From Aural Innovations #8 (October 1999)
[Ed. Note: I was so pleased with Steve Sneyd's contribution last issue that I decided to make this an informal series featuring a rotating cast of "Outbound Muse's". This issue Don Falcone contributes his knowledge and experience of the power of the word. Feedback on this series would be most welcome.]
In search of space poetry? Or maybe you're partaking a songwork by your favorite space music jugglers and stumble into an eerie voice speaking as if dissecting a long lost tome. And your brainwave meters give you a 100% reading that the voice is not singing. Chances are you've just been blessed or victimized by what many of us call a space poem. The average audio spacephile journeys into space to discover new instrumental musings, maybe even prophetic lyrics. But this journey seldom considers other linguistic alternatives. Until... Bang! In your face. Poetry. Alive and well in space and other musical rocks: from Arthur Brown to Vangelis and beyond. Believe it or not :)
In last issue's Dispatch, Steve Sneyd briefly covered one of the main literary links to space rock, sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock, and he reviewed the works of space poet and Hawklord Bob Calvert. We also were presented with the concept that space themes include all things fiction — sci-fi, horror, fantasy, mind-fiction, and any other fiction that delves into the unknown. With these pieces in place, we can continue to dig and find additional pieces to the space rock 'n' poetry puzzle; along the way there will be ample opportunity to consider the potentials of this art form for future generations. The First Of Many Ravens, Freighters, & Hawks. Let's identify some songs that incorporate a living breathing poem, i.e., a literary work that scholars of past and present accept as bona fide poetry.
There's horror genre aplenty in The Alan Parsons Project (still performing live and recently eternalized in Austin Powers installment 2). On Parson's "Tales Of Mystery And Imagination," the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe are in actuality reinterpreted. While there's no "Lenore" in the 20th century song of "The Raven," the dark poetic flavor remains as does "Quoth The Raven Nevermore." However, on Poe's classic "Tell-Tale Heart," space commander Arthur Brown — the voice behind some of the poetry on Calvert's "Lockheed" masterpiece — is left to perform his trademark madcap vocals with basic rock lyrics.
Within this same time period, Hawkwinder Bob Calvert acknowledged inspiration from Bertold Brecht's "sprechtesang" (speechsong) "which gives a very Germanic feel to our machine-gun lyrics." For a real dose of Brecht poetry in rock, look for folksters Steeleye Span and their 1976 offering "Storm Force Ten." They cover two of his pieces here, including "Black Freighter" from the play Three Penny Opera; neither horror or sci-fi, "and the ship the Black Freighter, runs a flag up her masthead, and cheer rings the air" nonetheless takes us for a nice romp through Victorian England.
Note that both Alan Parsons and Steeleye Span take lines of poetry and sing. Poetry doesn't always rear itself as spoken word.
Behind The Least Expected Rock: One could say that taking existing poetry and incorporating it into a musical work is an example (albeit loosely) of found poetry (whether licensed, or borrowed). A more recent and non-sung use of existing poems appears on the new Spirits Burning CD. While a mic was being prepped for Daevid Allen to perform voiceovers to the CD's final track, he picked up my college thesis (bound in a scholastic blue with title and author name on the side) and started reading aloud. By the time I was ready to record, he asked if I was ok with him reading passages from various poems. While none of the poems were inherently spacey, his performance and the music were. In one sitting, he covered some of my favorite sound and language poetry ("Ba ba branch, fair in the for us ba ba"; "Dig, dig a thee, dig a thee, dig a thee earth"), all the while effortlessly improvising his way through crisp pages and for him, what were likely virgin words. With a nod to the freeform improvs of jazz and a wink to the spirit of the modern poetry slam. The resultant piece is a collage of found poetry.
Besides using existing works in a song, be it sung or talked, there's a less obvious citing of poetry in the space rock environment: a poem that appears in the liner notes, but does not reveal itself in the audio. Farflung recently based an entire album on the "Raven Swallows The Moon" poem by sometime Hawkwind lyricist Roger Neville-Neil. The poem appears in its entirety in the liner notes. In a like manner, when I did the first Spaceship Eyes CD, I decided to do instrumentals with occasional voice samples. But no live performances of words. So I included a related poem on the CD disk itself.
Using voice samples is often like adding a single sound effect. But what happens when samples are stringed together, or developed over time? If you use voices to create a running text, is there a point where the voices can be considered a narrative collage, or prose poem? Maybe we should go back and listen to those early Orb tracks, and reevaluate Rickie Lee Jone's dialogue about her past and its "little fluffy clouds." Have her words been reincarnated into a prosaic collage poem now that's it's no longer an interview? Or, for a real scare, listen to Illegal Art's recent CD which originates entirely from film samples. Entitled "extracted celluloid," there's one track that could totally change your mind on the power of resampling and how one can create anew: Natasha Spencer's "The House She Flew In On" takes samples from "The Wizard Of Oz," rearranging them to create an intense and serious take on child abuse.
Another possible source for found poetry is graffiti. Robert Calvert got the title for Hawkwind's "Urban Guerilla" from a London street. But to date, I know of no one using graffiti to make up the entire text for a rock piece, let alone a spacerock number. Perhaps the space poet of the future...
So, poetry is often closer than we think. Poems appear in the artwork. Famous poets appear in the credits. In fact, the poet might even be in the band. Rock history features a number of well-respected musician-poets from Jim Morrison to Patti Smith. Give a new listen to the Doors and "The Celebration Of The Lizard." Or, for a spacier flavor than her usual fare, check out Patti Smith's contribution to Blue Oyster Cult's "Career of Evil." You might hear a fire you missed the first time around.
Who's Responsible For The Voices In My Head?: Many have heard the call: "I am the God of Hellfire." But if you back click your CD, or pick up the phono arm and move it rightwards, you'll get a full-fledged dose of Arthur Brown's "Fire Poem." The year is 1968, a few months after The Moody Blues and their "Days Of Future Passed." Where the presentation of the prelude/outro poems for "Days" seems rather sweet 'n' mild for its content — "Cold hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colours from our sight" — Brown's "Fire Poem" truly dances; from a hippie prance to a drugged out scary. Brown calls it a poem, so let's treat it as such.
"As I was lying in the grass, by a river, and as I lay, the grass turned to sand, and the river turned to a sea." These lines are part of Fire's early play. Soon, the sea is "bursting into flames" and our narrator is on "fire." There are elements in Brown's performance here, that could influence the best laid plans of poetry in music, but unfortunately do not.
First off, "Fire Poem" does not rhyme. Brown has broken the lyric format molded into most music, that while obvious in modern poetry circles, more often does not occur in space rock poetry. One reason is that many sci-fi rock songwriters are schooled (self-taught singing along) with song lyrics (be they rock, folk, church or otherwise), or the poetry they do remember from schooling away from speakers is mostly the rhyming poetry of decades ago. Hence, if you're not aware that you don't have to rhyme, you might never attempt non-rhyming lines.
Secondly, Brown, is an early performance artist, dressing in costumes, acting out many of his songs. This translates well into his talked lines. They could easily have been performed as monotone prose poems, or even forever on the edge, but he allows the piece to develop and applies higher dynamics to later lines, ever so close to over doing the intensity (like a highwire poet). Again, the modern space poet might do well to understand that it's good to emote, and expressively personify the words. For best effect, neither drowning in self-monotone or self-exaggeration (e.g., if every spoken word is presented at maximum intensity, the words eventually flatten, and are stripped of their value).
Brown also affects his text with bits of sound poetry devices, voicing certain words with their real-world sound counterparts. When he says 'Fire in your brain' the word 'fire' sizzles; the inflections help the listener feel the heat as well. As the piece moves towards it's famous line, he infuses extra dimensionality into sucking/writhing/burning/falling. Yes, there's a bit of preacher in Brown, but some of the best poetry in space music is spiritual in nature. By giving weight to the performance, Brown gives reason to this particular poem.
In Brown's next incarnation with Kingdom Come, the poetry is replaced with a theater of the absurd — with Brown, guitarist Dalby and others often chiming in with a sundry of other voiced characterizations. And the preacher never disappears: Kingdom Come's "Galactic Zoo Dossier" nails the religious symbolism head on, with "In my own image, by my will, do I hereby create, all forms and distinctions... bring forth the FORMS!" Throughout each musical permutation, Brown is free from the trappings of an electric instrument. Whether it's poetry, lyrics, or rock theater, Arthur Brown, like Calvert, and even the distant and earlier works of Peter Gabriel, is always free to dramatize the word. Perhaps future space poets should consider this as well.
Years later, Brown performs a piece that mirrors the technique of Calvert's "petrol d'allah/petrol dollar" lines of Hawkwind's "Hassan I Sahba." On "Arthur Brown, Requiem," we hear "Busha Busha Bushatelegrapha." These are slight, but nice cases of language and sound poetry sprinkled into space music. There's also a sense of language poetry in some of Gong's playful treks through all things Gong, but a hidden patriot of language poetry can be found deeper into France with Magma, born in the early 70's, recently resurrected for worldwide tours. Leader Christian Vander created a new world dubbed "Kobaia," with a language of the same name. He and his co-vocalists perform this unknown language over blistering zeuhl spacerock improvisations in a vocal style sometimes akin to the better-known Phillip Glass Ensemble, but less minimal. Language poetry lives and dies by the feelings it arouses. Try reciting aloud the first lines of "Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh": HUR, DEH ANTZIK KOHNTARKOSZ KREUHN KORMAHN, STOHT WURDAH MELEKAAHM." Using sung voices, Magma is able to present a wide craft of emotions from within the text of their foreign message, taking us to the top of unspeakable structures, then nose-diving back down and into a valley of more unknowns. The new space poetry might turn out to be a melting pot of more than just styles, but of many languages too.
Chariots of Fire, Poetry For The Gods: Poetry can seem out of place and lost in lyric-based rock music. Or vice versa. When variety show stars recite rock lyrics to symphonied backdrops, it does not promote either artform. The displacement — even when the words really are poetry and the music really does rock — is often because it appears that the poem was added as an afterthought. Or, that there was little thought at all. That's why some of the best poetry-in-music works are by artists that grab poetry and use it regularly, be it on a singular long recording, or throughout a portion of their musical lives. They continue to understand that the context is just as important as the poetry itself.
Vangelis O Pappathanassiou is best-known for his filmwork compositions — Chariots Of Fire and Bladerunner — or even his musical escapades with Jon Anderson. Listen to his early work and you'll find continual good usage of poetry. What's more, the music is a type of space rock that has rarely been attempted or perfected: bits of Greek folk scales and sounds, voicings of all types, mixed with synths, other keys, and lots and lots of percussion (some by Vangelis himself).
In the album "666" by Aphrodite's Child, Vangelis' compositions and the poetry and text of Costas Ferris blend. Soon after the album opens, a light piano, akin to the lightness of being in the musical "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown," is joined by a youthful male voice: "The day the walls of the city, will crumble away, uncovering our naked souls, we'll all start singing, shouting, screaming." Then a choir, in soft irony, answers quietly in soft song with the title: "loud, loud, loud, loud." Vangelis, the producer, has mixed a narrative poetry with a choir of voices.
After two Greek space trips, side one closes with another poem. This time the piano's innocence is mystified with effected guitar and synth. An adult speaks the lines: "we saw the souls, we saw the martyrs, we heard them crying..." Side two continues all of these themes. Again there is a choir throughout, matching the keys with vocalized tied whole notes; the choir eventually sounds as if it's imitating the grit of the sometimes present analog synth or even a 'nowhere to be found' primitive digeridoo. The music has expanded: guitar and drums kick in, retreat, then return. When the voice finally enters, it is slightly buried in the depths of the mix. The voice is low-pitched, telephone-EQ'd with a touch of reverberation. The poem moves from the previous 'we' to 'I': "I saw the souls, I saw the martyrs, I heard them crying..." The listener is taken deeper into this album, deeper into the text. Poetry and music further married.
"666" features other production touches: "Seven Bowls" melds a dark and sparse ambient band performance with a witch-like multi-voice chant. "Altamont" is more severe in its production. The heavy music dips down at one point to let in the words — "This is the sight, we had one day, on the High Mountain, We saw a lamb with seven eyes, we saw a beast with seven horns..." When the text ends, the music rises back up.
Side four of "666" is one of the best kept secrets in space and prog. The poems, lyrics, and music of the first three sides blend into a new ongoing piece named "All The Seats Were Occupied." Not a medley. But a collage. The poetry of the sides past, fully reinvented in its final context.
The Road That Leads To Hear. The ability to levitate us through words, take us where we've never been. There are other musician-poets who have done so in the space rock soundstage. For one album, Nik Turner entered Egypt's mindset and revisited a culture. Backed by ethnic, electric and electronic instrumentalists, many of the vocalized text prayers are colored with effects (phase, flange, verb). For more than two decades now, Gong mother and matrist Gilli Smyth has created her own fairy tales, space whispers, chants. Her instruments include both her voice and her effects box. One suspects she always travels with both. The content of the words are all the sweeter if the quality of the context is maintained.
Some purveyors of spiritual poetry would point to the works of Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge and his works 'Ov' art. For a more melodic and haunting ambient space prayer, search for his former bandmate Alaura and a hidden pearl called "Sacred Dreams." Full of alliteration, as in "Trust": "Deep down inside a dark space, an echo of loneliness, a capture of solace, wandering through spheres, looking for the place, hoping to find, capturing sweet souls, lying between our breath." Here is poetry that reads well, even when divorced from its muse. Reading these words aloud reminds me of the word power I once hoped to achieve on the first Melting Euphoria CD and the track "Reflections In A Radio Shower." "We breathe alive we breathe, in a vast and awesome universe, we breathe alive we breathe, the most promising way to search and it shines..." There are words like 'breathe' and 'breath' that wondrously work in harmony with our vocal chords and our lungs. Incorporating them into space poetry can only help make space poetry a more natural phenomenon.
The future of space poetry includes veterans like Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth who continue to produce new entities. Close by the Gong camp is the wandering bard of a poet, and perhaps first choice to represent spacerock in any poetry slam: Thom the World Poet. As emcee for the recent Strange Daze festival he whipped up tales where there were previously none. Meanwhile, the influence of Bob Calvert no longer continues in multiple personalities, but in multiple individuals. Knut Gerwers once upon a time recited Calvert poems alongside Nik Turner and The Moors; now he is also performing his own works in The Moors (as well as contributing to Spirits Burning). One-time Calvert penpal Roger Neville-Neil is currently diving into haiku and creating works that may well pop up in a future space song. And I continue to consider Calvert's sense of quality as I move toward developing and discovering more of my own voices.
Like the space music it attempts to become one with, poetry has many starting points, as well as places to respite. Along the way, the listener and poet inevitably meet. May it be an enjoyable and enlightening experience for both. As it can be. As it should be.
Some of the music mentioned in this article appear on the following works (in order of appearance):
Alan Parson Project - "Tales Of Mystery And Imagination"
Robert Calvert - "Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters"
Steeleye Span - "Storm Force Ten"
Spirits Burning - "New Worlds By Design"
Farflung - "The Raven That Ate The Moon"
Spaceship Eyes - "Kamarupa"
The Orb - "The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld"
extracted celluloid - "extracted celluloid"
The Doors - "Absolutely Live"
Blue Oyster Cult - "Secret Treaties"
Crazy World Of Arthur Brown - "Crazy World Of Arthur Brown"
The Moody Blues - "Days Of Future Passed"
Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come - "Galactic Zoo Dossier"
Hawkwind - "Quark, Strangeness And Charm"
Arthur Brown - "Requiem"
Magma - "Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh"
Aphrodite's Child - "666"
Nik Turner's Sphynx - "Xitintoday"
Alaura - "Sacred Dreams"
Melting Euphoria - "Through The Strands Of Time"
You can learn about Don Falcone's Spaceship Eyes and Spirits Burning projects by visiting the Noh Poetry Records web site.