Joe Ely and the Question of “Sci-Fi” Country Music

There’s a great article by Dave Heaton of PopMatters about Joe Ely, one of the great Texas songwriters.  Entitled “Do iPhones Dream of Boxcars”, it covers the recently re-released digital recordings Ely did in the 1980s (long after the Flatlanders split and after Ely toured with the Clash) and uses it to ask some questions about SF and country music.  The conclusion is great:

“Change is something country music doesn’t excel at. Change flows slowly, like rivers, like tumbleweeds blowing in slow-motion across the plains. Simply put, is country too reactionary and stand-still a genre for science-fiction, which is by its nature analytical, self-critical and forward-looking? Is that why the country musics that seem most ‘sci-fi’ to me are those most interested in getting more ‘contemporary’ in sound, and moving out of the past?”

Great questions.  It’s definitely an uneasy mix.  For me, SF and country music can work well, but it’s usually best when its not done too literally.  As with rock and roll in general, I’m less interested in someone trying to tell a “sci-fi” narrative, and more interested in someone trying to play with imagery/sounds that evoke a certain feel.  Maybe that’s why surf rock seems more SF to me than Blue Oyster Cult.

Is there sci-fi country music?  Heaton mentions The Highwaymen’s single, which works.  I’d add the Mekons work from the 1980s: “Fear and Whiskey” has that odd blend of compressed drums and guitar distortion with classic country (all sung with a British accent, so much the better).

And SF author Sanford Allen, member of San Antonio band Hogbitch, turned me on to this guy–The Legendary Stardust Cowboy–who (at least in part) inspired rock’s most famous SF persona:

And the totally bizarre story of his influence…

I’ve seen Joe Ely a few times.  The first time was an acoustic tour with John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark.  The last time was in Clear Lake, IA at the Surf Ballroom’s “50 Winters Later” show.

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Dime Novel Sci-Fi at “God and the American Writer” Symposium

At the end of February, I’ll be presenting a paper on the Frank Reade, Jr. dime-novel inventor series at a special symposium on “God and the American Writer” sponsored by the American Literature Association.

What do those early science-fiction stories–best known for their giant, anthropomorphic machines and multi-propellered airships–have to do with God in America?  Surprisingly, quite a bit.

I’m looking at three stories from between 1893-1895 that feature the globe-trotting adventurer encountering lost civilizations with ties to the Old Testament.  These are prime examples of science-fiction texts that really see the Bible as an authoritative historical source–a trend that becomes less prevalent as SF became codified in the early 20th century, but that continues in modern anti-evolutionary textbooks and other conservative counter-narratives to science.

More info is on the “Appearances” page.

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Rediscovering Michael Moorcock: Rock Music, Multiverses, and Buckaroo Banzai Nostalgia

On the last day of 2014, The New Yorker published a piece on legendary fantasy author and editor Michael Moorcock. I’ve been rediscovering Moorcock this year, mostly due to connections in SF, music, and 80s nostalgia.

As the NY article notes, Moorcock’s influence on all sorts of fiction is immense.  He put ideas like the “Multiverse” on the SF map.  He edited the ground-breaking New Worlds periodical that gave birth to “New Wave” science fiction in the ’60s.  He wrote some of the earliest modern SF set in Victorian times, making him a steampunk godfather.  And he famously inspired songs by Blue Oyster Cult, Hawkwind, and other bands.

I haven’t read a lot of Moorcock; there were a few impediments along the way:

A) As a kid, I skimmed a couple of Elric books at a time when I was already losing interest in all things swords-and-sorcery.  Elric didn’t rekindle my interest.  The timing was all wrong.

B) I just can’t get into Hawkwind’s music, and my enjoyment of Blue Oyster Cult is hit-or-miss. (Although “Burnin’ for You”, co-penned with rock critic Richard Meltzer, is a gargantuan power-pop classic.)

C) As I specialized in SF research, Moorcock sat just outside my area of focus on 19th-century and Modernist speculative fiction.

But 80s nostalgia saved the day.  My interest was really rekindled when I spoke to an SF scholar last year who was doing research on Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories.  He described it to me this way:

“Buckaroo Banzai.  He’s the prototype for Buckaroo Banzai.”

That’s all it took to re-ignite my interest in Moorcock.  I’m a huge Buckaroo Banzai fan.  My 80s nostalgia for that movie is deep.  I loved the idea of a hero who is both a Doc Savage-like scientist adventurer and a Bruce Springsteen-like bandleader.

Cornelius is a Moorcock superhero–a spy, a rock guitarist, a polymath scientist.  He predates Buckaroo by 20 years, and is in many ways a product of the swinging ’60s.  He’s a proto-hipster and an aloof intellectual; Cornelius isn’t for everyone.

But, man, there are so many ideas on every page.  In the first Cornelius story, we get a hollow earth trip, posthuman body augmentation, pinball, digressions on guitarists of the 60s, and more.  This is clearly the work of a writer having a hell of a lot of fun synthesizing a bunch of his interests into an action/adventure tales–and warping the very nature of action/adventure tales in the process.

So now I’ve read the first two Cornelius novels, enjoying them in a “how the hell did I not know about this?” kind of way.  I’ve also finished The Eternal Champion, and I’m planning to plug my way through Elric again this year–giving it the time and attention it merits.

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Songs My Old Band Covered (Music Nostalgia)

Every now and then, someone asks me “What did you old band sound like?”  I often answer this by listing a few of the bands we covered rather than trying to explain the music in words.

So, here’s a personal trip into musical nostalgia purgatory.  I think these are all the songs we covered, with a few situational notes tossed in:

  • Man in Need—Richard and Linda Thompson (we butchered it at our first show, never played it again)
  • Temptation—New Order (when sung with a twang, the chorus almost sounds like a Gene Autry cowboy number)
  • Gun Sale at the Church—The Beat Farmers
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry—Hank Williams (Note: we killed this, >3,000 mph)
  • Little Red Riding Hood—Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
  • Never Even Called Me by My Name—Steve Goodman/David Allan Coe (Done fairly regularly until we realized everybody covers it)
  • Cold Water—Tom Waits (a Mule Variations classic)
  • Johnny Bye Bye—Bruce Springsteen (a favorite B-side)
  • Cadillac Ranch—Bruce Springsteen
  • Miracle Man—Elvis Costello
  • Suspicious Minds—Elvis Presley
  • Maybe Baby, Tell Me How, & Not Fade Away—Buddy Holly (at our annual “Buddy Holly Tribute” show, we’d play these, then let anyone who wanted to play a Ritchie Valens, Big Bopper, or Buddy cover take the stage)
  • Take Me Down to the Hospital—The Replacements (played while opening for the Scaries at El Torreon Ballroom, mostly so Matt Tomich would sing along)
  • Dignified and Old—The Modern Lovers (at EP release at Recycled Sounds)
  • Gun—Uncle Tupelo (sung at the end of a show with the Down Trunks, with me imitating Robert Pollard)

Now, we never played a show where we did all of these in one night.  Our shows were 80%-90% original material, but these were the songs I vividly remember doing onstage.

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Pop Songs in Science-Fiction Movies and TV Shows

This week, Tor.com posted a list of songs that did (and didn’t) work in SF and fantasy TV shows and films.  Natalie Zutter, Emily Asher-Perrin and Leah Schnelbach compiled a fun list.

Face it–if you grew up without cable TV and before the advent of on-demand music, movies might be your only chance to discover interesting stuff that commercial radio had dismissed.  I first encountered a whole lot of my favorite songs on soundtracks to movies.

And directors can take a song that sounds “okay” on record and find something in it that the rest of us missed.  (Jonathan Lethem famously noted the way “The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan “blindsided” many long-time Dylan fans who heard it on the The Big Lebowski soundtrack, though we’d had the album for years; that’s probably the pinnacle of this sort of thing)

I won’t list a bunch of my favorites right now except to say “Yes!” to their thought on Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack (power pop and yacht rock in a space fantasy=genius), and “Hell Yes!” to their inclusion of The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” from Fight Club.

For the record, my personal favorite soundtrack to any SF movie:

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On io9’s Top 100 Science Fiction Songs

A list of the “Top 100 Science Fiction-Themed Songs” was released by io9 this week.  I love lists like this and the discussion that they provoke.

It takes a lot of time to browse through all 100, but there are some trends and ideas I’m pondering:

  • It looks like some old stand-bys are being replaced by new stand-bys.  Two songs apiece for Janelle Monae (yeah!) and Modest Mouse (kinda yeah!), but nothing from Queensryche or Hawkwind.  The aging fanbase factors here, but it seems like all fans–young or old–tend to over-rely on individual artists in these lists rather than picking a wide breadth.
  • Surf rock gets props, despite lack of lyrics.  The Ventures’ “Telstar” ranks highly, seemingly representing all their ilk. Man or Astroman? get a nod as well.  Good for io9!
  • Satirical and humorous songs are underrated on the list.  No “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll.”  No Tom Lehrer.  Not a “Purple People Eater” in sight.  Novelty songs–arguably harder to write than imagistic, atmospheric stuff that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny–still don’t get their due.
  • If we’re going to include imagistic stuff, why stop at great–but marginally SF–tracks by famous artists? It’s cool to see the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” at #3, but it’s a stretch.  Robyn Hitchcock and Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard have made careers out of mining F & SF’s weirder imagery.  Surely we can bump a prog rocker or three off the list to consider them.
  • Where’s Jonathan?  Any list of great SF songs without something by Jonathan Richman is dubious, no matter how awesome the other songs may be.

Those are my preliminary thoughts.   Again, I admire the heck out of i09 for creating lists like this, knowing that they’ll take flak for it but doing it anyway.  It keeps the discussion vibrant.  A couple of videos below:

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About Soderbergh’s Black-and-White Raiders Edit

Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film.  Ever.  More than just 80s nostalgia to me.

I finally watched a good-sized chunk of the Steven Soderbergh edit of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  If you haven’t heard, he basically cut out all the sound, converted it to black-and-white, and inserted a techno-ambient score.

All this was done “for educational purposes” by Soderbergh to call attention to the cinematic genius of Raiders, letting viewers “think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are.”

Well, it works.  The black-and-white conversion looks great–calling attention to the beautifully crafted lighting.  And the staging is amazing, though I doubt anyone didn’t already know that.  Here’s a clip from my favorite scene.  Just look at all the objects Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe are juggling here:

raiders two

The question here seems to be: doesn’t this work any time you take something well crafted visually (cinema, TV, etc)  and do something to take it out of narrative context?

Give Raiders at techno soundtrack.  (I’m told it’s mostly Trent Reznor’s soundtrack work, from his Giorgio Moroder fetish phase).

Play “Dark Side of the Moon” behind Wizard of Oz.  (I’m sure someone on the webs has already pointed out the similarity, but it’s worth mentioning).

Put old B-movie horror on the TV behind the bar while a band plays.  (Seriously, we’ve all zoned out to this at least once, right?)

And, hey, let Giorgio Moroder score Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

I spent an afternoon at my pal Eddye’s house strumming guitars back in the early 2000s.  We were playing along to Mike Ness’s Cheating at Solitaire album while a marathon of The Powerpuff Girls played silently on TV for a couple of hours.

I left with a new-found respect for Powerpuff Girls, mostly because I noticed only the animation layouts and the portrayal of constant motion on that show.   That never would have happened had I simply tried to “watch” an episode.

Anyway, the Soderbergh edit is pretty cool and worth the time.  It’s still my favorite movie.

 

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