Space, the Final Frontier

Yesterday’s successful landing of NASA’s robotic explorer Perseverance on Mars once again reminds us of humankind’s fascination with distant planets and what’s out there beyond our galaxy. Not surprisingly, many music artists have embraced the theme of space in their songs. The first who always comes to my mind in this context is David Bowie, who repeatedly wrote about the topic in tunes like Space Oddity, Starman, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. There are plenty of additional examples. This playlist features some of these songs, ordered according to their release date.

The Byrds/Mr. Spaceman

While birds cannot fly in space, this didn’t prevent The Byrds from recording this happy-sounding tale about a kid who wakes up from the light of a flying saucer and cheerfully asks the ETs for a space ride. Mr. Spaceman, written by Roger McGuinn, appeared on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension from June 1966.

Pink Floyd/Astrodomine

This Syd Barrett tune, an early example of space rock, was the opener of Pink Floyd’s debut studio album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Released in August 1967, this early phase Floyd gem also featured another track in the same genre: Interstellar Overdrive. I decided to go with the shorter tune! 🙂

The Rolling Stones/2000 Light Years From Home

2000 Light Years from Home is a song from Their Satanic Majesties Request, a lovely psychedelic album by The Rolling Stones, which appeared only a few months after Floyd’s debut in December 1967. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune also became the B-side to the American single She’s a Rainbow that was released in November of the same year. Charmingly weird! 🙂

Steve Miller Band/Space Cowboy

Listening to Space Cowboy by Steve Miller Band was the tune that inspired this post, not the Mars rover, though I guess the timing worked out nicely. Co-written by Steve Miller and the band’s keyboarder at the time Ben Sidrin, the song was included on their third studio album Brave New World that came out in June 1969. The vibe of the main riff is a bit reminiscent of Peter Gunn, the theme music for the American detective TV show of the same name, composed by Henry Mancini in 1958. In 1979, Emerson, Lake & Palmer popularized that theme on their live album Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Concert.

Deep Purple/Space Truckin’

Time to go for some Space Truckin’ with Deep Purple. This track is the closer of the band’s sixth studio album Machine Head from March 1972, which to me remains their Mount Rushmore to this day. Like all remaining tracks on the record, Space Truckin’ was credited to all members of the band: Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Ian Gillan (vocals, harmonica), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion).

Elton John/Rocket Man

One of my all-time favorites by Elton John happens to be related to space as well: Rocket Man, from his fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May 1972. As usual, Sir Elton composed the music while Bernie Taupin provided the lyrics. Honky Château became John’s first no. 1 record in the U.S. He was literally flying on top of the word – six additional no. 1 albums in America would follow in a row!

David Bowie/Starman

I guess 1972 was a year, during which space themes were particularly popular in rock and pop music. In June 1972, only one and three months after Honky Château and Machine Head, respectively, David Bowie released his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I have to say I tend to like him best during his glam rock period, and Ziggy Stardust is my favorite Bowie album. Like all except for one tune, Starman was written by Bowie.

Stevie Wonder/Saturn

Even soul great Stevie Wonder got into the “space business.” Saturn, co-written by Michael Sembello and Wonder, became a bonus track to Songs in the Key of Life, his magnum opus from September 1976.

The Police/Walking on the Moon

The year was 1979 when The Police released their sophomore album Reggatta de Blanc in October. Walking on the Moon, written by Sting, is the first track on the B-side. Yes, this was still pre-CDs, not to mention music streaming! I’ve always liked the reggae vibe of this tune.

R.E.M./Man on the Moon

Let’s wrap up this collection of space-themed songs with Man on the Moon by R.E.M. The tune, a tribute to American comedian and performer Andy Kaufman, was credited to the entire band: Michael Stipe (lead vocals), Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin, bass), Mike Mills (bass, keyboards, accordion, backing vocals) and Bill Berry (drums, percussion, keyboards, melodica, bass, backing vocals). It was recorded for R.E.M.’s eighth studio album Automatic for the People from October 1992. The album became their second major international success after Out of Time that had been released in March 1991.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

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Clips & Pix: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets/See Emily Play

I just came across the above clip of See Emily Play performed by Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. It’s from an upcoming album titled Live at the Roundhouse, which is scheduled for September 18 and will be available as a double-CD/DVD package, double-vinyl and on Blu-ray. The material was taken from concerts the band played at the famous London venue in May 2019.

Nick Mason, of course, is the former co-founder and drummer of Pink Floyd and the band’s only member who played on all of their studio albums. In 2018, he formed Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets together with guitarist Lee Harris. Other members of the band, which takes their name from Floyd’s 1968 sophomore album, include Gary Kemp (guitar, vocals), formerly with Spandau Ballet; Guy Pratt (bass, vocals) and Dom Beken (keyboards).

The idea behind Saucerful is to perform Pink Floyd’s early music prior to the The Dark Side of the Moon album. “We’re not a tribute band,” Mason told Uncut in May 2018. “It’s not important to play the songs exactly as they were, but to capture the spirit.”

Whatever you want to call them, I think it’s great fans of Floyd’s early years including the Syd Barrett era have an opportunity to hear tracks that haven’t been played live for decades like Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, If, The Nile Song and, of course, See Emily Play. Written by Barrett, the tune appeared on Floyd’s debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Now that I’ve watched the clip and other footage that’s on YouTube, I’m starting to regret I didn’t catch the band in April 2019 when they played the Beacon Theatre in New York City. A few weeks earlier, I had seen outstanding tribute band Brit Floyd, so I didn’t feel like going to another show of Pink Floyd music. Due to COVID-19, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets had to reschedule many gigs in England and elsewhere in Europe until next year. Their currently planned schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Uncut; Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets website; YouTube

When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube