Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Seven). “Do You Remember the Time We Knew A Girl From Mars?”

Girl from Mars was released as the second single from Ash’s first full-length album, 1977.  It became the band’s first Top 40 single in 1995, reaching number 11 on the UK singles chart and number 16 on the Irish singles chart.  It was the first single to bring the band to public attention.

The song was written in 1993, when Tim Wheeler was just 16 years old.  The band’s third demo tape, Garage Girl, funded by their school’s Young Enterprise scheme, had just topped the local charts.

At this point in time, despite their achievements, the band were beginning to become disillusioned and with GCSE exams looming they begin to wonder how they will get a record deal in a country with a non-existent music industry.  Things were looking bleak but the band’s svengali, Bill McCabe, sends the Garage Girl demo tape off to his London contacts.  The tape gained attention from publicist Paddy Davis and radio plugger Stephen Taverner who send the band £300 to go back into the studio.

The band’s first single, another space-themed classic, Jack Names the Planets, was released on Taverner’s newly formed La La Land label in February 1994 and picked up play on Radio One, impressing influential DJs Steve Lamacq, John Peel and Mark Radcliffe.  A few months later, the band signed to Infectious Records and played their first London show at the Camden Falcon whilst on Easter break from college.

The summer found the band recording with producer Marc Waterman.  From these sessions, Petrol …

… and Uncle Pat were released as the band’s second and third singles and topped the UK indie charts.  The mini-album, Trailer, was released in October of 1994.

The single Kung Fu followed in 1995, the first from the eventual 1977 album …

… before the release of Girl from Mars.  The single established Wheeler as a writer of truly great pop songs and saw the band performing on Top of the Pops for the first time, two weeks after their A-level exams.

The perfect three minute pop-rock classic tells the tale of Wheeler’s infatuation with the song’s subject matter and finds him remembering “the time I knew a girl from Mars?”, “playing cards” and smoking “Henri Winterman cigars”.

The song has two different videos.  The first, the UK promotional video, was directed by Peter Christopherson and is described by the band as a cross between the video for Give It Away by Red Hot Chili Peppers (from the album Blood Sugar Sex Majik, 1991) …

… and the Natrel Plus TV advert from the mid 1990s, depicting people camouflaged against a woodland backdrop.

The band disliked the original promotional video so much that when it came to releasing the song in America, they re-filmed it.  This time, the video was directed by Jesse Peretz, who also directed the video for the Foo Fighters single, Big Me (from the album Foo Fighters, 1995).

This video features Ash playing the song as part of an art exhibition as a small girl looks on mesmerised.

Following the release of Girl from Mars, the band signed to Warner Records in the US and NASA even began to use Girl from Mars as the hold music on their phone systems.  The future looked bright for a band that was on the verge of breaking up shortly before writing the song.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Six). “She Packed My Bags Last Night, Pre-flight. Zero Hour: 9am. And I’m Going to be High as a Kite by Then.”

Rocket Man, alternatively named Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), from the 1972 album Honky Chateau, is a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  The song was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the producer of David Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough hit Space Oddity (David Bowie).  The song was inspired by Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a distant aeroplane and was inspired by the notion of being an astronaut no longer being a hero, instead being an everyday occupation.  This idea can be most seen most notably in the song’s opening lines, “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight.  Zero hour: 9am.  And I’m going to be high as a kite by then”.

The lyrics of the song, written as per usual by Taupin, were inspired by the short story, The Rocket Man by Ray Bradbury and featured in his 1951 collection, The Illustrated Man.  The story tells of how astronauts are few in number, meaning that they work for high pay.  One such “Rocket Man” goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to Earth for three days to spend time with his wife and son, Doug.  Additionally, the song was also inspired by another song called Rocket Man by Tom Rapp, written for his band Pearls Before Swine and featured on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes.  The Rapp song Rocket Man was in turn also inspired by Bardbury’s short story.

Due to a number of similarities in Rocket Man, some presume that this song might also be an allusion to David Bowie’s character Major Tom in Space Oddity.  Bowie has even made the connection himself during various live performances of Space Oddity in which he called out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”

As with Space Oddity, Rocket Man has been said to use space as a metaphor for a drug high.  The line most associated with being a drug reference is “And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then” with ‘high as a kite’ being a common idiom in drug use.  There is nothing to suggest that Taupin intended the double entendre but the song was released at the peak of the ‘70s stoner culture.

The first stanza of Rocket Man was thought up by Bernie Taupin whilst he was on the motorway heading to his parents’ home.  Taupin had to repeat the line to himself over and over for two hours. Upon reaching his parents house, Taupin has said a number of times over the years that he rushed in to the house and ordered nobody to speak to him until he had written the lines down.  Additionally, the song is thought to be a comment on fame and touring, with the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” perhaps referring to the superficiality of stardom and stage persona.

Musically, the song is one of John’s most grandiose offerings, anchored by piano, with atmospheric texture added by synthesiser, which was played on the recording by studio engineer Dave Hentschel and processed slide guitar.  Rocket Man is also notable for being the first of a number of John recording to feature the signature backing vocals of his band at the time, Dee Murray, Nigel Olssen and Davey Johnstone.  The song was another resounding success for John, reaching number 2 on the UK singles chart and number 6 on the US Billboard Pop Singles Chart.  In 1998, John played Rocket Man at the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Rocket Man has been covered a number of times over the years, most famously in 1991 by Kate Bush as part of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin tribute album, Two Rooms:  Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  Bush’s unique reggae-styled interpretation of the song was a great commercial success, reaching number 12 on the UK chart and number 2 on the Australian chart, where it was held off the top spot by Julian Lennon’s single, Saltwater (from the album Help Yourself, 1991).  Bush’s version of Rocket Man was voted as the Greatest Cover of All Time by readers of The Observer in 2007.

The B-side of Bush’s version of Rocket Man was a cover of another John and Taupin classic, Candle in the Wind.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Five). “Will You Ever Return Me? Just Like Frankie Fontaine, I Wonder, What Can I Do?”

Hometown Unicorn was released as the first single from Super Furry Animals debut album, Fuzzy Logic on the 26th February 1996.  The beautifully constructed single is packed full of intriguing folktale style lyrics such as the opening verse:  “I was lost, Lost on the bypass road, could be worse, I could be backward born, Could be worse, I could be turned to toad”.  The single came complete with a stunningly mysterious promotional video featuring long time friend of the band and former band mate turned world famous actor Rhys Ifans looking suitably lost as he walks up and down a road carrying a suitcase, appearing and disappearing amongst beautiful views of the Welsh countryside, appearing to be chased by an unidentified object and looking as if he is going crazy in a shed filled with recording equipment.

Hometown Unicorn is one of those Super Furry Animals songs which, like many of their early recordings, is like a puzzle to interpret.  Taking the chorus of “I say you please return me, Will you ever return me, Will you ever return me, Just like Frankie Fontaine, I wonder what can I do?” coupled with the video and the song’s other assorted lyrics about being lost and being “found riding a unicorn”, the song appears to be about alien abduction.  Before I look at the alien abduction case which informs the chorus, let’s look at the unicorn.

The unicorn is a mythical creature which in European folklore, is often depicted as a white horse or goat-like animal.  In the middle ages and Renaissance era, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin.  Firstly here, we have the idea of capture, relating to the alien abduction and secondly, the unidentified thing that has captured the song’s subject has potentially done so on their virgin visit to Earth.  Then, there is the idea of mythology, tying in with the idea of myths and legends surrounding alien abduction.

One such legend is the case of Franck Fontaine, referred to as “Frankie Fontaine” in the song’s chorus.  The event, now known as the Clergy-Pontoise Hoax, began as a report of a UFO abduction and ended with one of the spectators present at the supposed abduction channelling messages from extraterrestrials whom he claimed were involved in the taking of Fontaine.

The story starts on the morning of the 26th November 1979, when Jean-Pierre Prevost of the Paris suburb of Point-oise called the police to report that his friend, Fontaine, had been abducted by aliens.  Prevost told of how he and Fontaine, along with two other men, were preparing to drive to a nearby town to sell clothes at an open-air market.  Fontaine, their driver, waited in the car whilst the other men went to gather their stock.  A UFO appeared and Fontaine was taken from the car.  The other men watched as the UFO sped away into the sky.  Fontaine reappeared a week later claiming to remember very little about what had happened, saying he fell asleep at the wheel of the car and woke up in a cabbage field, unaware that a week had passed.

After Fontaine reappeared, the police intensified their investigation concerning the incident and were joined by Grope d’Etudes des Phenomenes Aerospatieux Non Indentifies (GEPAN), France’s main UFO investigation organisation.  After conducting interviews with the alleged abductee and the principal witnesses several times and looking for any collaborating evidence, GEPAN came to the conclusion that the incident was without any value in furthering knowledge of UFOs and therefore, the incident has come to be regarded as a hoax.

Shortly after the incident, French UFO enthusiast Jimmy Guieu published a book-length account of the story entitled Contacts OVNI Cergy-Pontoise.   In the book, Guieu believes the story to be true and suggests that the UFO’s intended target was Fontaine but actually Prevost, who had begun to channel messages from the abductor whom he referred to as intelligences from the beyond.  Shortly afterwards, Prevost published his own book about Fontaine’s abduction entitled The Great Contact.  The book centred on the messages which he had received, primarily one from Haurrio, about the deteriorating state of life on Earth.  Prevost went on to found his own publishing house and gather a following of people attracted to the message from outer space.  However, he was unable to find enough people interested in the venture and soon the publishing house folded, leaving him in heavy debt.

A full four years after Fontaine’s supposed abduction, Prevost finally confessed that it had been a hoax.  He told a French reporter that he had organised the event and had hidden Fontaine in a friend’s apartment during the week of the supposed abduction.  He continued to tell of how he had done so in order to attract attention to his channelled messages and in order to assist in building a modern religion based upon extraterrestrials.

Following the confession, Guieu refused to accept to Prevost’s story.  In the interim between the emergence of the abduction stories and the confession, Guieu has come to know others whom had received messages from Haurrio.  Ufologist Jacques Vallee suggests that the whole incident had been an operation by the intelligence community in an attempt to create a sect upon which various social science experiments could be conducted.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Four). “Hats Off, Hats Off to Mars, Let’s Align Our Footsteps with the Stars”.

Glam rock was the era in which music openly acknowledged its superficiality.  Originating in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s and characterised by artists wearing outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles.  Platform-soled boots and glitter were commonplace and the flamboyant costumes and visual styles of glam performers were often camp or androgynous.  Artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter enjoyed extraordinary success.  However, for every one of these artists there were scores of glam divas waiting in the wings.

Take for example, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star, who released two wonderfully camp and epic albums in the early 1970s, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures of the Street (1974) before the few members of the public who had been turned onto him turned against him.  He lived out the rest of his days in the Chelsea Hotel, where he became one of the first rock casualties of the AIDs virus in 1983.

Whilst Jobriath briefly managed to release his music, the subject of today’s Song of the Day was dealt a more cruel fate.  That subject is Brett Smiley, who to all intents and purposes had the makings of a successful glam rock superstar.  Young, blonde, beautiful and androgynous, Smiley began his career as a child actor, playing Oliver on Broadway before being discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham at the age of 16 in 1972.  Two years later, he was given a $200,000 recording deal and recorded the album Breathlessly Brett.  The album was produced by Oldham and featured Steve Marriott on guitar.  The first single from the album was the glam-stomping rock thrash out, Va Va Va Voom.

Va Va Va Voom was filled with all the elements that should have made it a glam classic, including wonderfully noisy guitars and a masterful sax line as worthy as those found in Bowie songs such as Suffragette City (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

The Bowie influence is also prevalent on Va Va Va Voom’s B-side, Space Ace.

Space was a regular theme in glam rock music, think T-Rex songs such as Spaceball Ricochet …

… and Ballrooms of Mars (both from The Slider, 1972) …

… and of course, probably the main source of inspiration here, Bowie’s most famous character creation, Ziggy Stardust.

The sound on Space Ace is suitably cinematic, fitting for the era in which it was born, whilst the lyrics, sung in Smiley’s distinctive and breathy voice, spiral like a freefall through outer space.

Around the time of the single’s release, Smiley appeared on the Russell Harty Plus TV programme, where he was interviewed alongside Andrew Loog Oldham and gave a startlingly over the top performance of Space Ace.

Unfortunately for a single that by all rights should have become a classic, it bombed and the album was shelved.  Smiley all but disappeared, save for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), as well as starring roles in a few ill-advised pornographic movies, and wasn’t heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes for the Breathlessly Brett album.  In the intervening 29 years, Smiley had been wallowing in a gargantuan drug addiction somewhere on skid row.  In 2005, Smiley was the subject of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star:  Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley.  Now free of his drug addiction, Smiley is back recording and performing, mainly around New York City.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Three). “Giant Steps Are What You Take …”

Walking on the Moon was released as the second single from The Police’s second studio album, Reggatta de Blanc (1979) on the 4th November 1979.  The song became the band’s second number one single following Message in A Bottle, released two months previously on the 21st September 1979 and also taken from Regatta de Blanc.

The song was written by the band’s lead vocalist and bassist Sting when he was drunk following a concert in Munich.  Of writing Walking on the Moon, Sting said in the biography L’Historia Bandido in 1981:

“I was drunk in a hotel room in Munich, slumped on the bed with the whirling pit when this riff came into my head.  I got up and started walking around the room, singing ‘Walking round the room, ya, ya, walking round the room’.  That was all.  In the cool light of morning, I remembered what had happened and I wrote the riff down.  But ‘Walking Round the Room’ as a stupid title so I thought of something even more stupid which was ‘Walking on the Moon’.

In his 2003 autobiography, Broken Music:  A Memoir, Sting alludes that the song was partially inspired by an early girlfriend, saying:

“Deborah Anderson was my first real girlfriend … walking back from Deborah’s house in those early days would eventually become a song, for being in love is to be relieved of gravity”.

In an interview with The Telegraph in 2013, he added:

“Walking on the Moon seemed a useful metaphor for being in love, that feeling of lightness, of being able to walk on air.  It’s an old idea”.

Walking on the Moon started out life in a rockier format but was reworked.  Sting described the songs eventual sound in Q Magazine in 1993, saying:

“Very sparse.  As a three piece what was intelligent about us was, instead of trying to pretend we were a bigger band, we used that limitation to our advantage:  Less is more.  There were some big black holes in Walking on the Moon and you get those on the radio and people are immediately sucked in.  Same with Roxanne [Outlandos d’Amour, 1978] …

… That guitar chord Andy came up with for Walking on the Moon [following the bass notes] was just mind-blowing.  And that weird jazzy bassline”.

In the 2007 book Lyrics by Sting, the songwriter says:

“I came up with a melody that felt light and airy – in fact, lighter than air … Nine years before, Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon and said the famous words that everyone misquotes.  Giant Steps [Giant Steps, 1960] is also one of my favourite John Coltrane tunes …

… Songs are built by whimsy, faulty memory, and free association”.

Appropriately for a song called Walking on the Moon, the music video for the single’s release was shot at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the 23rd October 1979.  It features the band members miming to the track amidst spacecraft displays, interspersed with NASA footage.  Both Sting and Andy Summers strum guitars in the video, as opposed to Summers playing guitar and Sting playing bass, whilst drummer Stewart Copeland strikes his drumsticks on a Saturn V moon rocket.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Two). “I Always Flirt With Death, I Look Ill But I Don’t Care About It”.

As I talked about yesterday, in songs such as David Bowie’s Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), whether space is a metaphor for the effects of heroin, or others drugs, is something that is often debated.  However, on other songs such as The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, their best known single and the second track on their debut album, The Only Ones (1978), the references, whilst still being the subject of debate, are much more blatant.  Though the song is often considered something of a rock standard and various publications have named the song the greatest rock single ever recorded, Another Girl, Another Planet was not a hit when first released.  In fact, the song’s highest chart position was number 44 on the New Zealand chart in July 1981.  The song was re-released in the UK in January 1992, backed with Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs to promote the compilation album, Sound of the Suburbs.  On this release, the song reached number 57 on the UK singles chart, its highest position to date.  Another Girl, Another Planet was placed at number 18 in John Peel’s all time Festive Fifty millennium edition and when playing it as part of 1980’s Festive Fifty, in which it reached number 28, he introduced it as an “artful little caprice”.

Although this song, with its soaring guitars, perfect three minute pop format and front-man Peter Perrett’s elliptical lyrics could simply be read as a song about the excitement and perils of space travel and having a girl on every planet the narrator passes, something which gives the song some of its huge appeal, dig deeper into the song and the heroin references are plain for all to see.

Another Girl, Another Planet starts with the killer opening lines, “I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don’t care about it”.  To “flirt with death” is an expression normally used when talking about doing something dangerous and life-threatening for personal enjoyment.   Here, to “flirt with death” is about the dangers associated with injecting heroin. “I look ill, but I don’t don’t care about it” straightforwardly refers to the sick look which heroin users are prone to inheriting due to regular usage.  This look has in recent years, thanks to the fashion world, become known as ‘heroin chic’ and is characterised by pale skin, dark circles and angular bone structure due to weight loss.  Interestingly, in Blink 182’s cover version of Another Girl, Another Planet (Greatest Hits, 2005), they change the line to “I could kill, but I don’t care about it”, which could refer to the fact that in the process of ‘cooking’ a batch of black tar, bacterial spores can enter the drug solution.   Once the drug is injected, these spores can damage and even kill the body’s muscle, skin and organ tissues.  Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, perhaps the singer is telling of how he would kill to receive the drug and its hit.

In the following lines, “I can face your threats, Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, the facing of “threats” may refer to side effects and risks associated with taking the drug.  The second of these lines, “Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, finds the singer defiant, telling of how he does not care who knows about his heroin use because of the euphoria he receives from the drug.

The chorus of the song, “I think I’m on another world with you, I’m on another planet with you” finds the singer metaphorically on another planet following the hit of the drug.  Heroin often leads people to hallucinate, so perhaps in this context, Perrett is speaking of how heroin takes him to places that he cannot reach when not under the influence and perhaps hallucinating about women.  It is said that this is a common hallucination when taking heroin.   Alternatively, the “girl” of which Perrett speaks could be a personification of the needle used to inject the drug, with the use of the word “another” being telling of Perrett’s repeated drug use.  Perrett was often compared to Lou Reed, so much so that when listening to an Only Ones recording, the NME’s Nick Kent once believed he was listening to a new Lou Reed recording.  If we were to see the “girl” as a personification of the needle, then we could compare this line to the line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life” in the Velvet Underground’s Heroin (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967).

As the song’s second verse opens, we find the line, “You always get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”, possibly the clearest heroin reference in the whole song.  Usually, if somebody gets under your skin, they are annoying you.  However, here, Perrett states “I don’t find it irritating”, meaning that he enjoys literally having the needle beneath his skin because he knows that what will follow will be a pleasurable experience.  The following line, “You always play to win” refers to heroin playing to win, i.e. claiming lives and being a very difficult addiction to beat.  The following line, “I don’t need rehabilitating” implies that he does not wish to try to kick the habit and would rather “flirt with death” and allow the drug to win.

The song’s final verse starts with the lines, “Space travel’s in my blood, And there ain’t nothing I can do about it”, Perrett’s declaration that he can’t get clean from heroin and that he doesn’t want to try to.  In the following lines, “Long journeys wear me out, Oh God we won’t live without it”, the ‘long journey’ refers to being under the influence of heroin for an extended period of time.  After coming down from his high, he is worn out.  Note the pluralisation of ‘journey’, which is telling of the repetition of injecting the drug.  The line, “Oh God we won’t live without it” is further evidence of the singer’s defiant stance against stopping taking the drug.  In the song’s coda, the line “Another planet, forever holding you down” is, once again, testament to the grip that the drug has on him.  Additionally, heroin is a downer or depressant:  hence, the repetition of injecting the drug is forever holding the singer down.

When asked whether drugs were an aspiration for him in an interview with Classic Rock magazine in July 2014, Perret replied:

“No, it was just an accident.  I never, ever wanted to devote my life to drugs.  I’d starting smoking joints and they relaxed me.  Because I wanted the best hash, I started meeting people that had the best hash.  Gradually, over a couple of years, I met people, started doing it as a business.  I signed on at college and I used to go in at the beginning of each term, get my grant money and start up dealing, then I eventually met people, started importing it.  Then we went over to importing cocaine – it’s a fraction of the size, much easier to smuggle in, and you’re facing the same risks.  All of a sudden, I’m doing the cocaine that used to knock my head off.  That was about 1975, and after that I tried smack.  That was a big mistake because all of a sudden, that was the best feeling I’d ever felt in my life.  That’s why it’s so dangerous.  It’s silly telling people not to take it.  You’ve got to let them know that the reason it’s so dangerous is because it’s the best feeling you’ve had in your life, and it’s so hard not to want it all the time, and if you have it all the time, eventually it stops working and you need it just to be able to function”.

Space Monkey: Ten Songs About Monkeys. Two Monkeys Named Able and Baker Become The First Living Creatures To Survive A Space Flight. This Day in History, 26/05/1959.

1.  Patti Smith ‘Space Monkey’

(from the album Easter, 1978).

2.  Peter Gabriel ‘Shock The Monkey’

(from the album Peter Gabriel, 1982).

3.  Pixies ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’

(from the album Doolittle, 1989).

4.  Toots & The Maytals ‘Monkey Man’

(single A-side, 1969).

5.  Chuck Berry ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

(from the album After School session, 1957).

6.  The Beatles ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’

(from the album The Beatles, 1968).

7.  Ian Brown ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’

(from the album Golden Greats, 1999).

8.  Echo & The Bunnymen ‘Monkeys’

(from the album Crocodiles, 1980).

9.  The Rolling Stones ‘Monkey Man’

(from the album Let It Bleed, 1969).

10. Placebo ‘Space Monkey’

(from the album Meds, 2006).

Space Oddity: Ten Songs About Space Travel. Apollo 13 is Launched, This Day in History, 11/04/1970.

1.  David Bowie ‘Space Oddity’

(from the album Space Oddity, 1969).

2.  The Only Ones ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’

(from the album The Only Ones, 1978).

3.  Legendary Stardust Cowboy ‘I Took A Trip (On A Gemini Spaceship)’

(from the single I Took A Trip (On A Gemini Spaceship) / Down in the Wrecking Yard, 1968).

4.  The Prodigy ‘Out of Space’

(from the album Experience, 1992).

5.  Ash ‘Girl From Mars’

(from the album 1977, 1995).

6.  Pixies ‘Motorway To Roswell’

(from the album Trompe Le Monde, 1991).

7.  The Carpenters ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’

(from the album Passage, 1977).

8.  REM ‘Man On The Moon’

(from the album Automatic For The People, 1992).

9.  Ian Brown ‘My Star’

(from the album Unfinished Monkey Business, 1998).

10.  The Beatles ‘Across The Universe’

(from the album Let It Be, 1970).