Top Ten Solar Bodies
uter space is trying to kill us.
Me, you, that person you quite fancy—the universe doesn’t care about specifics, it just wants us all dead. Space is either going to chuck a massive bit of rock at our vulnerable globe, or persist with dire celestial warnings until we’ve driven ourselves nuts attempting to interpret symbolic prophecy. Red moon in the sky, we’re all gonna die. That sort of thing.
Viewed from a distance the sheer scale of the cosmos is a thing of wonder and awe. Beyond the pathetic earthly scope of those words, even. But if you were actually up there you’d be too busy exploding your innards all over the place to appreciate much of it; another precious reminder that space cares little for the fragile shells which contain us.
Inevitably, such a complicated mixture of beauty, science, philosophy, time, danger, and jokes about Uranus has prompted all manner of musical expeditions to the stars. So many, in fact, that in order to keep this piece down to just ten tracks I’m establishing some boundaries:
* This is strictly a local Solar System list. No fancy-pants stars, planets, or moons from outside our (comparatively) small club are allowed.Despite the “Top Ten” moniker, the following selections are not based entirely on quality. Some of these tracks I know and love, others I know and they fit the remit in a cunning way, others I’ve recently explored in order to plug a gap. In truth, there may be as many variations on this theme as there are grains of sand upon a beach—but here’s mine:
* One entry for the Sun in recognition of the marvellous contribution towards keeping life on Earth alive, and one entry per planet in order of distance from said Sun. This equals ten, handily enough.
* If you include Pluto as a planet.
* Which, at the risk of invoking terrible ire from the scientific community, I have.
10. Catherine Wheel - Judy Staring at the Sun
Often lumped with the shoegazing set due to the preponderance of swirls on their debut, Catherine Wheel actually dabbled beyond those boundaries. This single from Happy Days managed to touch the pop stratosphere, largely thanks to the delightful vocal contributions of Ms. Tanya Donelly. Despite the intergalactic premise it’s rather an insular affair, detailing the unfortunate private hell of a young lady who apparently consumes heroin faster than small children consume M&Ms. However, inclusion here is assured by the heavily space-themed video (presented in cut-n-paste graphic-o-vision fresh from the mid-‘90s), in which Tanya and Rob Dickinson grab their astronaut gear and zip around in a UFO.
09. Mercury Rev - Tides of the Moon
Yes, that double-whammy title proved impossible to resist (although, sadly, Mercury’s brief ownership of a moon was nothing but an error). Still, Mercury Rev are an outfit with the correct levels of otherwordliness to deal with imaginary objects in the night sky, and Jonathan Donahue’s squeaky falsetto conveys the planet’s unassuming stature rather nicely. In keeping with the close proximity to the sun, the track is frequently beset by what I assume is the guitar feedback equivalent of solar winds. These swell up suddenly, battering the desolate bass-driven plains until the resulting storms expose a surface littered with evidence of elemental bombardment. Then, just as swiftly as it has arisen—at the point where total destruction seems an inevitability—the winds fall still. Silence returns.
08. The Velvet Underground - Venus in Furs
Shiny shiny, shiny planet Venus. Quite why they named it after the Goddess of Love is a mystery—the atmosphere is highly volatile, likely to be deadly and ... oh, right, fair enough then. For years the planet was shrouded in mystery, and it is for this reason that the Velvet’s infamous tale of S&M shenanigans fits like an elbow-length latex glove. Before the inhospitable nature of Venus’ surface was known, sci-fi authors and filmmakers speculated that the thick layers of cloud may conceal a surface inhabitable by human beings. Just as scientific discovery eventually rolled back those clouds and revealed the truth, so too were the Velvet Underground credited (rightly or wrongly) with lifting a veil of innocence from lyrical subject matter. In wildly different ways, both were conduits to the exposure of hidden perils.
07. Earth Wind & Fire - Shining Star
Judging by Earth Wind & Fire’s discography, they were shooting for a Solar Top 10 all of their own. “Sun Goddess,” “Jupiter,” and “Star” were all on offer, but I plumped for the altogether shinier “Shining Star” (since it was a massively successful single and everything). That’s not my entire rationale, however. As well as bringing galactic proportions of funk, “Shining Star” encapsulates considerable amounts of the human condition. No, honestly, it does. Everything from forceful individualism and the Capitalist mythos of striving hard to get your deserved reward, to fluffier concepts of hopes, dreams, and everyone being a special, precious flower. Most importantly, the track features prominently on the crowning artistic achievement of human endeavour; Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Space-archaeologists of the future will be struck dumb with awe when that one emerges from the wreckage.
06. David Bowie - Life On Mars?
Obvious choice? Perhaps. But also too classic to ignore. Nothing to do with time-travelling detectives stuck in the 1970s, BBC fans (though I suppose “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy” could have been an inspiration). More to do, in fact, with an attempted pastiche of “My Way,” if my diligent internet research is anything to go by. The chord sequence certainly supports that theory. As, at a stretch, would the semi-orchestral arrangement. Lyrically, though, it’s a surrealist’s paradise, and therefore either rich in meaning or utterly devoid of sense—depending on how earnestly you choose to interpret the words. Broadly speaking, it does seem to hint at the disintegration of earthly culture, making the subsequent ponderings about Mars feel like a fantasised escape route. Never mind all that though, just listen to those massive kettle drums round off the song with brazen gusto; BOOM BOOM, BOOM BOOM. Fantastic.
05. The Cure - Jupiter Crash
You can make up your own cruel joke about large masses and Robert Smith at this point. Ostensibly linking the Shoemaker-Levy collision with some sort of beach-side sexual encounter, our backcombed hero manages to take this premise in a somewhat unusual direction. Rather than being swept off her feet by either of the “collisions” on offer, the female protagonist is left spectacularly unimpressed; “Was that it? / Was that the Jupiter show? / It kinda wasn't quite what I'd hoped for, you know.” As the languidly plucked guitar strings and sand-shaker percussion die away for the first time, the realization dawns that, rather than hearing a tender love story, you’ve most likely just experienced the tale of a nerdy astronomer and his issues with premature ejaculation.
04. Sun Ra - Saturn
I’d originally pencilled in Stevie Wonder’s “Saturn” here, but after reading this mind-bendingly insightful piece by fellow Stylusite Mr. O’Donnell, I figured the Stevie-and-the-universe angle had pretty much been explored (at least for the next couple of months). Instead then, here’s a jazzy interlude. Unfortunately I am a jazz ignoramus who is only familiar with Abstractions of the Industrial North and, err, the soundtrack to Lucasarts’ Grim Fandango, so you’ll have to bear with me here. My impression is that the combined piano-bothering and full-on horn attack (haphazard rhythms to the fore) would be the perfect accompaniment for any kind of demented dance that involves a lot of arm waving and long skirts. Or possibly for soundtracking increasingly hectic footage of factory workers trying to keep up with an accelerating conveyor belt.
03. Alien Sex Fiend - Drive My Rocket (Up Uranus)
Almost inevitably, every single Uranus track is fresh from the Carry On school of innuendo. Sterling efforts in some quarters to stress the alternative “YUR-inus” pronunciation have, it seems, done little dampen the public demand for puns about arseholes. The redoubtable allmusic.com was swift to offer a variety of options along these lines (“Voyage to Uranus,” “It Came From Uranus” and the magnificent “Anus of Uranus”), but I wanted something with a bit more class. Enter Alien Sex Fiend (oo-er), with a subtle and tasteful portrayal of modern sexual politics set to a light classical backing. Does that sound unlikely? Yes. In reality “Drive My Rocket (Up Uranus)” is a leering, lurching monstrosity from the bowels of the Batcave, which sounds as though it may have been recorded at the bottom of a gigantic milk pail. Conclusive proof that most aliens are nothing more than a pack of filthy probing pervs.
02. Britney Spears - I’m a Slave 4 U
Produced by The Neptunes. Ahh, do you see what I did there? (That’s right—struggled to find a Neptune song). Ahem. Let’s gloss swiftly over that and remember Britney in a happier time, before she thought the Antichrist had possessed her. Times, indeed, when she was harnessing the power of a talented, in-vogue production team and having a number one hit pretty much everywhere. Possibly not on Neptune, but they don’t return chart figures so it’s difficult to be sure. Here she is cooing and crawling all over a selection of carefully chosen beats—one particularly notable bit sounding like sections of hollow plastic tubing being slapped together with a reverberating wobble—stating how independent and grown up she is now. In fact, since she’s so independent, the dependence of metaphorical slavery has been warmly embraced. Ooh, paradoxical.
01. The Creatures - Pluto Drive
To conclude our voyage, a peculiar number plucked from the menagerie of sunshine-and-space that comprises most of Boomerang. The ever-dependable Budgie lays down some spacious rhythms—largely consisting of a repeated, icy synth beat—while Sioux conjures up a hypothetical picture of Plutonian life straight from the pages of a 1950s pulp comic. It’s a strange and somewhat lonely vision, because although the desire to live on Pluto is expressed in an apparently hopeful fashion, the details are desolate and bleak. On “the dot,” it’s “cold and it’s damp” with “oceans of methane and petrified grass.” Not really the ideal holiday destination, no matter how tedious or disgusting Earth has become. Chilly though it may be, this track, like all the rest, is at least a comforting diversion from our imminent and inevitable demise. Space may be trying to murder every single one of us, but at least it’s providing bucketloads of creative material while we wait for the end.