Culture Trips

From Eno to Dua Lipa, why musicians are fascinated by outer space | Pop and rock

Nick Rhodes, the most concept-friendly and new-romantic of Duran Duran’s line-up, has been in contemplation. Mostly he’s been thinking about the movements of the heavens and their travelling companion, mythology.

If the gods are angry, this thinking goes, their mood swings might be interpreted celestially, providing a natural hedge against uncertainties. It’s a pastime that’s given druids plenty of work opportunities for millennia and, in recent decades, also rock stars (a term that is itself something of giveaway).

In the past year, Rhodes and experimental artist/musician Wendy Bevan have been reflecting on these matters in Covid seclusion, separated by the cosmically insignificant distance between London and LA. The result is Astronomia I: The Fall of Saturn, the first instalment of a 52-piece, four-part project, which was released on the vernal equinox last month. The next three parts, allegorical in nature, are set for release on the remaining solstices and autumnal equinox of the year.

Covid’s interregnum nudged Rhodes into creative adventure, even though at the start of lockdown he’d resolved to read books, sort out photographs, attend to domestic chores. “I realised this was going to take a while and the only thing to do was relax into it,” he told the Observer. “We looked inwards for a new musical language. It was a freedom from writing pop songs, and inspiring to have only notes to convey what I want to say. It was like finding a new form of some surrealist orchestra.”

Rhodes and Bevan are not alone. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, with its intergalactic rollerblading party hit Levitating, looked in style and lyric beyond the bonds of earth gravity. In February, Grimes told The Face she wanted a “humanoid vessel” to go to Mars, a trip she described as one of the “main things I’m trying to do”. Happy coincidence, then, that her boyfriend is space entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Wherever one stands on concept albums, space fantasy is a longstanding theme, especially for musicians who came of age during the space race and made early forays into prog rock. Hawkwind’s Space is Deep or Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive gave way to Roxy Music and David Bowie, who in turn inspired Jobriath, Sparks’ In Outer Space, Gary Numan and Duran Duran, each to some degree drawn towards a space-age conjunction with showbusiness.

For Rhodes, the founder (with John Taylor) of the enduring 80s band, the big bang was Bowie’s performance (now lost, except for the audio) of Starman on the Granada TV show Lift-Off with Ayshea. “I remember seeing it after rushing home from school and thinking, wow. It’s somewhat of a unicorn because no one can find the videotape,” Rhodes says. For Bowie, space-mining was a repeating theme. His star turn in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth made another connection between space and stardom.

Bowie’s character is asked by a child what he’s doing on the planet. “Oh, just visiting,” he responds.

Some, of course, kept interstellar wanderings going: Brian Eno, for one, produced the soundtrack to the 1983 Apollo-programme documentary that aspired, sonically speaking, to the weightlessness of outer space, and could be found around that time eating Kraft Singles cheese slices at his Maida Vale studio as an astronaut might. Parliament-Funkadelic toured with the P Funk Mothership, a space vehicle belonging to Dr Funkenstein, an alter ego of George Clinton, now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Michael Jackson countered with the moonwalk.

Brian May, Queen’s guitarist, is a co-founder of the annual Asteroid Day; Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson performed a flute duet of Bouree, based on Bach’s Suite in E minor for Lute, with Nasa astronaut Cady Coleman at the International Space Station on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s Earth orbit. It’s hard to imagine a larger theme than the universe, probably because there isn’t one. “You’ve got mythology, Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, astronomy,” Rhodes says with impish glee.

The result, he says, is “orchestral, ambient, ethereal, electronic, abstract, cinematic, mood-music” that can’t be easily pigeon-holed. “We can’t label it ourselves,” he says. For her part, Bevan calls it “a memoir locked into a time capsule – musical notation to be released into the mysterious abyss”.

Pandemic music projects come with historical precedent: Guillaume de Machaut, a French composer who shut himself away during a 14th-century wave of the bubonic plague to compose the first polyphonic mass, Messe de Nostre Dame. Classical music, too, took a new turn during the Spanish flu of 1918 under Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

As Duran Duran prepare to release an album next month, Rhodes says the band (named for the evil genius Dr Durand Durand in the 1967 sci-fi fantasy Barbarella) – has always kept at least a toehold in space. Their debut single, Planet Earth, suggested the new romantics could be looking down from the heavens. “We had every intention of being this art-college peculiarity,” Rhodes told Q magazine in 1993. “The audience we used to play to was really decadent. I mean freak show – bald girls with 10-foot feathers. And suddenly we’ve got 14-year-old girls screaming at us.”

In 2019, they played Nasa’s Cape Canaveral’s Rocket Garden for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. “We are the space-race generation, and that wonder sticks with you,” Rhodes says.

Rhodes is not unduly preoccupied with UFOs or aliens. “I would love for there to be something we truly can’t understand, other than politics,” Rhodes says. “Sadly, I think of viruses as aliens. You can’t see them, we’re under attack, they mutate. It’s like alien warfare.”

The first track on the record is titled The Great Attractor – referring to a theory that the Milky Way is being drawn toward something that astrophysicists can’t fully explain but will probably result in our galaxy’s destruction. “If you start to ponder the mysteries of the universe, you can end up in dark spaces,” he concedes. “I’m interested in the holographic universe. Science to me is a personal religion.”

The conjunction between art and science, then, is not hard to grasp. Rhodes concludes: “Artists are dreamers, and they are driven by the unknown and an urge to discover. Space is the ultimate exploration – but so is travel. That’s in part why we have toured so much. Discovery and wonder is a big part of creativity.”

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