Songs of my youth

Where have all the science lyrics gone?

Martin Griffiths 8 November 2009

The long view: music lyrics have changed

So many chart-topping songs of yesteryear seemed to be about the triumphs of science and technology. Where have they all gone now?

If you are of a certain age, you may remember songs from your youth that inspired either your career choice as a scientist or at least moulded your approach to science. If this is true of you, then such tunes as Rocket Man, Space Oddity, Oxygene, Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins and even the Police’s Walking on the Moon may bring back fond memories. So many chart-topping songs of yesteryear seemed to be about the triumphs of science and technology. Where have they all gone now?

Is it really a case that science is of so little interest to today’s youth that even their guitar heroes are abandoning the field? Have sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, now accompanied by social dirge, angst and resentment returned in such force that its musicians are uninspired by the technological triumphs around them? Or perhaps the question could be posed: are they indeed surrounded by such marvels? Has the onslaught of Chernobyl, genetic experiment, climate change and computerized big business shown them an alternative and unattractive face?

When I was growing up (a long time ago now), adolescents of my era were inspired by the moon landings, by Jaques Cousteau bringing us a weekly supply of mystery and suspense from the depths of the sea, by nature programmes such as The World About Us; Tomorrow’s World and the endless gadgets of the future that promised a turn of the millennium life of leisure for old timers like me. We had Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO, the Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Blakes 7, and of course Star Trek, to show us possible futures in such a technologically dependent world. It seemed rosy and bright in the main and the goodies always won.

Our rock heroes also reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the technological age and, in their rush to embrace it, they built synthesized musical monuments from Yes through Vangelis and even to Queen. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Rush, ELO, Supertramp, Marillion and so many others wrote songs that enabled the listener to reflect on the pitfalls of technological reliance or eulogized it as a wonder to behold.

When I look back on the music I grew up with, there were just as many songs warning of the excesses of science as there were extolling its virtues. As an adherent of prog-rock bands Rush, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes, I found that their music also inspired a thoughtful approach to the uses of technology and any future built upon them with such songs as Cygnus X-1, Red Barchetta, 2112, Manhattan Project (Rush) Astronomy Domine, Childhood’s End, Welcome to the Machine (Pink Floyd), Living Forever, Watchers of the Sky (Genesis) Arriving UFO, The Revealing Science of God (Yes), and In the Year 2525 (Supertramp). These are some examples of rather cringe-worthy songs that I can now recall (but have them on my iPod nonetheless!) that reflect the concerns of a generation.

Even heavy metal bands toyed with science fiction, fantasy and literary stimulus that encouraged their audiences to investigate the influence on the music further. This is especially true of Led Zeppelin (No Quarter, Achilles Last Stand, Carouselambra) and Iron Maiden (To Tame a Land, Stranger in a Strange Land, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Space Station No.5) and Black Sabbath (Computer God, Hole in the Sky) to name just a few.

Do we now live in an age when, despite a host of science communication programmes and public interest in science at supposedly record levels, the sub-cultures of our youths are missing the message? Is it due to the failure of their musical leaders to impart through song, the glories of science? Perhaps.

My point is – is such artistic reaction lost to history or do modern bands dally with such themes in a way that illuminates the thinking of our current young generation as it did to mine? I have to admit that I was stirred when contemplating the message inherent in rock music in my youth; it was an inspiration that brought me to my current scientific career and even now, spurs me to explore the interface between science and culture in its manifold guises. The songs don’t have to eulogise science, just comment on it in ways that open the mind. Many of them fall past the remit of science and explore fictional and fantastic pathways, but the underlying message was always contemplative, experimental and forward looking, even in the most dystopic songs.

I feel sure that others working in the sciences were influenced by the rock songs of their generation. I also suspect that the songs were secondary to their interest in science and technology, but were influential in a cultural, peer pressure mode that provided a ready forum for debate and analysis, even though such debate and analysis were not deep and were probably personal experiences more than anything else. Such music explored the humanistic side of science and the social and cultural placement of it in ways that would be either intensely personal and introverted, or shared widely with like-minded individuals.

Whenever I mention a song or a group from my past to a colleague, no matter what the lyrical context, there is a ready smile or laugh and a snippet to be shared which was obviously either ludicrous in its time, or inspirational – but nevertheless not forgotten.

Modern bands such as Coldplay (Ode to Deodorant, Speed of Sound), Oasis (Nature of Reality) and no doubt others will be keeping the flag flying, but as I look back over five decades of music, the evolution of the message is fairly clear – science and its applications may not be the greatest thing there is. This is a pity. I’d rather hear about the wonders of the cosmos and the potential SF spin-offs than the repetitive boom, boom, boom accompanying the screaming and incomprehensible lyrics that this generation prefer.

Or am I just getting old?