May the Fourth — A Look at Star Bars and Deep Space Discos


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.

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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.

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/ccphanson/clips/the-cantina-scene-from-star-wars-episode-iv-a-new/embed_view

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.

LAX Theme Building
The Star Wars cantina was what I wish Encounter in LAX‘s Theme Building had been, and what it will be if they get it right when it’s re-opened. What the cantina wasn’t was every lame, uninspired hive of pretense and conformity which bills itself (despite having a liquor license) as a “speakeasy.”  It wasn’t illuminated by Edison bulbs, the wines weren’t listed on a chalk board, there was no unfinished wooden sign on the building’s exterior describing it as an apothecary, and it was probably cash only. The bartender wasn’t a lumbersexual and he didn’t spend twenty minutes rubbing herbs on a mason jar in the name of “mixology.”
Encounter at LAX Theme Building
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, EolomeaSolaris, 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.

In 1952, Ella Fitzgerald released “Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer.” After her, Sun RaJoe MeekThe VenturesThe ByrdsPink FloydJimi HendrixDavid Bowie, Flaming YouthUFOYesT. RexHawkwindRoxy MusicGenesisFunkadelicElton JohnStevie WonderJobriathBrett SmileyKlaatuRocketsParliament, and Rush all pointed their creative telescopes toward the skies in search of inspiration and crafted — even in the proggiest instances — pop songs essentially about weird aliens and shiny robots.

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 ShawBenny Goodman, or Woody Herman where the rest of the score plumbed the works of Gustav HolstSergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky for inspiration.

Cantina band

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.”

In 1978 time kept on slipping into the future with Dee D. Jackson‘s “Automatic Lover,” Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip‘s “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper,” and Ganymed‘s “Saturn.” 


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.
The first appearance of a Star Wars cantina-like bar that I’m aware of was onThe Richard Pryor Show‘s debut in September 1977. There, the great 20th Century satirist played a bartender at “Star Bar” and had the impossible task of explaining the appeal of baseball to the unindoctrinated.
Ralph Angus McQuarrie artwork for Battlestar GalacticaRalph McQuarrie artwork depicting Carillon, which is much better than the film version
The cantina was next an obvious inspiration for the “chancery” on Carillon that appeared on the Star Wars-indebted series Battlestar Galactica in “Saga of a Star World.” The costuming, if not budget for writers, was sometimes impressive on Battlestar Galactica but the four-eyed, two-mouthed macrocephs which lured visitors into the Ovion‘s trap were as laughably clunky as the three-armed Martian and three-eye Venusianat the Hi-Way Café in the 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” On the other hand, the song, “It’s Love Love Love” as performed by The Space Angels owed far more to space disco than it did anything by John Williams.
The original Star Wars cantina made another appearance of sorts on The Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired in November 1978. By then the bar was tended by Ackmena, played by the wonderful Bea Arthur who sings some Kurt Weill-esque number based on the original cantina theme. I’ve only seen the special once but although it’s infamously unpopular with George Lucas (who has prevented its release or re-airing) I’m pretty sure that most audiences would find it any more challenging to enjoyment than The Ewok Adventure,Ewoks: Battle for Endor, The Phantom Menace, or Attack of the Clones.
 
Sadly, space disco proved to be short-lived and Sheila (and) B. Devotion’s “Spacer,” released in 1979, was one of the last exemplars of the scene. Electro-funk, Italo-disco, Hi-NRG, spacesynth, and techno in many ways all carried space disco’s space torch but never had as much impact on pop culture as had disco.The space opera series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century appeared in 1979 and its theme song, although massive, was a Jobriath-esque ballad sung by Kipp Lennon rather than a pulsating futuristic ditty (click here to watch a video). The drugs had clearly changed, a fact perhaps underscored when Twiki approached Buck on the dancefloor and said, “We brought you some pills, Buck… it’s a very strong relaxant. You mustn’t take more than one at a time.”
Had Starstruck made it beyond the pilot, audiences would’ve been treated to another Star Wars cantina-inspired set. Starstruck was to be set on McCallister’s Midway Inn, a tavern situated on a space station located “somewhere between Earth and Pluto,” set in the 22nd Century, and broadcast by CBS. The fault, it seems, was not in the stars but in the writing… and perhaps in the fact that space disco was dead and Star Wars was, in pop culture terms, ancient history (although that didn’t stop Mel Brooks from skewering it a mere eight years later, with Spaceballs).

NCC-1701-D’s Ten Forward
Filmmakers continued to attempt to mine cinematic gold, or at least the box office variety, with films likeBattle Beyond the Stars and Flash Gordon (both 1980), Ice Pirates (1984), and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985), but no star bars would make any sort of impact until 1988, when Ten Forward appeared on season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, although it appeared to be perfectly suited to a calm, civil game of strategema over snytheholic drinks, it makes some public libraries that I’ve been to look like raves in comparison. Not long after, in 1990, a book called Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille was published, which my brother assured me was amazing but which I never read. The next time anything with anything appeared with a scene at all resembling that of Star Wars‘ cantina was on another Star Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
The Las Vegas version of Quark's
The Las Vegas version of Quark’s
Deep Space 9 debuted in 1990. Where the concept of the original Star Trek was described “Wagon Train in space,”  Deep Space 9 was intended to be analogous to “The Rifleman in space.” Instead of exploring all corners of space, Deep Space 9 would instead depict visitors arriving from them… and where better to congregate than in a public house and casino over a game of dabo, tongo, or darts. Whereas Ten Forward was run by a sage Guinan Goldberg, the proprietor of Quark’s was a Ferengi and petty criminal. As much as star bars attempt might seem to imagine the future, they’re also one of the space opera’s most obvious echoes of the saloons, taverns, and inns that are such key settings in the westerns, samurai, and fantasy fictions from which they space opera’s draw most of their inspiration. Unlike Ten Forward, Quark’s actually inspired a real bar too at Star Trek: The Experience, one of the only things that I liked in Las Vegas but which closed in 2008.

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

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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 AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos 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 FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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