Saturday, August 21, 2010

Steam-powered cars with the gardens in the back

Some people were arguing on Twitter as to the sucks vs. rules category Steely Dan belong to, and one of the debaters linked to this essay from Donald Fagen about Science Fiction's impact on his youth: The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi.

That Fagen was a sci-fi guy in his youth is not exactly a shocking revelation, especially those who've heard his 1993 solo album Kamakiriad. Leaving behind Steely Dan topics like washed-up drug dealers ('Kid Charlemagne'), old pervs showing dirty movies to kids ('Everyone's Gone To The Movies'), not going back to your old school ('My Old School'), doin' it with the Fez on ('The Fez'), and whatever 'Aja' is about, this album was a concept album, and the story here was that Donald was going on a road trip in his futuristic car, 'The Kamakiri', steam-powered and featuring a garden inside the car. It also had a link to the 'Tripstar' satellite.

It seemed a bit ridiculous at the time, but here it was, 1993, and Donald Fagen anticipated XM radio and steam-punk, as well as the Locavore movement (no shitty road food for Fagen - and nothing's more local than the back of your car).

It was a fun and silly album, with that usual Steely Dan slickness to it, but perhaps overboard with the lightness. The album was lighter and more fragile than balsa wood. From yacht rock to balsa rock. Sadly, the Kamakiri was not to be, although my Prius is not too shabby.

The man himself.

This was hardly the first sci-fi concept album. 1990's 'Sex Packets' from Digital Underground (known today for their wonderful one hit 'The Humpty Dance') was supposedly inspired by a project at NASA to help astronauts who have been in space a long time without doing it. The 'Sex Packets' contained pills which, when taken, would give the astronaut a very realistic wet dream, featuring the girl or girls featured on the packet. The packet could presumably also feature dudes, but the lyrics were very andro and hetero centric.

As William Gibson tells us, 'the street finds its own uses for technology'. Somehow the packets ended up in the hands of drug dealers who sold them to eager fiends.

In this case, the concept doesn't run through the whole album - it really only appears in songs 10-14, most notably 'Packet Man'. Aside from those songs, the album is pretty much all party fun time (Doo Whutcha Like, Humpty Dance), with the legendarily pornographic 'Freaks Of The Industry' thrown in. It's broken down track for track in the book 'Check The Technique', for the curious.

Another hip-hop sci-fi concept album of note is The Infesticons' 1999 album Gun Hill Road. The Infesticons were actually Mike Ladd and many of his underground hip-hop friends, including El-P from Company Flow, the guys from Anti-Pop Consortium, and others. The opening track lays out the story: In the late 80's Poof Na Na convinces his smart friend in high school to build him a set of robots which could turn the Five Boroughs into a 'jiggy man's paradise'. The robots end up stowed and forgotten in his mom's basement, until she discovers them in 2000 and turns them on.

This album really deserves a post of its own - the lyrics are brilliant and it's one of my favorite things ever - I actually get mad when I see it in the used CD bin. Who let this go?

The list of such albums is too long for a low attention span blog post, but of course Dan The Automator's contributions must be mentioned (Dr. Octagon, Deltron 3030). Billy Idol's 'Cyberpunk' serves as a horrible warning as to the dangers of taking on this genre, although Billy was pretty prescient putting his email address on the album cover way before anybody who wasn't a college student or an engineer had email. The sci-fi concept album is still alive and well, most recently represented by Janelle Monae's The Archandroid (Suites II and III, Op. 67, P.O. Box 91978) and nerd-core hip hop is doing more to keep it alive than anyone. As nerds continue to dominate the world and pop culture, there's no sign that it will go away anytime soon.

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