Passport to the Future

Songs about technology ain’t what they used to be. In the early years of the 20th century, recording pioneer Billy Murray cut “Come Take a Trip in My Airship” and “In My Merry Oldsmobile” when planes and cars were new. A number of songs about atomic bombs and atomic energy appeared in the wake of Hiroshima; in the early 50s, Dinah Washington famously sang “TV Is the Thing This Year.” The launch of the communications satellite Telstar 50 years ago this summer resulted in a #1 single by the Tornadoes. In my library, I have a record called “Apollo 11” by a Cream soundalike from Belgium called the Tenderfoot Kids, but I can’t make out the lyrics to tell if it’s really about that famous flight. Lobo’s 1974 album Just a Singer includes a charming track called “Armstrong,” written by an Australian singer named Reg Lindsay, about people watching the 1969 walk on the moon. “Space Oddity” by David Bowie and “Rocket Man” by Elton John are both set in space, although space flight is more setting than focus on both.

At the end of the 70s came “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, and a few years after that “Mr. Roboto” by Styx. Kraftwerk recorded such titles as “Home Computer” and “Pocket Calculator.” On Trans, Neil Young did “Computer Age,” “Transformer Man,” and “Computer Cowboy.” Rush cut songs called “Digital Man” and “Virtuality.” (Has there been a song yet about the cell phone or the iPod?) These days, it seems to me that songs dealing specifically with technology are more likely to muse about its effects or worry about its misuse than they are to celebrate how cool it is, although I hope you will correct me if I’m wrong.

In the spring of 1973, Skylab was launched. It was the first space station, intended to be inhabited for weeks or months at a time, a big change from earlier American spaceflights, which lasted days at most. Between May and November 1973, three crews of astronauts were sent to Skylab—one staying for a month, one for two, and a third for almost three, into February 1974. A planned fourth mission was cancelled, as were plans to launch a second Skylab. In 1977, NASA briefly considered reactivating Skylab before scrapping those plans, too. Most people didn’t hear of Skylab again until its famous re-entry in the summer of 1979—as an international joke.

But when Skylab went up, in the spring of 1973, the last moon mission was only five months in the rearview mirror. Although America had absorbed some blows to its national pride by then, we still believed our technology was the best in the world. We had conquered the moon, so we should be able to manage long-term living and working in space. It was only logical.

And so, it was only logical that somebody would record a song celebrating Skylab. Turns out it was the Ventures, who had released a cover of “Telstar” a decade before. “Skylab (Passport to the Future)” is “Telstar” cocked at a 45-degree angle, and would have sounded like a 60s throwback even in 1973. But because we like “Telstar,” we like it fine. Here it is, with some pictures of both the spacecraft and the band.

“Skylab (Passport to the Future)” didn’t make the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under chart, but it did creep onto what Billboard called its Easy Listening chart for the weeks of July 28 and August 4, 1973, peaking at #38.

If you’ve got some favorite technology songs, let’s hear about ’em in the comments.

7 responses

  1. seems like there was a lot of angst on the cusp of the 80’s (Rodney Crowell of all people had a cut, “Here Comes the 80’s” on his LP “But What Will the Neighbors Think?”) probably related to computers, genetic experiments/discoveries, Orwell etc.

    Legendary power pop band 20/20 opened their first LP with a track “The Sky is Falling 7/79,” concerning apprehension over where Skylab would crash. It’s mostly lots of farting sounds on a synth ending with an explosion.

  2. A band called The Monks had a song called “Skylab,” which, as I recall, consisted of that single word spoken throughout the song in dramatic fashion.

    Their album also contained the track “Nice Legs, Shame About The Face.”

  3. Seems to me the Village People did a song called “Ready for the 80s.” Except they weren’t. And there’s that line in Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” that goes “And now you find yourself in ’82,” which would make the song sound incredibly dated if it didn’t sound incredibly dated for many other reasons.

  4. Have you blogged before about the Cream soundalikes from Belgium? Seems to me there’s fertile ground just waiting to be plowed.

    Bands should just never, ever, ever mention what year it is.
    (My favorite date-check comes from Billy Joel’s “Modern Woman,” in which Billy sings: “And after 1986 what else could be new?”)

  5. I bought that Ventures 45 in ’73; it reminded me of some other song besides “Telstar.” That “other” tune popped up at random a couple years back and – having failed to note it other than mentally at the time – the connection once again turned to dust. Drat.

    Favorite non-Ventures “Skylab”-related 45: 1979’s “Skylab Fragment” by Captain Australia & His Mate Downunder (Big Tree 17001.) Essentially “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” turned sideways. Sample refrain: “Skylaaaab… fallin’ right out of the sky.” Makes Eric Carmen’s tape deck seem positively cutting edge by comparison.

    Techno without being techno: “Machines,” the Mort Shuman-penned mechanical wonder created by Lothar And The Hand People in 1969. Just did a needledrop of it yesterday.

    “…You know my tape deck is blastin’, my car’s fast” (from Raspberries’ “Drivin’ Around”) must be knockin’ ’em dead in 2012.

  6. Manfred Mann did “Machines” in ’66; it probably made more sense in the hands of Lothar and the gang.

  7. Re: The iPod. “Replay” by Iyaz was a Top 40 hit a few years back that referenced it.

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