At some point, all cult genres visit space. Sun Ra pioneered jazz’s first astral expedition, and George Clinton bundled funk up into the mothership and blasted it out past Orion. New Age is ambient music with a Gaia complex in space. Even lounge, easy-listening and and elevator music has been retrospectively repackaged as ‘space music’ – a kind of Jetsons-chic kitsch retrofuturism.
It was inevitable that that shiny-shiny glitter music disco would grow silver wings and glide into the firmament. What is more, this transition towards cosmic wasn’t just a gimmick, it was a crucial evolution for what was previously a sweet, dancey soul music.
The period in which space disco first flourished, 1976-77, is the period most observers link to the high watermark of disco. Usually this is because of Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack LP – maybe the pinnacle of white disco acceptance. In Europe, though, disco was getting so white it was alien.
All of these artists were unashamed to have a gloriously blunt tin-foil sci-fi gimmick. It should have been Eurovision-grade naff, but actually, even now it’s still kind of endearing. And although I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper is basic – but good – novelty pop fluff, there was genuine musical innovation here.
For instance, while P-funk tip-toed around the issue of synths for the first time in our 20th century dance music chronology, space disco embraced synthesisers with gusto. Those Philly soul strings were now replaced by futuristic spirals and swooshes of Moog.
But were synthesisers a convenient add-on to space disco’s marketable sci-fi gimmick, or was the spacey aesthetic suitably contrived to accompany the sci-fi sound of synthesisers? Space chicken or space egg??
French musician Didier Marouani had heard early Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream LPs and was fascinated by their use of synthesisers. When he was approached to compose music for a 1976 TV programme about astrology and space, he applied some of these synth learnings to its theme, a piece he called Magic Fly.
Now, let’s make no bones about this, Magic Fly is a banger. It has that sci fi, ooh, drifting out into space psychedelic end-of-2001 vibe – it’s slightly menacing and a bit otherworldly, although its uncanniness is offset slightly by its Popcorn synth sounds – but Magic Fly is also a dance music monolith. However, because of contractual obligations, Didier couldn’t release the tune as a single, and the world outside at large looked set to be denied this bizarre French answer to disco.
His solution was to dress up as a cosmonaut so no one could see his face, change his name to ‘Space’ – because that was what the tune soundtracked duh – and pretend to be a band. The tactic worked, Magic Fly was a huge hit, and Space had a year of pop success before Didier returned to more sensible music. This was the start of space disco.
Even as the appeal of space disco’s Blakes 7 get-up eventually waned, the sounds of space disco drifted on, into new shapes. It got harder, minimal, less cheesy. Giorgio Moroder used these sounds to make I Feel Love, The Chase, and the best of his 70s work. Italo disco was basically space disco without the space bit. Patrick Cowley took all of this – and gay porn – and fed it into proto-house.
These space disco derivatives still had funk and you could dance to it, but you didn’t need a James Brown-type figurehead anymore – this music flourished in anonymity – and increasingly you didn’t even need a Bootsy to hold down the bass line, or the best drummer in town to kickstart the groove.
More synths, less band. This may be first stirrings of dance music as we know it now.