BySimon Withers, Gallery Assistant
Sun Ra (1914-1993): The Cosmo Man, installation view. Photo Peter Anderson.
For the current exhibition, Alien Encounters, I have undertaken Spot Talks in the weird yellow room devoted to the sights and sounds of Sun Ra, the Afrofuturist Renaissance entity from Saturn. These talks gazed into the world of British space rock. In this strange and amazing galaxy bands produced music composed of lengthy instrumentals, experimental guitar and keyboard sounds dominated by electronic organs and synthesizers. There was also much theatricality. The Ladbroke Grove circle that included Hawkwind and Gong fashioned acts in which outer-space lyrical themes intermingled with ambient resonances, poetry and liquid light shows. In the case of Hawkwind, integral to the performance was interpretive dance by Stacia, who performed topless or stark naked, her body decorated with iridescent or luminescent paint.
Space rock emerged out of the 1960s psychedelic scene in Britain and was closely allied with the progressive rock movement of the same era. Groups such as Pink Floyd have frequently been fused to the space rock sphere, although Syd Barrett, perhaps the original acid casualty, claimed that he had no particular affiliation to science fiction, and it is possible that compositions such as Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun were more concerned with inner than outer space. Similarly, Roger Waters commented in 1987 that “The space thing is a joke, none of those pieces were about outer space.”
The use of the recreational drugs LSD and Mandrax (a tranquilliser affectionately named “mandies” or “mandrakes” in the UK) facilitated journeys through the doors of perception to Never Never Land. In America, the Ken Kesey “Acid Tests” had a significant impact upon the LSD-based counterculture of the San Francisco area and consequently on the hippy movement. This was the creative context of the Grateful Dead, Silver Apples, Fifty Foot Hose and the United States of America, bands that also drew inspiration from the American electronic scene, composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Edgard Varèse, as well as from cinematic depictions of the future like Destination Moon (1950), Forbidden Planet (1956), Barbarella (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (also 1968).
My journey and the title of my talk, I Hear a New World, emanated from a concept album devised, composed and recorded by Joe Meek in 1959. Meek was a pioneer of experimental pop, but he is possibly best remembered for two incidents that made the papers. The first (and happier) was his 1962 Number 1 hit Telstar, performed by in-house group The Tornados. Telstar was the name given to various communications satellites, and that year one of these relayed the first television pictures, telephone calls and fax images to Earth from orbit, gifting Meek a topical title for a truly infectious single. (Telstars 1 and 2 continue to circle the Earth to this day.) Meek’s second claim to fame (or rather notoriety) is the tragedy that occurred in 1967, when he shot and killed his landlady before then shooting himself.
The space programme fascinated Meek, and Joe was among the crowds who gathered in central London to welcome Yuri Gagarin to the capital in 1961. He believed that life existed elsewhere in the solar system and the aforementioned album was an attempt to create a picture in music of what might exist in outer space.
Back down to Earth and to the land of Albion. The year is 1970. The month is July; the place is Worthing in Sussex; the happening: Phun City. This three-day festival of “kosmic” rock ’n’ roll is widely considered to have been the first large-scale free festival in the UK. Organised by one of the luminaries of the London freak scene – the UK Underground anarchist Mick Farren – Phun City also has the distinction of being one of the most shambolic and financially disastrous occasions in the history of festivals.
Funding for the event was withdrawn at the last moment, but it went ahead regardless, with free performances given by The Pretty Things, Mighty Baby, Kevin Ayers, Edgar Broughton, Mungo Jerry and the proto-punk outfits MC5 and Pink Fairies (who liked to strip off while performing too). The Beat poet William S. Burroughs also put in an appearance. Ironically, the one group that refused to play for nothing, and so didn’t perform, were Free. The English counterpart of the American Hells Angels provided security.
The Pink Fairies were perceived as a revolutionary group and directed most of their activity against the music business. They supported the underground press, the gay liberation movement and other radical causes by way of fund-raising happenings. As at Phun City, the Fairies often appeared at festivals for free, or established a “next door” event in opposition to a commercial one. But by the start of the 1970s their world was a-changin’. Twink – the drummer, singer and songwriter – has stated that, as far as he was concerned, flower power disappeared almost as abruptly as it began. He felt that as early as 1967 the air of excitement had been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of defeat; the money men had moved onto the scene and commercialised it.
Yet it was still rather too strong for some. The chief public health inspector, Mr E.T. Oates, said of Phun City, “The whole thing was offensive and obscene in many ways and you would have been surprised at some of the people there. There had been university people from America, Oxford and Cambridge and ordinary decent people. They just wanted to do what they wanted to do and they did it. I just cannot understand it”.
Phun City was certainly chaotic. The audience was effectively left to police itself, and it is fortunate that a shooting of a girl did not result in her death.
This ought, perhaps, to have been anticipated. The previous December, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California had seen considerable violence among the crowd, culminating in the death by stabbing of Meredith Hunter. These events, captured on film for awful posterity, took place to the sound of The Rolling Stones and are often held up as marking the beginning of the end of the hippy dream.
Yet as Todd Rundgren sang, “a dream goes on forever”. So the spirit of hippy space rock continues, through the jams of Pinkwind and the music of Gong, Here and Now, UFO, Magma, The Orb, Simply Saucer, Zolar X, Von LMO, Chrome, Ra Can Row, ST 37, Ozric Tentacles, Spacemen 3, Loop and Factory Records’ Ad Infinitum, who only ever recorded one single – a cover of Joe Meek’s Telstar.
While discussing my research into space rock with a colleague I began to consider the genre’s wondrous album artwork. Inspired by the journalist Steven Johnson and his eulogy to the emergence of the internet’s “curatorial culture”, I headed off into cyberspace to seek out my top ten LP covers.
I quickly encountered the curator’s eternal conundrum, however. How to choose? I decided to freak and simply go with my first instinctive reaction. Unfortunately I had to leave out Weekend Party, with a picture of Jane Fonda in a space suit on the cover, as well as The Ames Brothers LP Destination Moon, Khan’s Space Shanty, Blast Off! by Ferrante & Teicher, The Very Best of Nimoy and Shatner, The Spotnicks in Jazzland, Party Interplanetire and Robots-Music: Volume 3.
There’s a vast universe of space rock art out there, just waiting for intrepid explorers. Here I present my own discoveries under the title Simon’s Nomenclature of Spaced-Out Albums.
Flying Teapot: Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1 (1973) - Gong
Clear Air Turbulence (1977) - Ian Gillan Band
Out There (1958) - Betty Carter
Out-A Space: The Spotnicks in London (1962) - The Spotnicks
Never Never Land (1971) - Pink Fairies
Goodnight Vienna (1974) - Ringo Starr
The Space Ritual Alive in Liverpool and London (1973) - Hawkwind
Telstar (1962) - The Tornados
Trip to Mars (1958) - Jack Parnell
Phenomenon (1974) - UFO
This piece was inspired by Sun Ra (1914-1993): The Cosmo Man, part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Alien Encounters season, which can be seen until 31 December.