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Musical Space: The Storming Of Area 51


I have no plans to help storm Area 51 on the 20th of this month. I’m referring to a joke Facebook event that some UFO enthusiasts have taken seriously: Their motto is “They can’t stop all of us.” There are also plans for an impromptu, unlicensed music festival in a nearby village.

For the record, I don’t condone trying to overrun a classified military test site to look for extraterrestrials, or to trash a small town. But I have to say I am inspired. Music can be like science fantasy, a kind of conjectural fiction, storytelling for niche crowds; it gives people license to be weird. So I’m using this event as an opportunity to appreciate music about space aliens.

Man or Astro-Man? “Interstellar Hardrive,” Eeviac (1999)


There are lots of ways music can tap into extraterrestrial tropes, like when a surf-rock band uses monster-movie sounds to evoke the Cold War metaphor of Soviet invasion, or when a prog-rock band uses spacy lyrics to sound philosophical. And I’m hearing lots of music written from the alien’s perspective. Jazz composer and Afrofuturist Sun Ra came from another planet. So did the stage personae of David Bowie and Janelle Monáe. Here, being an alien is a metaphor for being in an alienated group — black, or queer, or female, for example. 

Science hasn’t yet delivered a close encounter of the third kind, but music has that power, and with it, an extraterrestrial perspective on what it means to be human.


Listening List:

Sun Ra and His Arkestra, “A Call For All Demons,” Jazz by Sun Ra (1957). The original Afro-futurist musician — an early use of electric bass in jazz, features a timpani jazz solo. Sun Ra traveled to the planet Saturn some time before the first flying saucer sighting in 1947.

Hawkwind, “Master of the Universe,” In Search of Space (1971). Instead of talking about mainstream bands that use space imagery, like ELO, Pink Floyd, Styx (“Come Sail Away”), let’s talk about Hawkwind. They’ve been a “space rock” band since 1970 and they’re still doing it. Both Lemmy from Motorhead and Ginger Baker from Cream had spent time in the band. Their lyrics are aligned with the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock, who even recorded with them.


Parliament, “Mothership Connection,” Mothership Connection (1975). The first P-Funk album to feature Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, who had left The J.B.'s.


Klaatu, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” Klaatu (1976). So many layers. Rumors that they were a secret reuniting of The Beatles. This song has to do with World Contact Day, when everyone was to attempt to send a telepathic signal to aliens: “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft.”


Pixies “The Happening,” Bossanova (1989)

Sufjan Stevens, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” Come On Feel The Illinoise (2005)

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.