?As subject matter for rock, pop, and hip-hop songs, speculative fiction ranks way below falling in love, falling out of love, getting laid, not getting laid, war and what it’s good for, and the amount of money made by Jay-Z and/or Joe Walsh. But sci-fi has become a startlingly strong musical subgenre over the past 40-plus years, influencing everything from the rise of electronic music to the robotic dance moves of ’80s b-boys to Roger Dean’s album art for Yes to approximately 60 percent of the Flaming Lips’ recorded output. Some artists dabble, some (like the makers of the Top 5 songs below) practically make a career out of it, but the combined allure and menace of technology, worlds beyond our own, and the unknowable future have produced an array of memorable songs, many of which can stand against classics of the genre in any other medium.
Below you’ll find 15 all-time-great entrants into pop music’s science fiction tradition, from virtually every corner of the rock landscape. Some are silly, some are sinister, some poetic, some prophetic. The only rules we followed in rounding them up and ranking them were 1) no songs from soundtracks, since we’ve got that pretty much covered, and 2) one song per artist, or we’d be here (on the edge of) forever. Grab your headphones and boldly go!
[Ed’s note: Last week, a PR guy emailed about David Bowie’s new “A Reality Tour” live album. Me, being a huge Bowie freak, told him I’d do/say/pimp anything just to get in good with Bowie’s PR people. He asked me to mention the CD — which includes Bowie staples from his entire career, recorded during his 2003-04 tour — and suggested I do this during some kind of “Greatest Sci-Fi Rock Songs” list. Well, selling out aside, this was a great idea for a TR list, and I asked music meister and fellow Bowie lover Sean Collins [seriously, check out his Bowie sketchbook] to handle it. So here it is, and by the way, go check out the album — it’s two CDs of Bowie hits for only $13, and it’s more or less a greatest sci-fi songs of Bowie album. And Mr. Bowie, I love you! Xoxoxo –Rob]
15) Sheb Wooley – “Purple People Eater”
The most misunderstood pop-song protagonist this side of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Purple People Eater is a perfect example of how Earthlings rush to judgment about our extraterrestrial neighbors. If you listen to the lyrics, you’ll notice this one-eyed one-horned flying xenomorph is not a purple-colored eater of people, but an eater of purple-colored people. Phew — we’re in the clear! In all seriousness, this 1958 chart-topper represents the fusion of two cultural trends in ’50s America: The novelty song — see also “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song” from that same year – -and the bug-eyed monster space-invader science-fiction craze. (I’d say nothing this knowingly silly could get on the radio today, but have you heard Young Money’s “Bedrock”?) Chances are you first heard it courtesy of a record played to you by your parents; it’s how I and generations’ worth of other kids learned that songs didn’t just have to be about everyday things, they could be about totally awesome stuff like monsters and aliens. It’s a lesson a lot of musicians took to heart.
14) Pink Floyd – “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”
The title of this darkly psychedelic 1968 opus by the Pink Floyd (they still used the “the” occasionally back then, kinda like Batman in the ’90s) contains the key for unlocking its whole message. It’s not called “Flying to the Heart of the Sun” or any other such soaring, heroic-sounding phrase. No, the voyager in question is issuing instructions to his fellow travelers to set a course, flip a switch, push a button, sit back, and take the ride. Once the controls are set, you’re heading to your destination whether you like it or not. It’s a perfect metaphor for what befalls you once you take that hit of acid, which the Floyd did with some frequency: You have no control over whether you’re about to go on a good trip or a bad one. You control only on whether you set out on that voyage in the first place. And while the nature-worship lyrics, apparently swiped from a book of ancient Chinese poetry, mostly promise a positive experience, the subdued drone of the guitar, keyboard, and timpani drum suggests otherwise. For good reason, perhaps: By the time “Set the Controls” was being recorded, initial Floyd frontman Syd Barrett was phasing out of the band in no small part because of his over-frequent psychedelic experimentation, marking this composition by emerging bandleader Roger Waters (the only song all five members of Pink Floyd played on) as as much of a self-reflexive cautionary tale as Kurt Cobain’s repeated promise “I don’t have a gun” in “Come as You Are” would be years later. Pretty much all of prog rock’s subsequent explorers of the dark fantastic, from King Crimson to Rush all the way up to Tool, had their controls set by this song.
13) Chairlift – “Planet Health”
This one may be a bit off the beaten path for most folks, but give the song’s video a spin and stick with me here. Fronted by singer Caroline Polachek, Chairlift are best known for “Bruises,” one of those whimsical little indie ditties that graced an iPod nano commercial. But I much prefer the sex-drenched dystopia they conjure up here. The world of “Planet Health” is like a middle-school filmstrip mash-up: Combine the sex-ed videos they showed you in health class with the vintage PBS sci-fi short films your cool English teacher screened with the lights down and there you have it. In places with names like the Garden of Puberty, the State of Being Well, the Desert of Vitamins, and a literal Food Pyramid, a newcomer to the planet explores a militantly healthy hedonism among its beautiful, fit, diverse young population. “Our intercourse was well-protected,” Polachek (who directed the orgiastic video above) sings — “We made love with each other’s eyes.” She’s feeling great tonight, she repeats in the chorus, until she learns of the fate of Planet Health’s sick and elderly: They’re ejected into space. It’s a Twilight Zone/Ray Bradbury fable in the form of an homage to the exotic, wealthy-sounding pop of ’80s outfits like Roxy Music and Prefab Sprout. And the song’s so convincingly sensual that even though you know better by the end, Planet Health still sounds like a place you wouldn’t mind visiting.
12) The Edgar Winter Group – “Frankenstein”
Using an instrumental is cheating, you say? Bullroar, sez I. In its four minutes and forty-four seconds — frequently ballooned out to twice that length or more when performed live–multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter unleashes a blast of pure Famous Monsters of Filmland joy in musical form. The song pays homage to Mary Shelley’s creation and Boris Karloff’s immortal role with a monstrous joint guitar-and-synth stomp, and features Winter killing it on guitar, keys, sax, and percussion. Karloff’s flattop and platform boots are equaled in their outlandishness by Winter’s own appearance: A shock of white hair, glittery glam-rock togs, and a synthesizer strapped around his neck. Wordless? Yes, but it says as much about the raw fun of sci-fi’s monster-run-amok template as any essay could.
11) Dr. Octagon – “Blue Flowers”
There’s really nothing I can say to explain the concept behind Dr. Octagonecologyst–the 1996 collaboration between MC and actual former mental patient Kool Keith, future Gorillaz and Handsome Boy Modeling School superproducer the Automator, frequent Keith kollaborator KutMasta Kurt, and turntablist extraordinaire DJ Qbert–that could do it any better than Wikipedia: “Dr. Octagonecologyst introduces the character of Dr. Octagon, an extraterrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon.” Alllllrighty then. Spaced-out SF-tinged pscyhedelic pornographic horrorcore hip-hop weird enough to make the Wu-Tang Clan come across like Will Smith, Dr. Octagon launched its assault on the ears of listeners hungry for a hip-hop underground with the single “Blue Flowers.” With an eerie, repeating string sample that sonically connects the song to the trip-hop then flowing out of the U.K. in great torrents, it’s a Burroughsian barrage of threatening verbal snippets, suggesting images of medical experimentation and doomsday devices. “I’m from the Church of the Operating Room,” the good Doctor proclaims, before dropping complex rhymes about cybernetic microscopes, supersonic waves, and patients with blood pouring down their mouths. Part Dr. Frankenstein, part Dr. Frank-N-Furter, part Professor Brian O’Blivion, Dr. Octagon is one of music’s most memorable science-fiction characters, and one of the most rewarding explorations of the genre that the frequently SF-obsessed world of hip-hop has produced.
10) Elton John – “Rocket Man”
I’ll be honest: This would probably rank higher if I weren’t such a Bowie acolyte. I’m not alone in thinking that Elton John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin’s tale of a lonely space traveler who misses his wife is a bit, shall we say, indebted to good ol’ Major Tom and “Space Oddity.” (The two songs even shared the same producer, Gus Dudgeon.) But reluctant though I am to admit it, “Rocket Man” is a major rock achievement all on its own. Opening quietly, with an insistent vocal melody from John that hints at big things to come, it hits that “and I think it’s gonna be a long time” lyric hard and repeatedly — a one-line encapsulation of the daunting vision of his future that this hardworking family man has while “burning out his fuse up there alone.” Works from Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes to David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones’s Moon would take a similar blue-collar approach to subverting the popular image of space travel. The song’s cult-culture afterlife is legendary, thanks to Star Trek‘s William Shatner and his inimitably insane performance of it at a ’70s sci-fi award show. It may have taken a long, long time, but thanks to shoutouts from the likes of The Family Guy and Beck’s video for “Where It’s At,” Shatner’s version is almost as much of a standard as Sir Elton’s. (Okay, I did say “almost.”)
9) Styx – “Mr. Roboto”
Stadium-rock bands had been creating elaborate concept albums about the sort of sinister science-fiction scenarios bored highschoolers imagine themselves a part of every time they get yelled at in study hall for over a decade by the time Styx got around to it. (To be fair, they’d dabbled in the genre with the hit “Come Sail Away.”) Kilroy Was Here was no The Wall — hell, it was no Tarkus. But what Dennis DeYoung lacks in taste or talent, he makes up for in obliviously camp lyrics and vocals (and hairstyle). That’s what elevated the signature track of his hostile-takeover reimagining of this workaday AOR band as dystopian freedom fighters from beyond schlock into a period pop classic. With high-pitched backing vocals that sound a bit like Queen and an undeniable vocoder hook that can sit comfortably alongside Afrika Bambaataa or Roger Troutman, “Mr. Roboto” springboards off America’s growing fascination with technology in general and Japan’s ability to produce it specifically to land the phrase “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” in our cultural vernacular for good.
8) The Postal Service – “We Will Become Silhouettes”
“I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food, filtered water, and pictures of you,” sings Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard in the opening lines of this track from his electronic-music sideproject with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello. Right there he’s encapsulated the song’s blend of disconcerting post-apocalyptic imagery and the rapturous romance that was the Postal Service’s stock in trade in its one and only album to date, Give Up. The song paints a portrait of isolation in the face of a mysterious airborne toxin or virus that causes cell reproduction so rapid that its sufferers literally explode. But Gibbard’s protagonist seems less concerned about that gruesome fate — “it won’t be a pretty sight,” he deadpans — than about his longing for connection, be it with “someone [he]used to know” or simply with solid ground outside his shut-in dwelling. In other words, the science is secondary to the fiction, which usually works to the betterment of both. Bonus points for a killer video co-starring guest vocalist Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley and featuring outfits straight out of a very ’70s vision of the future. PS: Whatever the nature of the plague the song describes, let’s hope that plagiarizing clown from Owl City catches it.
7) Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me with Science”
The first geek-chic wave crested in the ’80s. Okay, so studios and advertisers didn’t fall all over themselves to bow at the feet of nerds the way they do today–it’s difficult to imagine anyone involved in, say, Top Gun making the now-routine pilgrimage to San Diego–and our status as cultural outsiders and figures of ridicule was never in doubt. But a variety of factors, from the rise of video games and home computing to the increasing predominance of synthesizers in pop music to the long cultural shadow cast by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, placed geeks in a favorable light despite the stigma; indeed, being a geek was one of the few freak flags it was acceptable to fly in the Reagan/Thatcher ’80s. And part and parcel of the zeitgeist that gave us Egon Spengler, Chris Knight, Doc Brown, the Tri-Lams, Mister Wizard, and two horny teenagers engineering Kelly LeBrock with a Commodore 64 was a musical mini-movement of songs like Thomas Dolby’s tribute to the seductive power of “SCIENCE!” Like the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (whose co-writer, Bruce Woolley, was in Dolby’s band Camera Club with film composer Hans Zimmer), Oingo Boingo’s “Weird Science,” and Devo’s “Whip It,” it features various ingredients from the big nerd-pop stew being brewed at the time: You can mix and match “performer wearing glasses,” “self-consciously ‘goofy’-sounding synths,” “lyrics about technology,” “snappy programmed beats,” and “the image of a Metropolis-style technologically-enhanced siren-like woman” and come up with a winning recipe. Every time Olivia Munn dresses up as Leeloo from The Fifth Element or whatever, this song is playing in some G4 programmer’s head.
6) Radiohead – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”
Speaking of elaborate concept albums about sinister science-fiction scenarios! Actually, Radiohead’s groundbreaking third album OK Computer elides the fictional end of the sci-fi equation; most of its lyrics deal only indirectly with a general theme of coming to grips with the dehumanizing pace of life before the turn of the millennium. Even a song like the epic “Paranoid Android” is only using the a-word metaphorically. The album’s one exception to that rule is the soaring, whimsical, Dylan-referencing “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” in which singer Thom Yorke speculates as to just what an extraterrestrial visitor would make of us humans–aka “all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits, drill holes in themselves, and live for their secrets.” Yorke wishes that the titular aliens would “take me on board their beautiful ship, and show me the world as I’d love to see it,” even if he’d be judged hopelessly insane by his skeptical species upon his return. This is set to the sounds of twinkling, soaring guitars, keyboards, and xylophones, set at waltz tempo, feeling like nothing so much as floating above the cares of the day. In an album filled to bursting with powerful and surprising metaphors–karma police, superheroes, growing wings, pigs in cages on antibiotics, interstellar bursts, and of course that paranoid android–this is one of the most thoughtful and most beautiful.
5) Parliament – “Dr. Funkenstein”
To the small army of murderously talented musicians that comprised Parliament and its sister band Funkadelic, collectively known as P-Funk, funk was not just a musical genre. The Funk was the Force, the Allspark, the Holy Grail, the Holy Ghost, and the monolith from 2001 all rolled into one. As such, it demanded a conceptual framework just as mindblowing and far-out as the Funk itself. On albums like Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, bandleader George Clinton and his merry minions revealed the existence of extraterrestrial beings Starchild and Dr. Funkenstein, who descended from the Mothership to bring the Funk to we Earthlings. Playing off a strain of space-based African-American culture also present in the cosmology of the Nation of Islam and the music of jazz genius/crazy person Sun Ra–and still visible today in hip-hop tracks like Lil Wayne’s “Phone Home”–Clinton & company roped everything from the pyramids to Atlantis to laser guns into their wild worldbuilding project. Of course, none of this would matter if the music weren’t so damn good, and if P-Funk’s performances weren’t so outrageously entertaining. Dig this clip for “Dr. Funkenstein,” in which “the big pill” who will cure humanity’s ills literally descends from a Mothership that gets lowered onto the stage. Mad science was never so danceable.
4) Gary Numan – “Down in the Park”
Yes, I’m including two different live performance videos for this song. Yes, you need to watch them both. Yes, this is a case in which the version featuring glowing, revolving pyramids and band members stationed in giant two-story light columns is actually the less science-fictionally awesome of the two.
Gary Numan’s stage itself name evokes his fascination with the future and the potential breeds of “new men” who might emerge in its wake. Replicas, the 1979 album he recorded under the name of his old band Tubeway Army, is his most expansive exploration of that sci-fi side. Heavily influenced by the work of literary SF heavyweights like J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, it’s a concept album about a world populated by android “machmen” who function as enforcers for a dictatorial regime and “friends” who serve as sex robots that can be killed for sport. Dark stuff, and it gets no darker than “Down in the Park,” with its eerie and evocative references to playing “kill-by-numbers” and “rape machines.”
But this sort of thing was what post-punk Britain was looking for, apparently, because for a couple of years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Numan became a superstar there off a stream of killer singles that combined Numan’s icy demeanor and chilling dystopian imagery with the fattest Moog keyboard riffs known to man: “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” “We Are Glass,” “I Die: You Die,” “Complex,” and of course “Cars.” “Down in the Park” didn’t make those kinds of waves, but it provided Numan with perhaps his finest live showcase, and one whose influence reverberated down the ages. Check out that first video, just for example, and tell me Beck and Daft Punk don’t owe him royalties for his late-’90s dance moves and their 2007 stage set-up respectively. Meanwhile, both Marilyn Manson and the Foo Fighters produced excellent covers versions. It really is the perfect song to sing as you pilot yourself around the stage in a motor-operated black throne.
3) Kraftwerk – “Computer Love”
Here’s the tracklisting for Kraftwerk’s 1981 album Computer World, in its entirety: “Computer World,” “Pocket Calculator,” “Numbers,” “Computer World Part 2,” “Computer Love,” “Home Computer,” “It’s More Fun to Compute.” In turn, Computer World was part of a discography that contained albums called Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, and The Man-Machine. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that as a band, the German electronic-music pioneers of Kraftwerk were pretty much obsessed with technology’s transformative power over human life. You really can point to any number of high points in their exploration of this theme–“The Robots” would be an obvious example, as its refrain, “We are the robots,” could be seen as anautobiographical statement by these consciously stiff and expressionless musicians. But “Computer Love” has always been their standout track for me. Its lilting melody gives way to a long, winding, melancholy solo that evokes the loneliness at the song’s core, beneath which a bassline quietly churns, suggesting emotional turmoil beneath the placid surface. The song is about a man who doesn’t know what to do, who needs a rendezvous, so he makes a “data date”–an idea that everything from eHarmony to Craigslist to Grindr to Chatroulette has proved both poignant and prophetic, as is so much of the very finest science fiction.
2) Black Sabbath – “Iron Man”
When it fell to Jon Favreau to make the superhero also known as Tony Stark cool for the first time in god knows how long, it’s no accident the resulting movie (and its all-important trailers) heavily featured the godlike metal stomp of Black Sabbath’s song by the same name. This tune already captured everything awesome about a giant metal dude running around fucking people up–why mess with perfection? Okay, sure, so the name “Iron Man” is about all it actually shares with the Marvel hero; Stark’s done some sketchy shit, but to the best of my knowledge he’s never “killed the people he once saved,” and I’m pretty sure not even Warren Ellis’s retcon had him “turned to steel in the great magnetic field when he traveled time for the future of mankind.” Lyrical liberties aside, though, the song is a metal masterpiece. Just take a look at how it begins: the ominous pounding of Bill Ward’s kickdrum that kicks things off, that frightening two-note opening salvo from Tony Iommi, and Ozzy Osbourne’s distorted proclamation: “I AM IRON MAN!” I don’t know about you, but in that moment, I believe him. The rest of the song features the greatest single example of the heavy, sludgy, tuned-down-to-subterranean-levels riffery that helped Sabbath launch entire musical subgenres, and the ratty-paperback SFF imagery that helped them earn the allegiance of generations of black-clad ‘bangers and burnouts. (Other songs on “Iron Man”‘s album of origin Paranoid reference nuclear annihilation, interstellar travel, hallucinatory urban-fantasy-style boot-wearing fairies, witches at black masses, and Judgment Day.) Subcultural immortality: Iron Man’s greatest revenge.
1) David Bowie – “Space Oddity”
Honestly? We could just as easily have done a list of David Bowie’s Top 15 Science-Fiction Songs alone. Hell, in some cases you’ve got whole albums to choose from. There’s the post-glam dystopia of Diamond Dogs, which evolved out of a failed attempt to stage a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and features the memorable rallying cry “This ain’t rock and roll — this is genocide!” There’s the Lynchian near-future techno-murder mystery of Outside, in which Bowie plays a detective named Nathan Adler who’s investigating the “art-crime” slaying of a teenage girl. There’s the sinister futurism of Station to Station, starring an elegant techno-fascist called the Thin White Duke, featuring the paean to a pleasure-model robot “TVC-15,” and recorded by Bowie shortly after his star turn as an alien in the trippy sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. There’s the drum-and-bass-drenched electronica of Earthling, featuring a return to the shocking orange coif of Bowie’s glitter days and sporting song titles like “Looking for Satellites” and “Earthlings on Fire.” And of course there’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which despite the common misconception is not about an alien rock star but about an Earthling who hears an alien rock star and becomes a rock star himself, and which is just lousy with great SF ditties, from the countdown to apocalypse “Five Years” to the “hazy cosmic jive” of “Starman” to the Clockwork Orange-referencing “Suffragette City.”
But in a career built in large part on capturing the imagination of the public by crafting fantastical concepts and becoming the characters who inhabit them, “Space Oddity” is the foundation stone. Released in the moonstruck year of 1969 (the video above is for an earlier version) and riffing on the title of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (the former David Jones’s nom de rock is itself said to be a play off of 2001‘s beleaguered astronaut David Bowman), it’s a tour de force of both concept and execution. Bowie plays both Ground Control and Major Tom, the ill-fated space voyager who dutifully follows orders and tells his wife he loves her very much (“She knows,” replies Ground Control) before a short-circuit cuts him off from the world below. He’s left “floating in [his]tin can,” resigned to his fate: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”
There aren’t very many pop standards in which the singer falls victim to the coldness of an unfeeling universe, let alone ones in which the music captures the lyrical sentiment so memorably. The fade-in, the countdown, the reverbed-out “liftoff,” the squeals of saxophone and trills of flute that seam to echo out into space… it’s not hard to feel like you’re out there “floating in a most a-peculiar way” yourself. And once you’ve heard that repeated “Ground Control to Major Tom” mantra, good luck ever forgetting it.
“Space Oddity” pointed the way not just for the future of David Bowie’s career — he’d even revisit the character over a decade later, labeling him a junkie in “Ashes to Ashes”–but in many ways the future of rock itself. Here was Bowie’s first full-fledged example of an alter ego, a rock concept that would recur throughout his work and go on to influence artists not just obvious Bowie proteges like Gary Numan, but musicians in nearly every genre, from P-Funk to the Wu-Tang Clan to Beyonce to Garth Brooks to Marilyn Manson to Lady GaGa. Here was the far-out basis for much of the look and sound of glam rock, to which Bowie wouldn’t be fully committed for another couple of albums but which shaped the careers of everyone from KISS to Adam Lambert. Here was the obsession with technology’s dual nature as liberator and destroyer that went on to echo everywhere from New Wave to <i>OK Computer</i>. Here is the greatest sci-fi song of all time. Liftoff!