Something for Thursday

Here’s something weird: a cosmic-rock power ballad by a brother-sister duo known more for their soft-rock love songs, which is actually a cover of a song by a Canadian band named for the hero of one of the most famous pre-Star Wars science fiction movies. Intrigued? Naturally!

This began the other day whilst The Wife and I were driving around doing errands. We have Sirius XM in her car, and we usually tune to one of several classic rock stations, a 70s station, and an 80s station, depending on what’s on where. (The Wife, not being a fan of The Doors, is likely to change the station if they come on. Ditto me for various other groups that don’t trip my trigger.) On this particular morning we were on the 70s station, which in turn on Saturdays will play old episodes of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.

This is always an entertaining listen. It’s an obvious time capsule, a very specific snapshot of the state of pop and rock in a single week, usually around 40 years ago. You get to hear Casem say things like “Rising up the charts this week is the newest song from that hit machine, the Steve Miller Band!” or “Still holding their place atop the Albums charts, it’s Fleetwood Mac with Rumours, now at week number 20 in the top spot!” It’s fun to remember that the hits that are now the indelible soundtrack of decades of our lives were once vibrant new songs that were still being heard for the first time.

But also fascinating are the songs that hit the Top 40 back then, hung around for a while, and then disappeared back into the rockiferous aether; songs that aren’t remembered except by superfans of these particular artists, or if it’s an artist that only had that one hit, might even be virtually forgotten today. We joke about “one hit wonders” all the time, but for every one-hit wonder we remember–Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky”, or maybe “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations–there are probably a dozen one-hit wonders whose hits aren’t remembered much at all. It’s nice to listen to the old American Top 40 shows and be reminded of these once-vital, once-new songs that only had one moment in time.

There’s yet another category of song you hear on old Top 40 broadcasts, though: hits by groups we know and remember for other, bigger hits, but which now are pretty obscure, having retreated from their original hit status to the hallowed title of “deep cuts”. This is one of those. I had never ever ever heard this song before I heard it the other day, and it’s just so, so weird!

The song? It’s by The Carpenters, that duo known for “Top of the World” and others, and who are heard each year on all the Christmas stations (their wonderful rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would be nearly perfect if it didn’t use the wrong lyrics, but more on that in December). This song is called “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)”.

If you’re used to The Carpenters’ general sound of guitars and a soft drum, this is a bit mind-blowing as it includes a full rock band, a chorus doing background vocals, and a full orchestra. This is one of those big 70s tracks with oddly-long running time, an intro from a fake radio station broadcast in which aliens call a radio stations to make a request, and a very dense sound courtesy some obviously-intense work by the sound engineers.

“Calling Occupants” was a cover, though. It was written and recorded first in 1976 by a Canadian band called Klaatu. I’ve heard of this band, but I honestly couldn’t tell you when I’ve heard their work, or what of their work I’ve heard. They were around for a while (1973 to 1982, with several reunions since then), and according to Wikipedia, they were even occasionally called “The Canadian Beatles”. Ha! Suck it, Rush! (Unfair, I guess, since Rush was probably the Canadian Led Zeppelin.)

Klaatu was named for the hero of the great 1950s sci-fi thriller The Day The Earth Stood Still; Klaatu is the alien visitor who comes to basically tell humans to cut the shit regarding nuclear armaments. (He also has a robot guardian who, once unleashed, can only be commanded to stand down via the world “Klaatu barada nikto”.)

“Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” is obviously rooted in 70s-era UFO mysticism, in which our putative alien visitors were seen as wise and enlightened beings of higher consciousness. Looking back at UFO culture of that period it’s pretty easy to see the influence of certain consciousness-altering substances of horticultural origin, but from this vantage point there’s a rather endearing innocence to it all. This song obviously comes from the same headspace that informs the most enduring classic from this particular subculture, Steven Spielberg’s great 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and, to a lesser extent, his ET: The Extra-Terrestrial five years later). The era was rife with this sort of thing, though: for more “the aliens are benevolent beings”, see Escape to Witch Mountain, or a little-seen movie called Earthbound! For non-UFO related “heightened consciousness” stuff, many people my age might remember an after-school special or a book called The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon.

All of this is precursor to the various kinds of “New Age” thinking that would later blend UFO lore with all manner of mysticism and parapsychology stuff. It’s all fun to think about and these ways of thinking definitely led to pop culture artifacts that are invariably fascinating to behold, many of which still influence the creative work of my generation (including me–look at all the “mystical powers of dodecahedrons” in my Forgotten Stars books!). So here are The Carpenters, with “Calling Occupants of Planetary Craft”. Sit back, turn the lights down, light a candle (or something else–ahem), and enjoy!

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4 Responses to Something for Thursday

  1. On CBS this morning, Anthony Mason was interviewing Richard Carpenter. Worthwhile, and you can probably find it online.
    One of those arcane factoids stuck in my mind I discovered when I did my post on the duo is that Richard referred to the pairing as Carpenters, not The Carpenters because it was cooler. Karen and Richard were lots for things, but cool was not generally an attribute.

  2. Paul Little says:

    When Klaatu’s first album was released, it was a little bit of a mystery. They included no photographs or names of the band members on the album sleeve. The songwriting credits were listed simply as music and lyrics by Klaatu. One of their earliest singles, “Sub-Rosa Subway,” was considered to be ‘Beatlesesque.’ In addition, one of Ringo Starr’s recently released albums, “Goodnight Vienna” featured a picture of Ringo appearing in place of the Klaatu character in a still from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Naturally, Beatles fans, still grieving the breakup of the band, immediately jumped to the conclusion that Klaatu was a secret Beatles reunion project. The record company seized on the rumours and promoted and amplified them as marketing strategy for the second album, so for a while, many people in North America actually believed Klaatu really was the Beatles in disguise.

  3. Paul Little says:

    Also, RUSH is just RUSH. No comparisons are possible, and they are far better than either The Beatles or Led Zeppelin.

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