BIAB: Out of the far reaches

All right, we’re gonna get a bit weird with this one. Yes, even for this site, so you’ve been warned.

I obtained the 45rpm vinyl phonograph of my featured song here back in 1978 or ’79, in my adolescence, but eventually lost all of my 45s among the many moves I’ve made over the years, and I probably hadn’t listened to it for years at that point anyway – I had moved on to cassettes and then CDs, and no longer even had a record player. A few years back, I remembered it and decided to look it up again, eventually downloading it as an MP3, which just demonstrates how many format changes have occurred in music – and to be honest, when first released in 1978, it was probably available on 8-track tape too, a truly horrible format that didn’t die the painful death it deserved.

Oh, hell, let’s sidetrack a little, because the topic isn’t going to be harmed by it. 8-track tapes were a continuous loop deal, maximum of 80 minutes but usually much shorter, feeding out of the center of the spool and back around the outside as they played, and because of this the cartridge that housed them was thick and clunky, measuring 14x10x2 cm (5.5x4x.75 inches.) Much worse, they required breaking up the contents into four sections (of stereo tracks, thus the 8) with a track-change sector at the end, which the player would detect and automatically, and noisily, jump the playback head over to the next pair of tracks. You would be listening to the music, which would die out, a moment or three of silence, a loud clack! as the head switched, and eventually the music would fade back in again – this was extremely annoying if it happened in the middle of a goddamn song, as it often did because albums rarely constrained themselves to perfect fits for the format. You could fast-forward, or select the next track (which would pick up as far along as you’d reached on the previous track,) but that was it. Just terrible. And if you didn’t clean your player semi-routinely, the tape would get stuck to the feed rollers and unspool into your player, requiring lots of disentanglement and the almost-assured death of that album.

Where were we? Ah, yes, The Carpenters, who I think the majority of people have heard of but not many people ever hear, because their songs are a bit dated and they stopped recording in the early ’80s. Their style was not an interest of mine, with one small exception, and it’s an obscure track that even people current with its release have forgotten. To understand it… well, there may not be any understanding of it, but regardless, let’s put things into perspective. The ’70s had seen another resurgence of fascination with alien visitation and UFOs, somehow bringing together the space race and the more mystical new-age elements, while in ’77 both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had hit the theaters, so there was a huge swing to space-related media.

Another digression. Star Wars really did present a paradigm shift in science fiction when it was released. Up until then, sci-fi was all about sleek, clean, and crisp spaceships, sleek, clean, and crisp jumpsuits, generally weak video effects, and weedo weedo audio effects. Star Wars introduced weathering, with damaged and patched, complicated and chunky spaceships and special effects that far surpassed anything seen or heard to date, and by those tokens seemed altogether more realistic (except for the plot, but few were paying attention to that.) Presented with this popular new idea, movie and TV production companies responded with… sleek, clean, and crisp spaceships, sleek, clean, and crisp jumpsuits, generally weak video effects, and weedo weedo audio effects. Don’t ask me how they missed the boat in this manner, but they did.

And in the midst of this resurgence, The Carpenters released, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” And you can be excused if you feel there’s kind of a clash between style and substance here.

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft – The Carpenters

Karen Carpenter had an amazing voice, with a good range and remarkable timbre and tonality, and it’s used to best extent here. The Carpenters gravitated towards the folksy, sometimes honky-tonk sound (and there was no one more honky, to be sure,) which never attracted my attention. This one did, however, even though now I cringe more than a little. Lemme ‘splain. In my adolescence, I was very much into the UFO/Bigfoot/Nessie crowd – I had the books, I followed the media, I gave way too much weight to the unsubstantiated and anecdotal stories that lacked any kind of decent evidence; the shift to critical thinking happened over a long period of time undefined by any particular demarcations, but sometime after the period of this song. I wasn’t so enamored that I felt “World Contact Day” was a great idea, and didn’t even know the ramifications of it, but the lyrics themselves spell it out adequately, and yes, it was a real movement – how embraced it was, among what percentage of the population, I cannot say, but the concept really was to have everyone telepathically sending their message to the stars all at the same time. Yeah, I find that flaky as hell nowadays, and won’t play this song in public despite it being a musically strong composition.

Most of the credit for that aspect goes to a group named Klaatu, who wrote and recorded it originally a year or so earlier – The Carpenters’ version is a cover. You can hear the original here, and I actually like the opening. It’s an ambitious composition involving a lot of different aspects, but desperately in need of better mixing.

So was the underlying message of the song actually espoused by The Carpenters, or was it just a project to reimagine the music since, again, it departs from their typical fare by a good degree? It’d be easy to believe the latter, but then, there’s the TV special. Seriously, I have to embed it here – see how far you can get.

The Carpenters – Space Encounters on YouTube

If you took the seventies, distilled them down and filtered them, compressed and dehydrated them into a concentrate, you would still end up with something less potent, less quintessential, than that – future generations have access to this thanks to someone’s efforts in converting a VHS recording of the original broadcast, which is heroic because, as it is said, those that cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. It’s worth noting that the ’70s were chock-full of musical specials and variety shows (John Davidson was actually spawned in this blighted environment,) so this special was largely just another attempt to cash in on the trend and ride the wave of both Star Wars and Close Encounters while assiduously avoiding every last facet that made those popular – TV executives were and are remarkably brain-damaged folk.

All that said (for no reason at all,) I retain mixed feelings about the song, which is musically, vocally, and compositionally very solid – I’m just not on board with the lyrics anymore ;-)