By Jennifer Elizabeth Rose (Social/Cultural Writer and Music/Arts Historian)
Experimental rock evolved into Psychedelic rock with artists like Syd Barrett in the 1960’s. After his departure from Pink Floyd, new lead guitarist, David Gilmore, helped solidify another subgenre offshoot and the 70’s brought progressive and psychedelic rock outfits such as Pink Floyd and Hawkwind to the foreground as they evolved into Space Rock. Space Rock which was characterized by increased instrumental passages (especially on keyboard/synthesizers) inspired by the science fiction themes and soundtrack music of the day and/or astronomy.
Delia Derbyshire, famous for her composition of the Doctor Who theme song was also a premier influential composer of other music within experimental genres in addition to being a great captivator and sonic painter of the beyond for incidental music in TV and film. Brian Eno, known as both a composer and a rock songwriter, was a major player as well. As for pop/rock songwriters they began to follow suit and added elements, but it is perhaps the lyrical themes that became the most influential, which became evident in other subgenres of rock such as folk rock (Donovan, Cat Stevens) and glam rock (T. Rex and David Bowie, whom worked with Eno.) In fact, the enchantment of space travel and the science fiction that British kids were being raised on became paramount in David Bowie’s most successful records, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Space Oddity. And as Pink Floyd declared themselves Space rock in the70’s, Derbyshire’s Doctor Who theme could be often heard in some variation on the synth parts in performances of “One of These Days,” from 1971’s Meddle.
More and more pop and mainstream radio rock was also being affected. Even before Gilmour made the decidedly Space rock turn with Pink Floyd after Barrett’s Psychedelic/early Space rock departure, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Steve Miller Band wrote songs with similar themes. Indeed, it became a cultural phenomenon more than a musical one. Perhaps the race for space during this period in history influenced this tendency.
Just like with any political movement in history, cultural and artistic history is often the victim of bandwagon mentalities and the genre suffered a marked decline in popularity until the 90’s with the exception of being cleverly evolved and disguised within Progressive rock (Rush, Yes) and Art rock.
Space rock began as an English phenomenon, and as such it saw its eventual revival in the late 80’s in British alternative rock bands which others could not describe the general sound as spacey or ambient. British bands such as Radiohead, Amplifier, Oceansize, Porcupine Tree, Kasabian, and Mugstar held these elements dearly into the 90’s and American bands went onto as well. Autolux, Hopesfall, Lumerians,The Secret Machines, The Mars Volta, The Boxing Lesson, Cloudland Canyon, Angels & Airwaves, Tool and Zombi are prime examples, though they all fall into some varying sub-subgenres which begin to split hairs, they are all “spacey” bands.
In the 90’s the term resurfaced to describe the many bands that were labeled as
alternative rock bands but that (specifically) British and American audiences craved a bit more specifics in explanations to others. Shoegazing, stoner rock/metal (sludge) and dream/noise pop acts often saw greater success when sometimes using the words “space” and/or “spacey” to describe their sounds so fans could know what other bands they might enjoy. Kyuss, Slowdive, The Verve, My Bloody Valentine, Flying Saucer Attack, Loop, Ride, Shiner (band),The Flaming Lips, Failure,Year of the Rabbit, Cave In, Sun Dial, Hum, Orange Goblin, Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, and Mercury Rev employed the hallmark layers of sonic walls, textures and of course experimentation and many classified themselves as space rock or offshoot, dream pop before the term shoegaze and its sub-subgenres were even a thought.
Nowadays, although it is a more reputable descriptive term for many acts, the term only seems to be used by bands that decidedly use it. Other common descriptions indeed make it obvious that there is a blur in the experimental subgenres. The Flowers of Hell, Comets on Fire,and Flotation Toy Warningall of which who employ the old elements of 60’s/70’s Space rock in their own original ways. Seattle band, Lazer Kitty has a wonderful sound and a performance video of theirs can be seen below as well as a few other tracks that chronicle pivotal points in space rock.
Pink Floyd – One of These Days
Pink Floyd – Careful with that Ax, Eugene
Gong – Flying Teapot
Gong – I Never Glid Before
Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
The Verve – Slide Away
Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet
Lazer Kitty – Hyperion
In addition to this list other Picks of the Week that were played on air for this subgenre can be found on the Raw Alternative’s Facebook Page.