The original Star Wars had a huge impact on pop culture. As a child, nothing in the film had more impact on me than the cantina scene — and judging from the changes in dance music and imitations that followed I wasn’t alone. What better occasion to reflect on the film’s impact than May the Fourth, also celebrated as Star Wars Day.
Star Wars was released on 25 May 1977. I was probably three years old when I saw it in the theater because my fourth birthday followed a couple of weeks later and there were Star Wars dolls* emerging from the middle of a birthday bundt cake. After The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas would increasingly strain to appeal directly to children by introducing cuddly aliens and increasingly relying on cartoonish CGI but for me and many other children, Star Wars was already deeply appealing, dark and sometimes frightening as it was.
For comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, the cantina scene was the “threshold crossing” in the “hero’s journey.” For me it was a bit like viewing an ethnographic bestiary — or a Halloween party (in the 1970s, Halloween hadn’t yet been hijacked by adults and turned into streetwalker cosplay). One of the cheif appeals of Star Wars was its mystery and world building — something which the expansion of the franchise would later explain away with banal backstories — but on full display in the cantina. Of all the characters, only Greedo was addressed by a name. The rest of the assembled wore no pageant sashes, name tags, or hash tags and aside from the viewers’ understandings of evolution there were few clues as to the conditions of their home worlds.
Retro futuristic LAX Theme Building restaurant, as imagined in the 1990s
Before Star Wars, 1970s science-fiction works like Ark II, Logan’s Run, The Starlost, Jodorowsky‘s Dune, Eolomea, Solaris, Stalker, or Zardoz attempted (and often failed) to exploit the genre, entertain, and elevate consciousness. There was little pretense to Star Wars though, which had less in common with contemporaneous science-fiction literature than to escapist science-fantasy of pop music.
Star Wars, like it’s pop music forebears, didn’t appear to be any more thought provoking than Deep Purple‘s “Space Truckin'” or The Steve Miller Band‘s “Space Cowboy.” It had less in common with the literary works of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanisław Lem than it did pulp magazines and Republic serials of the 1920s, and ’30s.
I can’t help but wonder whether or not that had anything to do with Star Wars film scorer John Williams‘s decision to make the only diagetic music, the music played by the cantina band, sound like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, or Woody Herman where the rest of the score plumbed the works of Gustav Holst, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky for inspiration.
Thankfully, the cantina band did not inspire a host of imitators and the universe would be spared from the horror of a so-called swing revival for two more decades. The music of the cantina band had little direct musicological influence on pop music, although its hedonistic multiculturalism did affect the dance floors of the world’s discos.
Although Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer actually recorded the pulsing, Moog-driven “I Feel Love” in 1976, it wasn’t released until July of 1977, a couple of months after Star Wars. So although it wasn’t influenced by Star Wars, it certainly moved disco from its soul and funk roots on earth into the future.
A more explicit connection between disco and space opera (and Star Wars in particular) came courtesy of Meco (Domenico Monardo), who released his disco-fied “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” which topped the American pop charts in October of 1977. Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Meco, and Star Warscombined to spawn the short-lived space disco subgenre, which would produce several hits, primarily in 1977 and ’78.
1977 was also the year that the Paradise Garage, Studio 54, and The Warehouse opened, which would not only be natural homes for space disco but spawn what came to be known as garage and house music. 1977 saw Kraftwerk go from from singing about radios, roads, and trains to space labs and mensch-maschines. It was the year that Space released “Magic Fly,” Cerrone released “Supernature,” and Droids released “(Do You Have) the Force.”
Television shows like Space Academy and Jason of Star Command would never have happened were it not for Star Wars, but aimed exclusively at children as they were, there were no space discos to be found within three parsecs of them.
NCC-1701-D’s Ten Forward
The Las Vegas version of Quark’s
I’m sure there have been more examples in the decades since, but the only obvious nod to the Star Wars cantina that know of in remotely recent years was in a 2010 episode of Doctor Who, “The End of Time (Part 2).” I actually haven’t seen that episode but from the looks of it was a pretty overt homage. If there are any others, please let me know in the comments!
*action figures are dolls
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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