22:14 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Bowie and Delany?

Here's a curious detail that didn't have quite the legs to make it into the article, yet it is of some interest: on the Internet one can see essays/threads linking Bowie's album Diamond Dogs with Delany's novel Dhalgren.

The similarities are there, and some of them are rather striking, but on balance I don't think that Bowie read Dhalgren. Mainly because if he had read it, he most likely would have trumpeted it loudly! He wasn't at all shy about that sort of thing. I think the similarities between the two works are born of the common Spirit of the Times. For that matter, Bowie's Aladdin Sane seems like it might have many links to Dhalgren, perhaps even more than those found in Diamond Dogs!

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