The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in October of ‘57 was just one of several early culminations in what had already been a long-simmering struggle for space between the Soviets and the United States. Sputnik was new and absolutely critical, however, in terms of the sheer boldness of its propaganda.
Sputnik was just a shiny radio transmitter. But the media frenzy that followed its launch galvanized the American imagination, making the Space Race very much a public, ideological concern. The Sputnik satellite’s mere existence heightened an already paranoid national mood, raising the technological and ideological pitch of the the Cold War in general. New funding priorities were granted to science, math and technology education and research. NASA would come into being.
Less gets mentioned of the fresh crop of science-fiction movies, serials, cartoons and books that were inspired by the Space Race, a body of work suffused with a particularly paranoid note. In retrospect, Sputnik’s victory would be timed perfectly with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, too. Readers know of my fondness for the way that certain American motifs – pop phenomena and archetypal images alike – get affirmed and refracted in post-War popular music, especially in instrumental form. (The eternal example here is surf music, that ultimate intersection of rock ‘n’ roll and impressionism.)
Everyone from country singers and R&B vocal groups to smooth balladeers and wild Southern rock ‘n’ rollers sang about space in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But it took easy-listening maestros and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll combos and a cadre of jazz artists and early electronic music pioneers to truly embrace the concept of space, actually seeking to convey its experience.
Space, the concept, helped to fire musicians’ creativity and channel their energies. It also afforded a unique amount of room for experimentation, space’s mystery, and its aura of the Unknown much akin to the way that the Other became the artistically liberating force behind so much exotica.
There’s an electronic sheen to these three tracks, yet there’s little academic gravity to them. Absent are the smoothed-off edges of high-fidelity easy-listening. They’re not quite surf, or even rock ‘n’ roll, though catchy riffs and AM-radio-friendly sensibilities prevail. Like Joe Meek’s “Telstar” (and Meek’s many great follow-up records), or the Marketts’ Out of Limits album, or Peter Thomas’s incredible Raumpatrouille soundtrack, these three selections are beguilingly genre-less.
In the end, these three selections are only concerned with – and rightly so – an electronic rush of technology and the multitude of creative opportunities afforded by the mystery and concept of space.
1. The What Four, Gemini 4 (Reprise 0387)
As with much of the pop and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll that originated in Los Angeles in the early and mid-‘60s, this selection is a bit fuzzy on where the real group leaves off and where the studio engineering begins.
Saxophonist Armon Frank, credited as composer, figures first and foremost here. A force in early California surf and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, Frank was part of the Surfmen – he played on their “Paradise Cove” – as well as Dick Dale’s Del-Tones. It was his otherwise-unrecorded combo the Vibrants – Casey Van Beek (bass), Bob Young (drums), Jesse Johnson (guitar), Larry Brittain (guitar) and Frank (sax) – who actually recorded the stripped-down core of this selection.
“Gemini 4” is every bit as much about its grandiose production, though, and almost certainly the production was the uncredited and after-the-fact handiwork of the brilliant arranger, conductor and producer Jack Nitzsche.
Nitzsche enjoyed an illustrious career in the Los Angeles pop music world – he was Phil Spector’s man for arrangements, for one, having scored various recordings for the Crystals and Ronettes. He’d also pen, with Sonny Bono, “Needles and Pins” and nab his own instrumental hit, 1963’s anthemic “Lonely Surfer.” It was largely his independent arranging, conducting and production work, though, by which he made his name. By the late ‘60s, when he’d turned largely to soundtrack composition, Nitzsche had already done work for big names – the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Jackie DeShannon, the Righteous Brothers, Tim Buckley and the Monkees among them – along with credits for innumerable lesser-known acts.
It will always be Nitzsche’s mid-‘60s achievements that resonate most personally. Tracks like the Paris Sisters’ “See That Boy,” Judy Henske’s “Dolphins in the Sea” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly” are gorgeous and extraordinarily cavernous, taking the Spectorian aesthetic to some sort of cinematic extreme.
Released in the summer of 1965, “Gemini 4” is one of Nitzsche’s most obscure productions. And certainly it is among his most grandiose achievements, even by his standards, building layer upon layer of orchestration and reverberating drama atop the Vibrants’ original recording.
Confusingly, Los Angeles pop duo Dick and Dee Dee are given the production credit here but they seem to have been involved only to the extent that they were acquaintances of Armon Frank, and may have passed along the source recording, in turn, to Jack Nitzsche. Furthermore, the What Four credited here are wholly unrelated to another Nitzsche-produced group called the What Four.
2. The Astros, Space Walk (Golden State GSR-653-A)
The most instantly and visually identifiable feature of this record is its release on San Francisco’s Golden State Records.
Leo de gar Kulka’s Golden State Records was, along with sister label Golden Soul, responsible for a fascinating course of Bay Area rock ‘n’ roll, soul, psychedelia, gospel and instrumental music in the mid- and late ‘60s.
The labels themselves formed just part of Kulka’s commercial operations, though. In addition to various music publishing companies, the Czech-born Kulka was a technophile engineer known above all as founder and operator of Golden State Recorders. These studios – among the area’s most cutting-edge when they opened in San Francisco in 1965 – were not only where the Astros and all Golden State artists recorded, but were also where ‘60s San Francisco-area hitmakers the Beau Brummels and Syndicate of Sound were captured along with nascent psychedelic acts like the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead.
That said, little can be concluded about the Astros themselves, or this particular recording. Recorded and released in 1965, it seems highly plausible that, given the 45’s space-themed name and titles (the flipside is “Earth Hop”), its anonymity (Kulka gets the composition credit on “Earth Hop”) and its overall emphasis on studio wizardry – “Space Walk” may have been merely a sort of lark for Kulka. No matter. “Space Walk” is all swirling organ, vibraphones and whooshing, pre-psychedelic studio echo, an inadvertently appropriate prelude to the Haight Ashbury’s impending cosmic convergence.
3. The Houstons, Solar Light (World Pacific 77926)
This selection was a very early studio project for Japanese composer Nozomi Aoki, who would go on to score music for movies and television in his native land.
Recorded in Japan, “Solar Light” was released in 1969, with Aoki’s most famous work as a composer – his credits include music for the 1970s and ‘80s Japanese movies Little Adventurer, Harmagedon: Genma Taisen, Future War 1986 and television series Ginga Tetsudô Three-Nine, Josephina the Whale, Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Fist of the North Star and Hokuto No Ken – still a few years off.
The 45 would be timed to coincide with the America’s July 1969 moon landing. The fabulously ambient flipside is “Sea of Tranquility,” so titled for the crater where Armstrong and Aldrin landed. The moon landing would prove not only the symbolic beginning-of-the-end for the Space Race, but would serve as a sort of end-note for space-themed instrumental rock. (Space would largely be the territory of electronic artists henceforth.) A fitting coda then, “Solar Light”’s aesthetic is actually more in line with the slightly earlier zenith of crazily-engineered, electronics-tinged instrumental productions like “Telstar” and “Out of Limits.”
Nozomi Aoki remains active as a composer in Japan, with recent orchestrations for, among others, the 2008 series The Galaxy Railways.