In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of
enthusiasm for anything like “career,” I found myself dusting off
my twelve-year-old’s interest in science fiction.
Simultaneously, weird noises were being heard from New York and London.
I took Punk to be the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried
deep in society’s flank a decade earlier, and I took it to be, somehow,
a sign. And I began, then, to write.
So I started out deliberately not trying to extend the Novas Cycle, and I ended up creating five new Concept Playlists. But I think it’s done now.
Record scratch, freeze frame.. the what now? Okay. Let’s start at the beginning.
A few years ago I started idly searching Youtube and stumbled over a treasure: offbeat 1980s New Wave and synthpop songs. Some from bands you’ve heard of. Some that you may never have seen. Some which stirred faint memories. Some which were completely new to me. So I started collecting them, and then I started blogging a few. Meanwhile, I started putting them into playlists.
The songs I was finding spanned multiple genres, and were a musical education for me. All I knew was that they were the sound I loved as a kid and then fell heavily out of fashion in the 90s: spacey, beepy, dreamy, heavy on pure tones and themes of science fiction and technological advance. They spanned Italo-Disco, New Wave / New Romantic / Post-Punk, Synthpop avant-garde electronic music, and Progressive Rock. These were really separate musical tribes! But they all still had a go at this new ‘technology’ thing, and sometimes the sound stuck and defined the rest of the decade, and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes a single artist or band would focus right in on this science fictiony feel. More often there’d be one or two songs, maybe even novelty songs, and then the zeitgeist moved on. By 1986 it was almost kind of over and stadium rock and rap were becoming the new things.
I was particularly fascinated by the emergence of the literary genre of Cyberpunk, and its primary author, William Gibson, in the 2002 quote above, points at Punk and what became New Wave as his immediate inspiration to write. And when you look at Gibson’s Neuromancer stories (kind of a clue in the name that New Romantic was a thing right about then), they’re very heavily inflected by both overt and subliminal references to music. Not just Gibson, but Pat Cadigan’s ‘Synners’ and other similar stories from the Mirrorshades Group. This was, after all, an era when crazy kids fresh out of art school (or still in high school) were plugging artistic creativity into computers and jacking it all together with literal jackplugs. The street was finding its own use for technology with a vengeance. There was a sense that anything could go anywhere with this weird new symbiosis of human and machine.
I’d grown up with this weird tech-themed music as background static to my 80s world, but by the 1990s it had mostly vanished. There seemed to be vitally important literary history here that was in danger of being erased. I wanted to bring back this moment in time, even if just for me.
Lost in the crackling green glow of strange energies, I began making what I’ve referred to as ‘Concept Playlists’. Not quite a playlist, not quite a concept album, I found an actual story was emerging. So I started playing with it like it was a novel, or a set of short stories, or an opera. (All made out of other people’s stuff of course, so quite unsaleable.)
It’s been a fascinating project, playing with Concept Playlists like this. It’s something that’s only been possible right now, at this moment in time, using the free and open availability of songs on Youtube. I think it’s not really possible on Spotify, it’s not possible in iTunes, and it won’t be possible on Youtube forever, because songs keep getting taken down. It feels like a new Internet art form and all I can do is just… create and see what happens.
I started out around 2014-ish with a single playlist of ‘Space Disco’ songs, with vague themes of cybernetics and nuclear war, which became Tomorrow. I was fascinated by the idea that had been circling in my mind for a while, that the roots of early-80s cyberpunk fiction were to be found in the literal Punk and New Wave music scene of the early 80s. It wasn’t just the sci-fi novelists who put their heads into strange, imagined online spaces. It was a synergetic phenomenon. Everyone in the artistic underground in the early 80s were reimagining The Future – but especially musicians. Thinking not just of William Gibson’s constant music references but
In 2015, worried about the longevity of Youtube songs in today’s copyright environment, I began to document what I thought of as some of my weirder finds as Moments Lost In Time.
(Songs still do die, but at least there’s now Discogs.com, which is a very useful resource for tracking down these tiny bands. I’m not sure quite when it appeared; it didn’t seem to be there at all in 2015. But I’m now using it regularly.)
Around… mid-2015, I think, I made a spinoff playlist for a game development project which didn’t go anywhere. But the idea of an alternate 1982 and some kind of ‘experimental people living in a simulation’ had got itself into my head, primarily from Canadian New Wave band Spoon’s ethereal and apocalyptic Nova Heart. That one song has probably been the spark-plug for the whole project.
Boing Boing’s Mixtape of the Lost Decade came into my headspace somewhere here, sharpening the concept of the ‘weird 1980s’ for me, because this sort of slipstream feeling was exactly how I felt about the New Wave music that just sort of… vanished. A whole half-decade’s creative energy, high-technology and massively future-focused, just sort of got eaten by rap and arena rock, and I don’t know how. But as the 2010s progressed it seemed like we were indeed reopening that whole sigil-guarded can of 1980s that had been sealed away, too full of apocalyptic terror for us to cope with, so of course the music would come back too.
In late 2015 I made a much more focused and unrelated playlist, Go Forth, because it was something I needed at the time, as a kind of… spiritual palette cleanser for a topic I was researching at the time (the history of UFOs and fringe physics theories in American military history). There are resonances there that I won’t try to unpack because they’re probably meaningful only to me. But that project, which came together eerily fast (in a single day) seemed to open something inside.
Early 2016 I found myself drawn back to the well of 1980s songs about nuclear war (because a generation has grown up for whom nuclear war has become unthinkable, until it suddenly came back on the table). But I didn’t want to be a downer, so I mixed it with cybernetics and the idea of simulated people and… it somehow clicked. A cast of characters, or at least two key ones, seemed to be emerging. The result was Novas 1: Radiant Energy.
This was early 2016, as the Trump Presidential campaign was gearing up and an increasing sense of doom was shadowing social media. The unthinkable seemed to be happening and the worst possible candidate was clearing all the field. Perhaps in response, a few months later I found myself drawn back to the world of the Novas and the strong impression they’d left me that there was a new story to be told about ‘what came next’. They’d escaped the Simulation but there would next be a battle on the streets of the Real World. This project became Novas 2: Solid State Revolution.
That took care of the ‘punk rock revolution’ theme, but I knew I still had songs about space, and songs with an apocalyptic New Age theme that wanted a home. That part, Novas 3: Now They Are Dreams, grew much more slowly and was restructured at least once.
A set of loosely connected side pieces followed (Novas 4), and then in mid 2018 I found myself with some odd James Bond themed songs in my head and nowhere to put them, and…