JANUARY 9, 2019
DURING THE POSTWAR PERIOD, the genres of the fantastic — especially science fiction — have been deeply intertwined with the genres of popular music, especially rock ’n’ roll. Both appeal to youthful audiences, and both make the familiar strange, seeking escape in enchantment and metamorphosis. As Steppenwolf sang in 1968: “Fantasy will set you free […] to the stars away from here.” Two recent books — one a nonfiction survey of 1970s pop music, the other a horror novel about heavy metal — explore this heady intermingling of rock and the fantastic.
As Jason Heller details in his new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, the magic carpet rides of the youth counterculture encompassed both the amorphous yearnings of acid rock and the hard-edged visions of science fiction. In Heller’s account, virtually all the major rock icons — from Jimi Hendrix to David Crosby, from Pete Townshend to Ian Curtis — were avid SF fans; not only was their music strongly influenced by Heinlein, Clarke, Ballard, and other authors, but it also amounted to a significant body of popular SF in its own right. As Heller shows, many rock stars were aspiring SF writers, while established authors in the field sometimes wrote lyrics for popular bands, and a few became rockers themselves. British fantasist Michael Moorcock, for example, fronted an outfit called The Deep Fix while also penning songs for — and performing with — the space-rock group Hawkwind (once memorably described, by Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, as “Star Trek with long hair and drugs”).
Heller’s book focuses on the “explosion” of SF music during the 1970s, with chapters chronicling, year by year, the exhilarating debut of fresh music subcultures — prog rock, glam rock, Krautrock, disco — and their saturation with themes of space/time travel, alien visitation, and futuristic (d)evolution. He writes, “’70s pop culture forged a special interface with the future.” Many of its key songs and albums “didn’t just contain sci-fi lyrics,” but they were “reflection[s] of sci-fi” themselves, “full of futuristic tones and the innovative manipulation of studio gadgetry” — such as the vocoder, with its robotic simulacrum of the human voice. Heller’s discussion moves from the hallucinatory utopianism of the late 1960s to the “cool, plastic futurism” of the early 1980s with intelligence and panache.
The dominant figure in Heller’s study is, unsurprisingly, David Bowie, the delirious career of whose space-age antihero, Major Tom, bookended the decade — from “Space Oddity” in 1969 to “Ashes to Ashes” in 1980. Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a full-blown SF extravaganza, its freaky starman representing “some new hybrid of thespian rocker and sci-fi myth,” but it had a lot of company during the decade. Heller insightfully analyzes a wide range of SF “concept albums,” from Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire (1970), the first rock record to be nominated for a Hugo Award, to Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1975), which “reprogramm[ed] funk in order to launch it into tomorrow,” to Gary Numan and Tubeway Army’s Replicas (1979), an album “steeped in the technological estrangement and psychological dystopianism of Dick and Ballard.”
Heller’s coverage of these peaks of achievement is interspersed with amusing asides on more minor, “novelty” phenomena, such as “the robot dance craze of the late ’60s and early ’70s,” and compelling analyses of obscure artists, such as French synthesizer wizard Richard Pinhas, who released (with his band Heldon) abrasive critiques of industrial society — for example, Electronique Guerilla (1974) — while pursuing a dissertation on science fiction under the direction of Gilles Deleuze at the Sorbonne. He also writes astutely about the impact of major SF films on the development of 1970s pop music: Monardo’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk (1977), for example, turned the cantina scene from Star Wars into a synth-pop dance-floor hit. At the same time, Heller is shrewdly alert to the historical importance of grassroots venues such as London’s UFO Club, which incubated the early dimensional fantasies of Pink Floyd and the off-the-wall protopunk effusions of the Deviants (whose frontman, Mick Farren, had a long career as an SF novelist and, in 1978, released an album with my favorite title ever: Vampires Stole My Lunch Money). Finally, Heller reconstructs some fascinating, but sadly abortive, collaborations — Theodore Sturgeon working to adapt Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships” as a screenplay, Paul McCartney hiring Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry to craft a story about Wings. In some alternative universe, these weird projects came to fruition.
Heller’s erudition is astonishing, but it can also be overwhelming, drowning the reader in a welter of minutiae about one-hit wonders and the career peregrinations of minor talents. In his acknowledgments, Heller thanks his editor for helping him convert “an encyclopedia” into “a story,” but judging from the format of the finished product, this transformation was not fully complete: penetrating analyses frequently peter out into rote listings of albums and bands. There is a capping discography, but it is not comprehensive and is, strangely, organized by song title rather than by artist. The index is similarly unhelpful, containing only the proper names of individuals; one has to know, for instance, who Edgar Froese or Ralf Hütter are in order to locate the relevant passages on Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, respectively.
That said, there is no gainsaying the magisterial authority displayed in assertions such as: “The first fully formed sci-fi funk song was ‘Escape from Planet Earth’ by a vocal quartet from Camden, New Jersey, called the Continental Four.” And who else has even heard of — much less listened to — oddments like 1977’s Machines, “the sole album by the mysterious electronic group known as Lem,” who “likely took their name from sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem of Solaris fame”? Anyone interested in either popular music or science fiction of the 1970s will find countless nuggets of sheer delight in Strange Stars, and avid fans, after perusing the volume, will probably go bankrupt hunting down rare vinyl on eBay.
While Heller’s main focus is the confluence of rock ’n’ roll and science fiction, he occasionally addresses the influence of popular fantasy on major music artists of the decade. Marc Bolan, of T. Rex fame, was, we learn, a huge fan of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, while prog-rock stalwarts Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer managed “to combine science fiction and fantasy, fusing them into a metaphysical, post-hippie meditation on the nature of reality.” What’s missing from the book, however, is any serious discussion of the strain of occult and dark fantasy that ran through 1960s and ’70s rock, the shadows cast by Aleister Crowley and H. P. Lovecraft over Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and (yes) Bowie himself. After all, Jim Morrison’s muse was a Celtic high priestess named Patricia Kennealy who went on, following the death of her Lizard King, to a career as a popular fantasy author. Readers interested in this general topic should consult the idiosyncratic survey written by Gary Lachman, a member of Blondie, entitled Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (2001).
Heller does comment, in passing, on an incipient musical form that would, during the 1980s, emerge as the dark-fantasy genre par excellence: heavy metal. Though metal was, as Heller states, “just beginning to awaken” in the 1970s, his book includes sharp analyses of major prototypes such as Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (1970), Blue Öyster Cult’s Tyranny and Mutation (1973), and the early efforts of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. This was the technocratic lineage of heavy metal, the segment of the genre most closely aligned with science fiction, especially in its dystopian modes, and which would come to fruition, during the 1980s, in classic concept albums like Voivod’s Killing Technology (1987) and Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime (1988).
But the 1980s also saw the emergence of more fantasy-oriented strains, such as black, doom, and death metal, whose rise to dominance coincided with the sudden explosion in popularity of a fantastic genre that had, until that time, largely skulked in the shadow of SF and high fantasy: supernatural horror. Unsurprisingly, the decade saw a convergence of metal music and horror fiction that was akin to the 1970s fusion of rock and SF anatomized in Strange Stars. Here, as elsewhere, Black Sabbath was a pioneer, their self-titled 1970 debut offering a potent brew of pop paganism culled equally from low-budget Hammer films and the occult thrillers of Dennis Wheatley. By the mid-1980s, there were hundreds of bands — from Sweden’s Bathory to England’s Fields of the Nephilim to the pride of Tampa, Florida, Morbid Angel — who were offering similar fare. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos inspired songs by Metallica, Mercyful Fate, and countless other groups — including Necronomicon, a German thrash-metal outfit whose name references a fictional grimoire featured in several of the author’s stories.
By the same token, heavy metal music deeply influenced the burgeoning field of horror fiction. Several major 1980s texts treated this theme overtly: the doom-metal outfit in George R. R. Martin’s The Armageddon Rag (1983) is a twisted emanation of the worst impulses of the 1960s counterculture; the protagonist of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat (1985) is a Gothic rocker whose performances articulate a pop mythology of glamorous undeath; and the mega-cult band in John Skipp and Craig Spector’s splatterpunk classic The Scream (1988) are literal hell-raisers, a Satanic incarnation of the most paranoid fantasies of Christian anti-rock zealots. The heady conjoining of hard rock with supernaturalism percolated down from these best sellers to the more ephemeral tomes that packed the drugstore racks during the decade, an outpouring of gory fodder affectionately surveyed in Grady Hendrix’s award-winning study Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction (2017). Hendrix, himself a horror author of some note, has now published We Sold Our Souls (2018), the quintessential horror-metal novel for our times.
Hendrix has stated that, prior to embarking on this project, he was not “a natural metal fan”:
I was scared of serious metal when I was growing up. Slayer and Metallica intimidated me, and I was too unsophisticated to appreciate the fun of hair metal bands like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister, so I basically sucked. […] But I got really deep into metal while writing We Sold Our Souls and kind of fell in love.
The author’s immersion in — and fondness for — the genre is evident on every page of his new novel. Chapters are titled using the names of classic metal albums: “Countdown to Extinction” (Megadeth, 1992), “From Enslavement to Obliteration” (Napalm Death, 1988), “Twilight of the Gods” (Bathory, 1991), and so on. The effect is to summon a hallowed musical canon while at the same time evoking the story’s themes and imparting an emotional urgency to its events. These events also nostalgically echo 1980s rock-horror novels: like The Armageddon Rag, Hendrix’s plot chronicles the reunion of a cult outfit whose breakup decades before was enigmatically fraught; like The Scream, it features a demonic metal band that converts its worshipful fans into feral zombies; like The Vampire Lestat, it culminates in a phantasmagoric stadium concert that erupts into a brutal orgy of violence. Yet despite these pervasive allusions, the novel does not come across as mere pastiche: it has an energy and authenticity that make it feel quite original.
A large part of that originality lies in its protagonist. As the cock-rock genre par excellence, its blistering riffs and screeching solos steeped in adolescent testosterone, heavy metal has had very few notable female performers. But one of them, at least in Hendrix’s fictive history, was Kris Pulaski, lead guitarist of Dürt Würk, a legendary quintet from rural Pennsylvania that abruptly dissolved, under mysterious circumstances, in the late 1990s, just as they were poised for national fame. Kris was a scrappy bundle of nerves and talent, a kick-ass songwriter and a take-no-prisoners performer:
She had been punched in the mouth by a straight-edge vegan, had the toes of her Doc Martens kissed by too many boys to count, and been knocked unconscious after catching a boot beneath the chin from a stage diver who’d managed to do a flip into the crowd off the stage at Wally’s. She’d made the mezzanine bounce like a trampoline at Rumblestiltskins, the kids pogoing so hard flakes of paint rained down like hail.
But that was eons ago. As the story opens, she is staffing the night desk at a Best Western, burned out at 47, living in a broken-down house with her ailing mother and trying to ignore “the background hum of self-loathing that formed the backbeat of her life.” She hasn’t seen her bandmates in decades, since she drunkenly crashed their tour van and almost killed them all, and hasn’t picked up a guitar in almost as long, constrained by the terms of a draconian contract she signed with Dürt Würk’s former lead singer, Terry Hunt, who now controls the band’s backlist. While Kris has lapsed into brooding obscurity, Hunt has gone on to global success, headlining a “nu metal” outfit called Koffin (think Korn or Limp Bizkit) whose mainstream sound Kris despises: “It was all about branding, fan outreach, accessibility, spray-on attitude, moving crowds of white kids smoothly from the pit to your merch booth.” It was the exact opposite of genuine metal, which “tore the happy face off the world. It told the truth.”
To inject a hint of authenticity into Koffin’s rampant commodification, Hunt occasionally covers old Dürt Würk hits. But he avoids like the plague any songs from the band’s long-lost third album, Troglodyte, with their elaborate mythology of surveillance and domination:
[T]here is a hole in the center of the world, and inside that hole is Black Iron Mountain, an underground empire of caverns and lava seas, ruled over by the Blind King who sees everything with the help of his Hundred Handed Eye. At the root of the mountain is the Wheel. Troglodyte was chained to the Wheel along with millions of others, which they turned pointlessly in a circle, watched eternally by the Hundred Handed Eye.
Inspired by the arrival of a butterfly that proves the existence of a world beyond his bleak dungeon, Troglodyte ultimately revolts against Black Iron Mountain, overthrowing the Blind King and leading his fellow slaves into the light.
One might assume that Hunt avoids this album because the scenario it constructs can too readily be perceived as an allegory of liberation from the consumerist shackles of Koffin’s nu-metal pablum. That might be part of the reason, but Hunt’s main motivation is even more insidious: he fears Troglodyte because its eldritch tale is literally true — Koffin is a front for a shadowy supernatural agency that feeds on human souls, and Dürt Würk’s third album holds the key to unmasking and fighting it. This strange reality gradually dawns on Kris, and when Koffin announces plans for a massive series of concerts culminating in a “Hellstock” festival in the Nevada desert, she decides to combat its infernal designs with the only weapon she has: her music. Because “a song isn’t a commercial for an album. It isn’t a tool to build name awareness or reinforce your brand. A song is a bullet that can shatter your chains.”
This bizarre plot, like the concept albums by Mastodon or Iron Maiden it evokes, runs the risk of collapsing into grandiloquent absurdity if not carried off with true conviction. And this is Hendrix’s key achievement in the novel: he never condescends, never winks at the audience or tucks his tongue in cheek. Like the best heavy metal, We Sold Our Souls is scabrous and harrowing, its pop mythology fleshed out with vividly gruesome set pieces, as when Kris surprises the Blind King’s minions at their ghastly repast:
Its fingernails were black and it bent over Scottie, slobbering up the black foam that came boiling out of his mouth. Kris […] saw that the same thing was crouched over Bill, a starved mummy, maggot-white, its skin hanging in loose folds. A skin tag between its legs jutted from a gray pubic bush, bouncing obscenely like an engorged tick. […] Its gaze was old and cold and hungry and its chin dripped black foam like a beard. It sniffed the air and hissed, its bright yellow tongue vibrating, its gums a vivid red.
The irruption of these grisly horrors into an otherwise mundane milieu of strip malls and franchise restaurants and cookie-cutter apartments is handled brilliantly, on a par with the best of classic splatterpunk by the likes of Joe R. Lansdale or David J. Schow.
Hendrix also, like Stephen King, has a shrewd feel for true-to-life relationships, which adds a grounding of humanity to his cabalistic flights. Kris’s attempts to reconnect with her alienated bandmates — such as erstwhile drummer JD, a wannabe Viking berserker who has refashioned his mother’s basement into a “Metalhead Valhalla” — are poignantly handled, and the hesitant bond she develops with a young Koffin fan named Melanie has the convincing ring of post-feminist, intergenerational sisterhood. Throughout the novel, Hendrix tackles gender issues with an intrepid slyness, from Kris’s brawling tomboy efforts to fit into a male-dominated world to Melanie’s frustration with her lazy, lying, patronizing boyfriend, with whom she breaks up in hilarious fashion:
She screamed. She broke his housemate’s bong. She Frisbee-d the Shockwave [game] disc so hard it left a divot in the kitchen wall. She raged out of the house as his housemates came back from brunch.
“Dude,” they said to Greg as he jogged by them, “she is so on the rag.”
“Are we breaking up?” Greg asked, clueless, through her car window.
It took all her self-control not to back over him as she drove off.
Such scenes of believable banality compellingly anchor the novel’s febrile horrors, as do the passages of talk-radio blather interspersed between the chapters, which remind us that conspiratorial lunacy is always only a click of the AM dial away.
While obviously a bit of a throwback, We Sold Our Souls shows that the 1980s milieu of heavy metal and occult horror — of bootleg cassettes and battered paperbacks — continues to have resonance in our age of iPods and cell-phone apps. It also makes clear that the dreamy confluence of rock and the fantastic so ably anatomized in Heller’s Strange Stars is still going strong.