Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars theme hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1977, selling two million copies internationally. Space Disco had taken off and it remained in orbit for nearly a decade. At its best, Space Disco sounds less like Meco’s effects-sampling gimmickry and more streamlined and pulsing like Giorgio Moroder’s synth-instrumental “Chase” (1978). Though an instant cliché, commercially, Space Disco can be far more dynamic, too: fatuous or subversive, sexual or sexist, unifying or diversifying, utopian or dystopian, bringing wonder or apocalypse, offering escape or reflection. Space Disco did not begin with Star Wars, at any rate, its long fuse reaches back decades.
The pop culture phenomenon of Space Disco can be seen as a logical extension of the Space Age, its accompanying sci-fi sensibility, and the evolution of music-making technology. The Space Age began with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, effectively beginning the Space Race, and intensified the popular imagination’s focus on futurism and worlds beyond our own. Theremin-driven scores for sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), as well as the first all-electronic score for Forbidden Planet (1956), had already established the outer space soundscape: hovering tones, propulsive pitches, sonic waves from a galaxy away, abstracted melodies, radar repetitions. These scores relied on technology that quickly evolved over the next two decades, pivoting on the breakout Moog synthesizer that would be heard across genres.
The retrospectively named genre Space Age Pop served as a soundtrack for the Space Age from the mid-’50s into the mid-’60s, aligned with era advances in stereophonic sound and high fidelity (hi-fi) home stereos. Sid Bass’s From Another World (1956), Les Baxter’s Space Escapade (1958), and Dick Hyman’s Moon Gas (1963) featuring Mary Mayo are stellar examples. Though not electronic music, the subgenre quirked-up standards like “Sentimental Journey” inside a space frame. Latin sensation Esquivel is surely the “father” of the genre. His landmark album Other Worlds Other Sounds (1958), though its cover envisions a dancer on the moon’s surface, offers no explicit space theme to connect the tracks, only arrangements marked by newfangled studio wizardry.
Deliah Derbyshire, an eccentric British pioneer in electronic music, created the iconic Dr. Who theme in 1963 at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where she was surrounded by imposing computers and switchboards. New electronic instruments represented the future of music and their blinking, circuitry-riddled looks, much like their beep-bips and “ziwzih ziwzih” sounds (to borrow a Derbyshire title), linked up easily with a future-tech vision of spaceship interiors. Even the terminology sounded futuristic, with modulators, wobbulators, oscillators, sine waves, vacuum tubes, and magnetic tape loops.
Much early electronic music experimented with dissonance and cacophony more than melody, widely perceived as weird but inaccessible. The In Sound From Way Out!, released in 1966 by master innovators Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, aspired to create zippy little songs that “might be heard soon from the jukeboxes at the interplanetary way stations” — according to the original liner notes. The space theme is explicit across all tracks with titles like “Unidentified Flying Object”, “The Little Man from Mars”, and the utterly goofy “Barnyard in Orbit”. The Moog synthesizer, making its debut of sorts at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, did the most to bring electronic into the mainstream because it was able to be commercially manufactured.
Outer space, as audio aesthetic or fantastic theme, opened up music beyond the burgeoning electronic genre. Prog Rock, so-called Krautrock, Space Rock, and the Berlin School all overlapped in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The first genres to incorporate synthesizer and rock instruments, they also broke away from traditional song structures, extending song length and thereby expanding the sense of space within a song, be it an inner space (e.g., dreamscape) or outer space. Cosmos-prone pioneers in these genres include Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Cosmic Jokers and, above all, the electronic music collective Tangerine Dream.
Jazz and funk channeled their own outer space mythologies. Alabama-born jazz master Sun Ra, who claimed a mystical link to Saturn, more or less invented Afrofuturism in the mid-’50s (though the term would not be coined until the ’90s by critic Mark Dery). Sun Ra started his decades-long output with avant-garde records like Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra Visits Planet Earth (1958) but is most known for free-jazz works like Space Is the Place (1973) that combined outer space themes and Egyptian exotica. Space‘s personnel list refers to the backup singers as Space Ethnic Voices.
Mark Dery writes: “African-American voices have other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come. If there is an Afrofuturism, it must be sought in unlikely places, constellated from far-flung points.” Dery sees an Afrofuturist sensibility in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (1968), Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock (1983), and of course Parliament and its leader George Clinton, whose alter ego, Starchild, first emerged in the 1975 hit “Mothership Connection” that integrates lines from the traditional spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into its outer space party scene. Also noteworthy are Pharoah Sanders’ “Astral Traveling” (1971), Billy Preston’s “Outa Space” (1971), Ornette Coleman’s “Science Fiction” (1972), Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes’ “Cosmic Funk” (1974), LaBelle’s “Space Children” (1974), Undisputed Truth’s “UFOs” (1975), and Dexter Wansel’s space one-off Life On Mars (1976).
Now we’ve reached disco, which can be traced back to the early ’70s, to underground dance clubs in Philadelphia and New York City where blends of soul, funk, salsa, and pop were popular with African-American, Latino, and gay patrons. Though a number of disco hit-makers came along to define the genre, like Gloria Gaynor or The Village People, most relevant here is synth-master Giorgio Moroder, whose major hit for Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (1977), featured the Moog so drivingly that it inspired widespread incorporation of synth into dance music.
The era of Space Disco, 1976 to 1986, predates and outlasts yet is roughly parallel to the Star Wars franchise: Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). Groundbreaking and wildly popular video games piqued ears for space sounds as well, with Space Invaders released in 1978, Galaxian and Asteroids in 1979, and Vanguard, Defender, and Galaga in 1981.
Even as it veered sharply mainstream, disco was rooted in the marginal and — dare I say — alien? It’s easy to see only the blockbuster successes of the above-mentioned films, as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Movie (1979), and Flash Gordon (1980), as the reason for surging space sounds and themes in disco, but there’s more to it. According to Daryl Easlea’s book Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco, “aliens were swamping popular culture,” be they actual extraterrestrials on the theater screen, or in disco music where otherness prevailed: gays (Village People, Patrick Cowley, Sylvester), blacks “subliminally appropriating white symbols of power” (Chic in their business suits), and sexually powerful women (Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Amanda Lear).
The following list of 25 contributors to Space Disco takes five different angles on the genre.
Avant-Garde Deep Spacers refers to those whose contributions are more abstract, creating a deep “space groove”, if you will, as if listeners have settled in for a long flight through velvety Andromeda. Spawn of Star Wars includes dance tracks that either directly refer to or obviously lift from the Star Wars movies. Selections under Intergalactic Kitsch reveal the campy sense of humor inherent to a good deal of Space Disco. Since women in this genre and during this era weren’t generally found at mixing consoles, manipulating the technology, the next category focuses on their vocals, a gathering of Cosmic Chanteuses. The last category, The Mothership Electro, covers a later period in the Space Disco era when burgeoning hip-hop overlapped with electronic music and drew on an Afrofuturist mythology.
These contributors may have produced single songs, whole albums, or oeuvres that fit into the Space Disco genre. Their contributions may have been major hits or obscurities with cult status. Their countries of origin include Aruba, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, and the United States.
Avante-garde Deep Spacers
Asha Puthli – “Space Talk” (1976)
The four-octave, often free-form stylings of Asha Puthli, world music pioneer from Bombay, India, were first heard on jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction (1972). Her solo albums over the next few years fused East and West while alternating between psychedelic funk and pop balladry. Her one space-themed song, “Space Talk” from The Devil Is Loose (1976), achieved underground immortality with its saunter-encouraging bass, spaceship synth, dip-and-soar vocals, and softly clipped lyrics like “Space talk, taking a space walk space”.
Several hip-hop artists have sampled the song, including the Notorious B.I.G. on his Life After Death album (1997). In 2009, the song was transmitted into deep space, at the speed of light, as part of a celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.
Manzel – “Space Funk” (1977)
Manzel’s “Space Funk” (1977), much like their “Midnight Theme” (1979), were singles without albums, brief yet funk-powered instrumentals that waited two decades to be rediscovered, and honorably sampled, by hip-hop artists like De La Soul, Cypress Hill, and Childish Gambino. Leader of the Lexington-based trio, Manzel Bush, juxtaposes his vibrant, multi-frequency keyboards against driving bass and mounting strings as it’s all set a-strut with high-hat drums. A timeless ride.
Dopebrother Records remastered Manzel’s few tracks for a CD titled Midnight Theme (2004). “Space Funk” is also available on the excellent compilation Spaced Out: 10 Original Disco Funk Grooves (2007).
Space – Magic Fly (1977)
Of all the avant-garde deep spacers, none were deeper into space than the brilliant French group Space. Their albums Magic Fly (1977), Deliverance (1977), and Just Blue (1978), as innovative as they are inviting, sold 12 million copies worldwide. “Magic Fly”, the first and biggest hit, seems campier than it is if watching the video, which features the band in spacesuits. Space, however, took their mode of disco quite solemnly. Their ambient-funk instrumentals are lush yet aerodynamic for tender orbit in wide-open darkness, while the occasionally featured female vocalist entrances with soulfulness no less than revelatory.
Bernard Fevre – “Space Team” (1977)
Didier Marouani, who founded the group, went on to compose the first opera for synthesizer and choir; Space Opera (1987) also became the first CD to be played in outer space — by Russian cosmonauts at the then newly established space station Mir.
A number of other electronica pioneers and popsters came out of France, like Pierre Henry, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Cerrone, but most deserving of inclusion here is Bernard Fevre, whose three instrumental albums, released 1975-1977, veer increasingly beyond the earth’s atmosphere. With no song over three minutes, these albums feel like abstract montages of interplanetary touring.
Fevre is now known more for his work as Black Devil and the cult disco masterpiece Disco Club (1978) that channels the spacey instrumentation of his previous albums while adding aggressive beats and filtered vocals. Disco Club was so ahead of its time and obscure that when it reemerged on CD in the 2000s, new fans either doubted its 1970s origin or assumed Black Devil’s follow-up, 28 After (2006), was also from the 1970s.
Harald Grosskopf – “Transcendental Overdrive” (1980)
Harald Grosskopf came out of Krautrock and the space-obsessed Berlin School of electronic music. He founded Ash Ra Tempel and collaborated with The Cosmic Jokers and Klaus Schulze. His solo debut Synthesist (1980), all instrumentals made using a Minimoog, a primitive sequencer, and an 8-track reel-to-reel, is considered a cult classic. It’s ambience with gravitational pull, in turn droning and celestial, tranceable and danceable. The album was reissued in 2014 by independent label Bureau B.
Further Listening: Automat (Italy), Moon Birds (France), Space Art (France), Yellow Magic Orchestra (Japan), and Zodiac (Latvia).
Spawn of Star Wars
Meco – “Star Wars” (1977)
For most people who remember the disco 1970s, mention Space Disco and the name springing to mind is Meco, whose disco spin on John Williams’ Star Wars theme to this day qualifies as the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time. Seeing Star Wars on its opening night in May of 1977 changed the life course of Pennsylvania-born record producer Meco Monardo.
Sound effects — like the iconic pew-pew, the lightsaber hum, and droid R2D2’s “voice” — constitute the most obviously electronic aspect of Meco’s reinterpretation. His album Music Inspired By Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk (1977) was followed by Superman and Other Galactic Heroes (1979), Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album (1980), Music From Star Trek and the Black Hole (1980), and Ewok Celebration (1983).
Droids – “(Do You Have) The Force?” (1978)
As with Meco Monardo, seeing Star Wars inspired Droids founder Yves Hayat to recreate the “space opera” feeling on vinyl — and he did so without bowing to John Williams’ score. The two-part “(Do You Have) The Force?” alludes to the classic Star Wars line “may the Force be with you”, but otherwise the all-instrumental Star Peace (1978) whizzes toward its own apogee.
It’s a laser-clean slice of space disco at a mere 32-minutes total, very rare and expensive even after release on CD in 2004. The infectious “Shanti Dance” is included on a compilation of French electronica titled Cosmic Machine (2013), its liner notes imagining the Droids “lying on a beach of diamonds sipping electric cocktails in the company of a few Venusian mermaids”.
Hot Gossip -“I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper” (1978)
Before her eminence in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, soprano Sarah Brightman led a dance troupe turned music group called Hot Gossip and their debut “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper” was a top ten hit in England in 1978. The song is a pop melange of space references (Darth Vader, Starfleet, Close Encounters) and space battle sound effects, all in service of a colonization theme: “Hand in hand we’ll conquer space”.
“Love in a UFO” (1979) has more hook, with lyrics about spaceship abduction and sex between human and android: “Oh what a trip it was, so cosmically orgasmic / I’d no idea he was an android made of plastic!”
Time magazine reported in 2015 that Brightman may be going to space for real, soon. She and husband Andrew Lloyd Weber composed a song ideal for her to sing in microgravity but, sadly, her plans for a ten-day stay aboard the International Space Station are for the time being suspended.
MB4 – “Ewok Celebration and Star Wars” (1983)
With Return of the Jedi (1983) came the merchandisable Ewoks, a whole village of spear-ready teddy bears. MB4’s song “Ewok Celebration” begins “Yub nub, eee chop yub nub”. Meco’s disco version tries to rise above the childish banter of the Ewokese with a rap bridge, while the Italo version by MB4 blends in the original Star Wars theme. Either way a goofy gimmick.
MB4’s inexplicable B-side, “Do, Do, Phone Me”, is the gem here. MB4, by the way, is better known as MBO of Klein & MBO whose classic “Dirty Talk” (1982) is considered a major influence on early house music.
In Europe as Space Disco converged with Italo, the hairsplitting category of spacesynth emerged and Koto’s two instrumental hits “Visitors” (1985) and “Jabdah” (1986) are considered among its best. “Visitors” contains a sample from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982) and the 12″ offers a six-minute “Alien Mix”.
As for “Jabdah”, that title alludes to Jabba the Hutt of Return of the Jedi (1983); the misspelling was a way to skirt copyright. A plucky synth track, its cold bounce serves as a counterpoint to the guttural Jabba voice in the background. As is often true of the period, one is better off avoiding the ghastly music video, in this case featuring Anfrando Maiola hopping at his synth in a martial arts keikogi.
Further Listening: Bang Bang Robot (France), The Electric Moog Orchestra (Brazil), Galaxy 42 (US), Patrick Gleeson (US), Boris Midney (Russia)—all of them Meco imitators from 1977-’80.
Rockets – “Cosmic Race” (1978)
Picture a band of five bald Parisian men painted silver, the drummer flanked by golden gongs. They all wear black and silver jumpsuits. While superimposed against a tawdry galactic backdrop, they perform a Space Rock-Disco cover of Canned Heat’s hippy classic “On the Road Again”, alternating between natural and vocoder-filtered vocals. This is the title song on Rockets second album, released in 1977, which also offers the more purely Space Disco entry “Cosmic Race”.
Titles like “Space Rock” and “Sci Fi Boogie” suggest a self-awareness of the kitsch inherent to their act. The band kept up their costume-play for album after space-themed album throughout their most successful period of 1977-1982.
Ganymed – “It Takes Me Higher” (1978)
Ganymed’s butch Space Disco prompts more stomp than hustle. Pummeling bass energizes the best of their three space-themed albums (1978-1980), layers of rhythm rubbing against each other. Gerry Edmond’s often gruffly masculine voice borders on homoerotic, even in call-and-response with Yvonne Dory’s coolly served vocals. Their big debut hit in native Austria, “It Takes Me Higher”, reminds my ear of “Supernature” (1977), Cerrone’s disco classic with the strange eco-horror theme.
“Hyperspace”, “Future World”, “We Like You (The Way You Like Us)”, and “Death to the Alien” also enthrall. Ganymed does go kitschy at times. As well, each band member adopted an alien pseudonym, like Kroonk and Pulsaria, the men wear creature masks made of rubber, and their debut album cover may win the prize for quality kitsch in a genre that produced some of the hokiest cover art imaginable.
Disco Dream and the Androids – “Dream Machine” (1979)
Disco Dream and the Androids is the name given to both a studio “project” and its resultant one-off album, realized by a descendant of German composer Richard Wagner whose British firm, Electronic Dream Plant, manufactured synthesizers. Andrew Wagner intended his project to be “a spoof concept space fantasy album” and was surprised to find it taken seriously by fans.
In spite of its kitschy cover, weightless lyrics, and the spasmodic “pew-pew” effects, however, a mastery of the Wasp Moog and the Roland 700 synthesizer guaranteed serious beats. It’s also, according to Wagner, the first time a purely computer-generated “phonetic voice” was used on an album. For backup singers he chose a very real trio known as The Thunder Thighs, famous for singing the “colored girls” part on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (though it doesn’t seem they themselves are “colored”). For now Disco Dream and the Androids is rare and expensive, even used copies on vinyl, but all six tracks can be found hovering about the YouTube sphere. Start with the nine-minute opener “Dream Machine”.
Laurice – “The Disco Spaceship” (1977)
“The Disco Spaceship” (1977) is an irrepressible Space Disco obscurity by a Welsh-born vocalist and occasional drag artist who was popular in Canadian gay clubs throughout the mid-’70s, Laurie Marshall aka Laurice. The song celebrates unity through dance and sex — “Venus gettin’ down with Mars” — while advanced lifeforms look down on earthlings for making more war than love. Laurice’s hand-at-mouth wa-wa-wa tribal call makes for an unforgettable approximation of the vocoder. The 12″ was mixed at Electric Ladyland Studios in Greenwich Village, surrounded by Lance Jost’s psychedelic spaceship murals that would end up serving as cover art for “Disco Spaceship”.
Space in the Margins
Patrick Cowley – “Megatron Man” (1982)
Patrick Cowley brought a gay club sensibility to outer space. With Hi-NRG synths and accompanying space sounds, his debut “Menergy” (1980) exalts “boys in the back room laughin’ it up, shootin’ off energy”; it would be rereleased in 1984 featuring gay icon Sylvester on vocals. The title song from Cowley’s second album Megatron Man (1981) also broke the top five on Billboard‘s dance charts. The album mingles silvery sci-fi motifs and rapturous electronic arrangements, as well as layered and filtered vocals, to achieve a sound that Pet Shop Boys would claim as an influence.
Cowley died shortly after Mind Warp (1982), a somber yet hopeful Space Disco released at a point so early in the AIDS crisis that it was being referred to as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). The lyrics to the haunting “Mutant Man” include: “Deeper down the corridor, returning to the source, rhythm touching rhythm is the underlying force”. “They Came at Night” is a paranoid nightmare of greenish-glowing invader aliens who change shape, steal seed, and administer spinal taps. Final song, “Goin’ Home”, imagines going “far beyond all space and time… on a journey to parts unknown”.
Further Listening: Araxis (France), Boney M (Aruba and Jamaica), Bumblebee Unlimited (US), Enterprise (Spain), Lectric Workers (Italy), Player One aka Playback (Australia), Megalonsingers (Italy), Planet Earth (England), Supersempfft (Germany), Transvolta (France)
Dee D. Jackson – “Automatic Lover” (1978)
“Automatic Lover”, from the all space-themed album Cosmic Curves (1978), sold six million copies and reached the top ten in ten different countries despite failing to break the top 100 in the US. Throughout the song, a robot voice repeating “I am your automatic lover” is juxtaposed against Dee D. Jackson’s vocals that alternate between rising complaints (“His body’s cold… programmed to receive automatic satisfaction”) and whimpered demands (“See me, feel me, hear me, love me, touch me”) — quite the opposite of Sarah Brightman’s orgasmic “Love in a UFO”. Jackson’s follow-up single “Meteor Man” is similar space-fluff.
Sheila and Black Devotion – “Spacer” (1980)
After dozens of bubblegum hits in Europe, 1962-1975, French “yé-yé girl” singer Sheila went disco by accessorizing herself with black men, specifically three dancers from the US who also sing backup and constitute the B. Devotion (Black Devotion) part of the band name Sheila & B. Devotion. In 1979, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, disco royalty, produced her hit “Spacer”. “It was silly,” Rodgers admitted decades later. “Nothing is bullshit, but that was the closest to bullshit we’d ever done.” It sold four million copies worldwide.
Ednah Holt – “Serious, Sirius, Space Party” (1981)
Ednah Holt brings a combined sense of hedonism and personal agency to her funked-up mid-tempo space groove “Serious, Sirius Space Party” (1981). The one-off 12″ was released on the era-defining disco label West End Records and mixed by renowned DJ Larry Levan of New York’s underground disco Paradise Garage, where mostly gay people of color forged a new vision of their lives. The emphatic beat plays ascending frequencies against thumping lows and electric guitar as Holt’s hot wailings imagine people of color dancing on The Enterprise with various sci-fi icons like Spock and C3P0, all “partying with the Force”.
Holt enjoyed a successful career as a backup singer (appearing alongside Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense) and with her own group The Ritchie Family. The song is included on Larry Levan’s Classic West End Records Remixes Made Famous at the Legendary Paradise Garage (2013).
RAH Band – “The Crunch” (1878)
Producer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Anthony Hewson alone is RAH Band. His first album to exploit Space Disco elements, The Crunch and Beyond (1978), offers roughly textured, hard swinging synth-instrumentals like “The Crunch” and “Electric Fling”. His next albums are hit and miss, the space motifs often trite and generic saxophone out of place. “Messages From the Stars” and “Clouds Across the Moon” (both 1983), however, are quintessential latter-day Space Disco tracks. With saxophone jettisoned, torchy vocals by Hewson’s wife add melodic hook and a dash of style to the RAH Band sound. “Clouds” plays out a woman’s annual telephone call to her lover on his way to Mars.
The Android Sisters – “Electronic Sheep” (1984)
The sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and also the Android Sisters. Their rarity “Electronic Sheep”, about transforming into a sheep during the nightly news, is emotionless in its absurdity. Tom Lopez and songwriter Tim Clark combine MIDI and Synclavier II to create a soundscape both quirk-cluttered and minimal, filtering vocals by Ruth Maleczech and Valeria Wasilewski whose unhurried delivery can bring to mind Laurie Anderson.
Liner notes for Songs of Electronic Despair (1984) create a fictional backdrop for the Sisters, who met during the robot uprisings of 2065 and played in dive bars up and down the Asteroid Belt. They dedicate their songs — like “Down on the Electronic Farm”, “Macho Robot or the Banana Trilogy”, and the paranoid tour de force “Robots Are Coming” — to social misfits universally. A rare best-of compilation, released by EM Records (a reissue label for out-of-print experimental and outsider music), contains album plus bonus tracks.
Further Listening: Charlie (Italy), Mistral (Netherlands), Daisy Daze & The Bumble Bees (France), Munich Machine and The Midnite Ladies (Germany), Venus Gang (France)
The Mothership Electro
Pluton & Humanoids – “World Invaders” (1981)
Late in the Space Disco era, disco waned as Hi-NRG and hip-hop emerged and outer space became the domain of electro music. Electro was born with the release, in 1980, of the iconic-sounding Roland TR-808 drum machine that provided bass drumbeats as well as synthetic handclaps. A hypnotic blend of space-cold synths with emerging electro is “World Invaders” (1981) by Pluton & Humanoids, really a duo: Pierre Perpall, considered the “Canadian James Brown” in the ’60s, and producer Michel Bibeau. Liquescent beats under all-filtered vocals induce euphoria on the dance floor, perfect for the planet’s last night of freedom. This one-off 12″ is available on Morgan Geist’s essential compilation Unclassics (2004).
Midnight Star – “Freak-A-Zoid” (1983)
Even pre-electro, Midnight Star incorporated space motifs into their look and album covers if not their actual songs. At last with 1983’s “Freak-a-Zoid”, a song’s theme lived up to the nods at outer space; it also introduced a Top 40 audience to the futuristic sounds of electro. “Freak-a-zoid robots”, a vocoder voice opens the song, “please report to the dance floor”. Their next album Planetary Invasion (1984) took the theme further with “Body Snatchers”, “Scientific Love”, and the title track, none enjoying zoid-level popularity.
Warp 9 – “Nunk” (1982)
Though dominated by men, electro owes its success to at least one woman, Lotti Golden. Her self-penned 1969 album Motor-Cycle is considered a feminist classic but over time she came to prefer the recording studio as a producer, dedicating herself in the early ’80s to electro and starting with the hip-hop trio Warp 9 whose “Nunk” (1982) and “Light Years Away” (1983) are often referred to as genre-defining tracks. The Guardian described the latter as “travers[ing] inner and outer space, matching rolling congas with vocoder voices and the hiss and sizzle of cutting edge synth and drum machine technology.” It also features both male and female rappers. As for “Nunk”, its subtitle “New Wave Funk” owns up to a short-lived conceptual overlap between new wave music and electro.
Newcleus – “Space Is the Place” (1983)
In 1983, the electro phenomenon of Newcleus gripped the radio waves nationwide with their “Wikki-wikki-wikki!” Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac, his cousins Monique and Pete Angevin, and “Chilly B” Crafton started Newcleus as teens in Brooklyn, channeling a wide-eyed Afrofuturism into their albums Jam on Revenge (1984) and Space Is the Place (1985). The breakout “Planet Rock” (1982) by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force surely inspired them, though Newcleus is more playful, mingling irresistible cartoon-alien vocals throughout. “Destination Earth”, “Space Is the Place” (reworking the classic Sun Ra song), and “Cyborg Dance” are among the best of the space-themed tracks.
Herbie Hancock – “Rockit” (1984)
Electro’s most mature realization was surely Future Shock (1983) by Herbie Hancock, already legendary for a nonstop output of albums ranging from “post bop” to disco to his electronic jazz-funk masterpiece Head Hunters (1973). Future Shock‘s fugitive single “Rockit” froze listeners in their tracks with its radical electro sensibility, including vanguard “scratching” by GrandMixer DXT, just as the concept video disturbed MTV viewers with its posthuman vision of a robot bourgeoisie. Keytar-wielding Hancock not only performed the song at the Grammys, it won a Grammy for R&B Instrumental.
Further Listening: Casco (Italy), Cybotron (Detroit), Jonzun Crew (Boston), Laserdance (Netherlands), Planet Patrol (Boston), Q (Philadelphia)
* * *
Perhaps outer space has become passé, now long replaced in the popular imagination by the frontier of the internet with its own soundscape, its own myths, wonders, and dangers. Though the Star Wars franchise reinvigorated itself in the ’00s, and Space Disco has enjoyed sporadic moments of reincarnation, thanks to a few visionaries like Maggotron, Visit Venus, Aphex Twin, The Orb, Air, Morgan Geist, Janelle Monáe, Antoni Maiovvi, FM Attack, and Daft Punk, no era of space-themed music has come along that has sustained itself like Space Age Pop (1954-1964) and Space Disco (1976-1986).
Note: This feature originally published on 2 October 2016.