Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008

Warren’s a newcomer to Southern fandom but is really shaking up our rebel climes. This is his
first appearance in Challenger.

Space Rock Goes Indie

Warren Buff

Illo by BRAD FOSTER

Back in the glory days of rock, all manner of mainstream bands were doing fannish numbers. Led Zeppelin is so well known for referencing Tolkien that (in a bit of literary roundabout to make a Modernist’s head spin) their music was described on The Venture Brothers as “about love, and longing…yes, and hobbits.” You can’t throw a d4 at a D&D game without hitting a Rush fan. The landscapes of Yes album covers have a definite science fiction vibe to them, although I’m still puzzled by many of the lyrics. Metal kept it going in the 80s with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and lately with bands like Dragonforce and Manowar. But where’s a fan to rock out these days if he’s not in the mood for head-banging?

The answer, as it turns out, is in the underground. Indie rock bands have been tackling fannish themes either full or part time for a while now. This appears to be the case all the way up from local acts through so-called “indie” bands who’ve been signed to majors.

Starting with my local scene, we’ve got a band called SNMNMNM (believe it or not, the letters represent the members’ names). They went on a tour called “The Revenge of the Nerd Tour” with MC Chris last summer. (MC Chris brings us back around to an Adult Swim reference, and has rapped about none other than Boba Fett, too.) Most of their songs are about being a young nerd, but they’ve got one that stands out as positively science fiction. “The Line” is the story of an astronaut (although he could be a cosmonaut or a taikonaut for all we’re told) on the first interplanetary mission from Earth. He describes some of the details of the mission (but leaves out the destination, we’re left to fill in Mars as the most likely candidate), but the real strength of the song is in his angst over what to say when he becomes the first human being to walk on another planet. He laments, “I had the perfect line, and then I realized it wasn’t mine at all.” He feels like he’s living in the shadow of “the last guy” who didn’t even get it right. To top it all off, the song is pretty darn catchy, and has been a staple on my local college radio station since its release. Your best bet for finding more from them is their website, http://snmnmnm.com/media.html

All right, a nerdy band with one truly science fiction song is a start, but my local scene has done them one better. A similarly themed band called 6 Inch Voices, whose gimmick was mostly that they made fun of themselves, sounded like Blink 182, and then made fun of themselves for sounding like Blink 182 (they once played a show that was just a Blink 182 album, front to back, to see if anyone would notice) formed a splinter group called The Sons of Gondor. And they pretty much played in the style they’d developed (borrowed?), but sang songs about Middle Earth. And the indie scene enjoyed it. They’ve got a page up on MySpace at www.myspace.com/sonsofgondor

On a more national level, the internet-based musician Jonathan Coulton has quite a few fannish songs, most prominently “re: Your Brains”. The song comes from the point of view of that annoying middle-management guy down the hall, Bob, only now he’s a zombie. He tries to argue his way into a locked room, basing his case on the inevitability of the situation, and how busy everyone is, and off-handedly reminds the living of such minor details as “you’re all gonna die / screaming.” The chorus of the song is brilliant, with a zombie mob chanting “All we wanna do is eat your brains,” followed by Bob’s reassurance that “we’re not unreasonable, I mean no one’s gonna eat your eyes.” The song’s a blast, and decidedly more fannish than “The Line.” Coulton has made most of his music available online on a fairly open model (listen for free, download any track for a buck, or get package deals) at http://www.jonathancoulton.com/ His open attitude toward fair use has also led to many amateur music videos of “re: Your Brains” and other songs popping up all over the web.

Finally I’d like to look at the Flaming Lips, who’ve been kicking around for almost twenty years, and have put out a number of good albums on both indie and national labels. Their most recent two albums, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With the Mystics, are both concept albums with fairly science fiction themes. Yoshimi is particularly appealing, with its story of a karate-trained city employee who must fight off the attacks of giant robots. While this theme comes straight out of anime, it also functions as a metaphor for a friend’s struggle with cancer (which isn’t particularly clearly stated in the album itself, but then, there’s nothing in Tommy that indicates what Tommy saw, and when I learned that Pete Townsend had said it was a murder, I felt a little let-down). Yoshimi isn’t just appealing to me as a fan, though – it’s solid (if a little psychedelic) pop, and despite the underground status of the Flaming Lips, a great commercial success, and their first gold record. To top it off, according to Pitchfork, Yoshimi is being adapted into a Broadway musical.

The Lips followed Yoshimi up with Mystics, continuing in science fiction themes, to even greater success – it narrowly missed the US top 10, topping off at #11, and reached #6 on the British charts. It also garnered the Lips two Grammys and another nomination. While it clearly resides in the vein of fantasy, it’s another solid album, and proof that science fiction material can be vastly successful in the music market. The Flaming Lips can be somewhat difficult to listen to for the casual rocker who’d prefer to zone out with something in the background, but are quite rewarding to the attentive listener. Thanks to the commercial success of these albums, you can find them in your local record store and national chain booksellers.

We may never quite get another stadium-rock band as blatantly interested in science fiction as Blue Öyster Cult (“Veteran of the Psychic Wars”, “Godzilla”) or Styx (“Mr. Roboto”, “Come Sail Away”), and it would be far beyond reason to ask for another Queen, but there’s still hope for good science fiction rock. Rather than being edgy and aggressive, science fiction rock has now passed into the realm of intellectuals and hipsters, leaving behind the stadiums for the smoky basement clubs. It takes a little more work to find good science fiction in rock and roll these days, and a lot of it relies on fans passing it along to fans, but then, isn’t that the way it used to be?

 

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