I have no idea how I stumbled across progressive rock band Klaatu—nor did I have any idea that aforesaid stumbling might have been the result of the grim jackboot of socialism stamping on the ears of Canadian radio listeners!
Although certain wild-eyed fans speculated that the band was actually the Beatles, returned under a new name, in fact they were a trio of Canadians: John Woloschuk, Dee Long, and Terry Draper.
Unsurprisingly, given that their band name comes from the name of Michael Rennie’s alien ambassador in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (which in turn was based on Harry Bates’ short story “Farewell to the Master”), science fiction themes are prominently featured in their oeuvre . Take, for example, their Juno-Award-winning concept album Hope.
you will know if you looked at the link above, a “concept album is
a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a
single overall theme or unified story.” In the case of
the album might be called
but the dominant themes are hubris and nemesis.
Lacking any skills as a music reviewer, I am just going to treat this as a collection of short stories, while acknowledging up front that the narrative content of individual songs is minimal, on par with one of Fredric Brown’s short-short stories.
We’re Off You Know (John Woloschuk)
The album begins happily enough, with a bouncy little song about the joys of exploration. What could go wrong?
Madman (Dee Long)
This song, on the other hand, is directed at the madman of the title. Lines like “Weep now for the children of your children/It’s not for you but they we sing” give the impression that the arc of this album is NOT going to lean towards happiness and joy.
Around The Universe In Eighty Days (Dee Long)
Returning to the theme of “We’re Off You Know,” an unnamed inventor takes his equally unnamed guests off into the interstellar depths in a new rocketship of his own design.
I’ve said before and I will say it again: too few songs include the phrase “atomic power on.”
The inventor’s space drive is impressive. As I do not know the circumference of the universe, I am not sure how fast you would have to go to get around it in eighty days but I think it’s safe to say “zippy fast.” Even if the composer just meant the observable universe, the ship would be clocking something like a billion light years a day or 12,000 light years a second (navigation would be quite challenging at that speed). Pretty much the entire universe is closer than Australia was in the 19 th century.
An oddity that I picked up even as an unsophisticated kid is that whoever or whatever the people in this song are, they are not humans, for their “planet is the second from the sun.” The other detail that leaps to ear is a reference to Earth, which raises questions about how the authors plan to address the Fermi Paradox implications of the lyrics (which give us approximate figures for various parameters of the Drake equation 1). I am happy to report that the album embraces the questions it raises, rather than dodging them.
I am less happy to report that the solution the band chose is that while the first six terms in the equation appear to be reasonably high, L 1 is short. As in, expect to find lots of ruins glowing blue in the night. but not too many sentient species with whom you might have a pleasant conversation.
I am a little sad they didn’t manage to actually work the equation into the lyrics.
Long Live Politzania (John Woloschuk)
Who doesn’t love the mighty nation of Politzania? Well, all of their neighbours. Nor do I imagine that any of the political prisoners the Politzanian Ministry of Health tortured to death were all that keen on their government either. That might be why Politzania is no more and why “no legacy remains except her crumbling ruins.”
Now, you may be asking “why not just ask the surviving nations on that world about their world history?” If you interpret the rest of the album in the most straightforward way, there’s a very simple answer.
I am very fond of the Politzanian national anthem and sometimes hum it. I never have any trouble getting a seat by myself on the bus or in the library.
The Loneliest Of Creatures (John Woloschuk)
The good news is that no matter how lonely you feel, you are not the loneliest person in the universe—unless you have the terrible misfortune to be the Lighthouse Keeper, the last survivor of his species. He’s the loneliest of creatures. No matter how bad you feel, he feels worse. I don’t actually think this is as comforting as the authors might have believed. Telling someone who is miserable because they are lonely that it’s possible for them to feel even worse than they do might merely convince them that things will inevitably get worse … and worse … and worse …
An optimistic (and fairly straightforward) interpretation is that the Lighthouse Keeper’s world is Politzania’s world. A somewhat less optimistic interpretation is that this is yet another world, which means that wars of mutual extermination happen over and over, universe without end. Amen.
Prelude (John Woloschuk)
This is an instrumental. Speaking of instrumentals, Klaatu was very comfortable with long instrumentals, both as standalone songs and as interludes within songs with lyrics.
So Said The Lighthouse Keeper (John Woloschuk)
The Lighthouse Keeper’s people appear to have reduced their own world to rubble. The Lighthouse is described as a “laser flare” and there’s a reference to “the space graveyard and its stones of asteroids.” As previously sung, only the Keeper survives. He divides his time between providing dire warnings to other species who might try to emulate the catastrophe, and trying to compose “the perfect prayer/(…)/Which in the name of charity/Might lead us to eternal peace.”
Some versions of the album contain an epilogue in which Death assures the Keeper that his life was not in vain, which sets the next song up as the Keeper’s final words. Not the album version I own, mind you. But some.
Is a paean to hope, because “All is lost if one abandons Hope”.
It’s all very positive, rah rah rah, and I can see why the Keeper would want to believe it. However, there doesn’t seem to be anything else in the album that would support such optimism. Species set out filled with hope and confidence, do stupid things, and end up with one ancient space coot guarding the (presumably radioactive) remains of their world.
Musically, the trio was strongly influenced by the Beatles, in particular their album Sgt. Pepper . I have heard people compare Klaatu to Queen, but I am just not hearing it. Not that I would mind similarities to Queen.
In the 1970s, new regulations required radio stations to devote a certain percentage of airtime to Canadian content. Prior to CanCon regulation, Canadian TV and radio stations were not particularly inclined to give Canadian talent any airtime: turning to American stars would bring in ears at less risk. This led to a peculiar situation, in which success in Canada often required talent to first go abroad to prove themselves. CanCon created an environment in which local talent could flourish.
Obviously, not every product of CanCon was great 2 but there were enough successes that the 1970s were an interesting time for Canadian music. People interested in this period might want to track down the documentary This Beat Goes On 3. Of course, such cultural efforts are anathema to the people controlling the world zeitgeist these days. Presumably the TTP contains measures that will force us to abandon CanCon and allow a flood of bland, uncreative, commercial pabulum onto our airwaves. Pity.
Klaatu was, I think, one of our success stories, although not a long-lived one
Hope can be purchased from Klaatu’s store.
My review might sound a little nitpicky, but I do like the album. I have listened to it thousands of times over the decades. It might sound like the album should be depressing but rather like the children’s album The Point , the music sounds upbeat. It is only the implications that are disturbing4 .
The Drake Equation is as follows:
- N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current or past light cone);
- R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
- fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
- ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
- fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
- fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
- fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
- L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
2: I know what the worst TV CanCon inflicted on Canada was: not The Starlost , as you might reasonably think, but a sitcom called The Trouble With Tracy . I could not say what the worst Canadian rock band might have been. I invite suggestions.
3: Not unconditionally recommended, due to the unfortunate choice of narrator.4: What is so disturbing about The Point?
Consider: the Land of Point has strict rules banning unpointed people
despite not having any. Why have laws about something that never (until
Oblio) comes up? The logical explanation is that at one point the Land
of Point did have lots of unpointed people. The laws must then be a
relic of a vast ethnic cleansing, achieved by forced migration if the
unpointed were lucky, genocide if they were not.