Rock and Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Musicians Are Nerds

One thing people might not realize is that musicians are nerds. Rock musicians, believe it or not, are into totally nerdy stuff like science-fiction and fantasy. It’s a great overlap that, as a musician and a writer of sci-fi and fantasy myself, I’ve always appreciated.

Progressive rock, particularly from the 1970s, is the obvious touch-point for the intersection with rock music and sci-fi/fantasy, but as we’ll see, there are other artists in other musical genres who let their geek flag fly. Let’s take a look at some of my personal favorites, and maybe discover a few new ones along the way.
Led Zeppelin: The granddaddy of nerd culture influence in rock music. In between singing about getting some, Zep devoted more than a few songs to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. The song “Ramble On” from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II features the immortal line:

Mine’s a tale that can’t be told
My freedom I hold dear
How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air
‘T was in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum, and the evil one 
Crept up and slipped away with her

Friggin’ Gollum . . .
Other songs, particularly from 1971’s untitled fourth album (the one with the guy holding the sticks on the cover), make slightly more oblique references to The Lord of the Rings. There’s a song called “Misty Mountain Hop,” though lyrically it has nothing to do with the battle against Sauron (it’s about drugs or something). “The Battle of Evermore” from the same album, however, sounds musically and lyrically like some long lost battle from Middle Earth. And then “The Rain Song” from 1973’s Houses of the Holy just has a distinctly medieval vibe–and check out singer Robert Plant’s “dream sequence” mini-movie from the band’s 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same that plays during the performance of “The Rain Song”: what a nerd Plant was.
Pink Floyd: The term “space rock” was one of the adjectives used to describe Pink Floydwhen they burst onto the London music scene in the mid-1960s. Before they become a tightly disciplined, focused purveyor of beautifully grim albums about depression, alienation, isolation, loneliness, and mental breakdown, they were an acid-fueled quartet led by the mercurial genius Syd Barrett. Their 1967 debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn has songs like “Astronomy Domine,” all about a harrowing flight into the deep reaches of space and the horrors to one’s psyche, and the instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive” plays as the soundtrack to rocketing through the cosmos.
The short-lived five-piece Pink Floyd
Sadly, this sci-fi influence would be pretty much over by the time Barrett left the band–after 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets, Barrett’s final album and David Gilmour’s first, Floyd would sound spacey, but would sing about more down-to-earth topics. Still, that album’s lead-off track “Let There Be More Light” seems to be about aliens visiting Earth in the distant past, and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” seems to be about a suicide space mission with bits of Chinese poetry thrown in for good measure.
The Who: You might not know that The Who’s 1967 single “I’m A Boy” is about a future where parents can choose the sex of their child. The family in this song wanted four girls, but got three girls and a boy. Hilarity ensues:
One girl was called Jean Marie
Another little girl was called Felicity
Another little girl was Sally Joy
The other was me, and I’m a boy
My name is Bill, and I’m a head case
They practice making up on my face
Yeah, I feel lucky if I get trousers to wear
Spend evenings taking hairpins from my hair
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But my ma won’t admit it
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But if I say I am, I get it
Put your frock on, Jean Marie
Plait your hair, Felicity
Paint your nails, little Sally Joy
Put this wig on, little boy
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But my ma won’t admit it
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But if I say I am, I get it
I want to play cricket on the green
Ride my bike across the street
Cut myself and see my blood
I want to come home all covered in mud
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But my ma won’t admit it
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy

This song would be banned in 2018, because it implies that the sexes are different.

But that’s not all! The Who’s seminal 1971 album Who’s Next is based on bits and pieces of Pete Townshend’s abandoned second rock opera, Lifehouse. Lifehouse was supposed to be about a world where rock and roll didn’t exist, and entertainment was very sterile and pre-programmed (think the 21st century, actually), and some old-timers bring back rock, which people can commune through via the vibrations produced by the primal music, and so they create a place called the Lifehouse to experience this, and then the people want to bring back rock music, and . . . it’s very silly but it led to some awesome songs. And anything about rock music destroying an oppressive society is a-okay in my book.
Townshend had some interesting concepts here, but the rest of the band wasn’t feeling him, and the record company was getting impatient. So they salvaged wht songs they could, put many of them on Who’s Next, released a bunch as very successful singles, and the result sent the band to heights even greater than they’d reached with 1969’s Tommy, firmly ensconcing them as permanent rock royalty. Not bad for a failed science-fiction project!
Frank Zappa: You didn’t think I’d get through a post about music without writing about Zappa, did you?
Zappa was a man after my own heart, because he loved bad sci-fi and monster movies. Even his song titles, like “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” pay homage to this legacy.
On Zappa’s live 1974 album Roxy & Elsewhere, there’s a song called “Cheepnis” all about bad monster movies. As Zappa explains in his preamble, the cheaper, the better.
1983’s The Man From Utopia has a track called “The Radio Is Broken,” which describes a space adventure as told by Zappa and former original Mothers bassist Roy Estrada that sounds like the plot of several B-movies, and name drops actors of the time like John Agar and Lisa Cranston. Tropes like the co-pilot who plays harmonica, the beautiful scientist woman with a clipboard who twists her ankle while running away while wearing high heels, and the race of space women who need to reproduce with Earth men.
If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, some of these movies might seem familiar to you. In fact, Zappa was such a huge fan of that show he’d call its creators to chat, and they dedicated an episode to him after his untimely death in 1993.
Rush: Perhaps the most obvious one. Rush is a nerdy band comprised of nerds who made nerdy music for nerds, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was into Rush when it was still socially unacceptable to be into Rush–I remember when they weren’t cool. But now they are, kind of. I can’t tell if people like them ironically or sincerely. But you should like Rush sincerely because they are, without hyperbole, the best.
Anyway, Rush is cool because they touch on fantasy and sci-fi tropes. When drummer and lyricist Neil Peart joined before recording their second album, 1975’s Fly By Night, he brought with him a whole bunch of Tolkien love. The album has a song called “Rivendell,” which in addition to being excruciatingly lame, is all about the mystical elf sanctuary that plays a big part in The Lord of the Rings. “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is a hard-rocking prog epic, but the lyrics remind me of someone’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign (note: not a bad thing). And the liner notes contain some lyrics written in a runic language! This tells me that, not only was Neil Peart a nerd, but Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson went along with it! Maybe they just really needed a drummer (original drummer, Lee and LIfeson’s childhood friend John Rutsey, left after the first album for health reasons and sadly passed away in 2008).
But Rush’s nerdiness doesn’t end there! Fly By Night‘s follow-up, 1975’s Caress of Steel, not only features a wizard on the cover, but contains not one, but two epic, 10-plus minute song suites about mythological battles and evil princes and monsters and fountains of youth . . .  man, weed was a hell of a drug I guess.
“The Necromancer” is a three-part tale about brave adventurers wandering into a forest to defeat the titular evil wizard in his towre; if you remember your Tolkien, the Necromancer was the sort of disguise Sauron put on when he was gathering his power. I like how Peart calls his adventurers “men of Willowdale,” Willowdale being the suburb of Toronto Lee and Lifeson were from. I also like the painfully cheesy, deep-voiced narrator that describes the action at the beginning of each part. If the song didn’t rock so damn hard, it wouldn’t work.
The album closes with “The Fountain of Lamneth,” a six-part epic that runs nearly twenty minutes and details an adventurer’s quest for the fountain of youth. It touches on Greek mythology and . . . I dunno. There are a lot of guitar solos. Hell, this album also has a song called “Bastille Day” which is about French history, so, you know . . . nerds.
But there’s more . . . and we’re not even out of the 1970’s yet!
1976’s breakthrough album 2112 also features twenty minute epic flights of fancy, but this time we’re in the world of sci-fi. Outer space, baby! Check out the band’s pre-Star Wars futuristic white kimonos! The song “2112” is a multi-part suite about a dystopian communist future, heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s ideas about the power of the individual against the state. Futuristic priests banned everything that’s not collective, including music, which is one of the most pure expressions of an individual’s soul. An unnamed character discovers a guitar, learns to play, show’s the temple priests, who destroy it and tell him to stick to more Solar Federation approved activities (like, presumably, murder). In despair, the unnamed hero kills himself, but not before a remnant of free humanity comes to take back the planets from their socialist overlords. It’s a trip, man . . . but it works because the songs are so good.
2112 also features a song called “The Twilight Zone” about, uh, The Twilight Zone, and another song called “A Passage to Bangkok” all about smoking weed. This explains a lot.
2112‘s follow-up, 1976’s A Farewell to Kings, touches on both fantasy and sci-fi tropes–and poetry! I’m telling you, if you’re a nerd, how can you not listen to Rush?
Lead-off song “A Farewell to Kings” sounds like it could score a Lord of the Rings movie, and deals with the degredation of humankind through the ages when the powerful abandon their responsibilities to those they rule. The epic “Xanadu” is inspired by Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s poem “Kubla Khan,” and details the story of a traveler trekking to the Orient to discover the secret of immortality . . . only to learn it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And closer, “Cygnus X-1: Book I: The Voygae” is a trippy four-part epic about a man sailing his spaceship into a black hole in the Cygnus star system. Musically, it sounds exactly like you’d think, but better.
And being a “Book I,” of course there is a “Cygnus X-1: Book II: Hemispheres,” which takes up the entire first half of Rush’s next album, 1978’s Hemispheres. In it, we learn all about the battle between Apollo (representing reason) and Dionysus (representing love) and how Cygnus, the bringer of balance, comes to strike a balance between the two hemispheres.
Did I mention that the space traveler from “Book I” becomes Cygnus, the God of Balance, after emerging from the black hole? No, I didn’t. Because you should’ve anticipated that already.
Rush put aside nerdy pursuits for much of the 1980’s, though sci-fi and nerdy topics rear up in songs like “Natural Science” from 1980’s Permanent Waves (using tide pools as a metaphor for humanity), “Red Barchetta” from 1981’s Moving Pictures (about a future where cars are illegal, but the narrator takes his uncle’s preserved vehicle out for joy rides, avoiding the authorities), “Countdown” from 1982’s Signals (about the band witnessing an actual space shuttle launch), and “Red Sector A” from 1984’s “Grace Under Pressure” (about life in a prison camp during some undescribed futuristic war).
It wasn’t until 2012’s magnum opus Clockwork Angels that Rush returned to full nerd-dom with an entire concept album all about steampunk. Yeah, baby! This is nerd-city, it’s Rush’s final studio album, and it might very well be the best thing they’ve produced in their 40-plus year career. There’s a story featuring Neil Peart’s beloved Manichean “order-chaos balance” bullshit–the Clockmaker represents stifling, predetermined order (and is a veiled shot at religion) while the Anarchist is complete chaos, while the main character and his plucky band of traveling gypsies represent this mythical middle–but there are airships and treks to lost cities of gold and pirates and bomb-fights at carnivals and steam-powered locomotion. It’s awesome, “Headlong Flight” is one of the band’s hardest rocking songs, and Neil Peartactually wrote a novel based on this story he concocted with famous sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson.
It sucks. I mean, I found it laughably bad. But I still loved it like a guilty pleasure, and the deliberate inclusion of Rush song titles in the dialogue and descriptive prose was both cringeworthy and praiseworthy.
Rush might be the kings of nerd rock, but there’s a modern band that is not to be outdone . . .
Coheed and Cambria: Coheed and Cambriaclaim not to have been particularly huge Rush fans. Bullshit. They have a song on their second album called “2113,” and singer/guitarist Claudio Sanchez has a high-pitched wail. Their riffs, also, have a distinctly 1980’s Rush vibe. But I forgive them, because Coheed writes interesting, catchy music that ticks off most of the boxes on my “What I Like in Music” list.
But I mean, every album (except 2015’s The Color Before the Sun) and every song on every album (except, again, The Color Before the Sun) is a part of this giant sci-fi story Sanchez wrote. The band is even named after two of the story’s characters. The story, called “The Amory Wars,” is about a group of planets called the Keywork and some savior who’s supposed to come and destroy it all to save it, and some virus or something . . . and there are dragonflies . . . I don’t know and I don’t care. The lyrics kind of work without knowing the story, and the story is so confusing it really doesn’t interest me except that, if it inspires the band to keep making albums, then I’m all for it.
Seriously, if any of you can keep it straight and derive enjoyment from it, good for you. You don’t need to know, or care, about it to enjoy the music. Sanchez has written books and comics all about it, so there’s plenty of additional material for you to enjoy. My buddy Matt, who got me into the band in the first place, loves all this stuff. He’s tried explaining the story to me a few times. It didn’t work.
Coheed even pulls a Star Wars, starting the story at part two with their 2002 debut The Second Stage Turbine Blade, continuing and concluding with their next three albums before dropping part one on us in 2010 with Year of the Black Rainbow, two prequel albums with The Afterman: Ascension in 2012 and The Afterman: Descension in 2013, before apparently concluding the story and putting out the more personal The Color Before the Sun.
Which was kind of weak. Maybe this explains why they’ve returned to the Amory Wars saga again with 2018’s Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures.
What’s it about? I don’t care. All I know is that it has spaceships on the cover, it’s pretty good and it continues the band’s trend of totally preposterous album titles. In 2005, they released this mouthful: Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness.
There are so many more bands influenced by science fiction and fantasy that I could write about, groups like Iron Maiden and Blind Guardian and Queensrÿche and Dream Theater and Mastodon. . . and so many more. This exercise highlights an important intersection between two different media of expression and entertainment. Both music and the written word have the power to spur the imagination and the soul, taking them to different places that do not exist in the material world as we see it. It’s only natural that musicians would be inspired by sci-fi and fantasy, and writers inspired by music. They’re not even two sides of the same coin–they are the same coin.
Hell, Jimi Hendrix was a huge comic book fan. And Jimi Hendrix was one of the coolest mofos ever to strap on a guitar. The next time somebody tells you comics are for nerds, just drop this little fact on them.
And then watch as the person you’re talking to scrunches up their face and says, “Who the hell’s Jimi Hendrix“?

39 comments

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien is more rock and roll than George R.R. Martin’s ever been. Just ask Led Zeppelin.

    Tolkien was also metal as hell.
    http://the-toast.net/2015/06/23/the-most-metal-deaths-in-middle-earth-ranked/

    Grady Hendrix’s recent We Sold Our Souls has this great line:
    “Wah! Wah! Wah!” he shouted. “No one loves me! Boo hoo! Guess what? We play fucking metal! I don’t want to sing about your sad feelings! I want dragons and shit!”
    https://hillbillyhighways.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/sf-we-sold-our-souls-by-grady-hendrix/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have nothing more to add. This is, quite frankly, perfect.

      Tolkien wrote with a poetry worthy of Homer. Deaths in the Lord of the Rings, and the battle sequences generally, are akin to those in the Iliad. I say that without hyperbole, having read both works multiple times.

      George R.R. Martin’s writing is entertaining, but devoid of soul. It’s hard to get that epic, mythic feel with an empty, nihilistic core.

      And Tolkien automatically wins by being associated with Zeppelin. Zeppelin ALWAYS wins. Always.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Martin is an amazing writer, and his books sucked me in so completely I couldn’t do anything else while I was reading them. But unlike Tolkien and my other favorites (Harry Potter, Watership Down, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and everything by Georgette Heyer), I have no desire to read them ever again. I don’t watch the series, either.

        Martin’s Game of Thrones world is like that beautiful girl you saw every day in the cafeteria and worshiped for an entire semester…until you had a class with her and discovered that every conversation she had made you feel vaguely terrible. Like you said, there’s no soul in it. It feels empty.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! Perfect! I’m with you: Martin is a good writer but there’s something lacking at ASOIAF’s core. I honestly don’t care if he ever finishes it.

        Like

      • On the topic of Homer and Zeppelin, Achilles’ Last Stand is my favorite Zeppelin song and might be my favorite rock song period. I think the lyrics are about the present being connected to the past and ancient myths living on. There might be some King Arthur in there too with the “Oh our Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again” line.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Achilles Last Stand might be my favorite Zep song as well. The riffs are just killer and it never lets up.

        I remember reading that the lyrics are about touring, but Presence is one of the few Zeppelin albums where the vocals are hard for me to discern on many songs. I like it. It makes it kind of mysterious.

        Like

    • Well put about Tolkien’s battle sequences. They are very, very effective, but very, very different than those of Robert E. Howard, who wrote very visceral stuff. Martin is more the latter, but he doesn’t seem to have much interest in actually writing about battles.

      I’ve mentioned that it was my mom who encouraged me to read The Hobbit. But I’m also pretty sure she’s never read any Tolkien. Which means that, given how much she loves Led Zeppelin, it is entirely likely that she recommended Tolkien on the strength of Led Zeppelin’s recommendation. So it is really Led Zeppelin who I have to thank for…everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If I could mash the like button on this a hundred times, I would. Led Zeppelin, Mastodon, Dream Theater, Queensryche, Rush… RUSH. You obviously know good stuff when you hear it.

    If I could only listen to one single band for the rest of my life, it’d be Rush. It felt like I had hit some kind of amazing milestone when my band agreed to learn Bastille Day — and we played the heck out of it, too, live on stage. (Ah, those were the days.) 🙂

    The more metal you go, the bigger the nerd factor, too. Half the black metal bands ever formed either have names straight out of Tolkien or spend a lot of time singing about Middle-Earth.

    If you’ve never heard Devin Townsend’s Ziltoid the Omniscient, you need to look it up. Hilarious stuff, great music, and Townsend does every bit of it himself. Gojira is a great band, too, on the death-metal end of things — From Mars to Sirius is excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure, honestly, as it’s been years since I’ve read the lyrics. Satanic space robots, I’d guess. 😂. I recently listened to it driving home from work one day because I saw Mike Browning, the band’s founder, and the original vocalist of morbid angel, arguing with people on Facebook about his role in metal history. He’s kind of like candyman, I guess. Look in a mirror and say his name five times and he’ll appear and tell you that Nocturnus was the first death metal band to use keyboards.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m really into death metal, but prog death isn’t usually my thing. I think the innovation of this particular album, with its use of keyboards that at times sound like a theremin is what appeals to me about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Take any genre of music and stick it in front of “metal” and it’s likely a subgenre that exists, haha. I think the favored term now is tech death rather than prog death, but I’m pretty sure early opeth is considered prog death. Nowadays they’re full on 70s prog rock as far as I know, or were for awhile. I like opeth because the songs are extremely well-crafted and less jazz-oriented than a lot of tech death metal, which to my ears sounds like a complex math equation set to music. I generally prefer caveman riffs and cavernous production with my death metal, but all those prog/death bands are really amazing players and there’s a big audience for it

        Liked by 1 person

      • “Complex math equations set to music.”

        A lot of bands are like that. Some can be quite exciting—early Dillinger Escape Plan comes to mind.

        Like

      • IIRC The Key is about time travelers killing baby Jesus. It’s getting a prose adaptation in the next Swords of Steel fiction anthology but I’ll probably be skipping it due to the subject matter.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Iron Maiden’s got a ton of sci-fi inspired material. Flaming lips, yoshimi battles the pink robots, that’s a great one, too. Although Wayne coyne has by all accounts become kind of a douche since his divorce, but I haven’t experienced this firsthand. He lives in my city and you see him from time to time out and about. I love that album, though, and I’m not a huge fan of them. The vibe of it reminds me of this animated 70s film called “fantastic planet”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve got Yoshini. I went through quite a Flaming Lips phase before realizing I didn’t actually think they were all that creative. They’re weird in a “LOOK AT ME!” way. Still, I did enjoy Embryonic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s really the first and last one I got into, and I was really more familiar with Wayne as a local personality at the time, building weird stuff in his yard and throwing big Halloween parades. Went back and listened to the earlier stuff and liked it also, just lost track of it all. I did see them live on one of their local New Year’s Eve shows they used to do every year, I don’t know if you’ve seen them but it’s like KISS on acid. Or maybe KISS hugging modeling cement, idk, but it was pretty amazing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This topic is dear to my heart. Just before reading this post I found out that there’s a monster from D&D called Remorhaz that strongly resembles the creature on the cover of Uriah Heep’s debut album. I bet D&D took it from the album.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One of my favorite bands is symphonic black metal group Bal-Sagoth. All of the songs on their six albums tell stories in a heroic fantasy universe. Byron Roberts, the lead singer and song writer has written several short stories set in the fictional world as well. Titles have such fantastic names as “Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and “Enthroned in the Temple of the Serpent Kings”. And the music is itself is fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s cool, and seems like they were doing what Coheed does before Coheed. I’ll have to check them out. I mean, those titles you mentioned sound amazing.

      Like

  6. The Clockwork Angels book gets marginally better (insofar as it gets more goofy) if you read the Anthology of Rush inspired short stories (I think its titled something like 2113). We get to see what happens at the fall of the Solar Federation. The Highest High Priest of Syrinx escapes the Old Race of Man, by fleeing into another dimension and becoming the Clockmaker.

    Also, I’m surprised you didn’t mention that Michael Moorcock (The guy who wrote the Elric books) actually took part in Blue Oyster Cult, who in turn have songs about Godzilla, Elric and Cthulhu. He also had a hand with Hawkwind, who when you listen to them, its like having pure liquid pulp D&D poured in your ears.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1) I am not aware of the Rush short story anthology! This sounds amazing.

      2) I fully admit that there are LOTS of rock/sci-do/fantasy links I’m unaware of. I never explored Blur Oyster Cult or Michael Moorcock’s work before, so thanks for tipping me off! I know the song “Godzilla,” but am not aware of those others you mention. It sounds fabulous.

      3) Thanks for the comment!

      Like

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