Weird Musical History #9
In 1977, NASA launched the probes spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 on a journey that will eventually have them leave our solar system far behind. They each carry a twelve-inch golden phonograph record with a message to any aliens who might in the distant future find one of the probes. The record’s cover had a diagram telling the aliens where we live, and the golden record featured classical, folk and rock music along with animal noises and greetings from earthlings in languages from around the world.
Only in the 1970s would we think the best way to get a message to extra-terrestrials was to send them a concept album.
In any case, it will be around another 40,000 years before these interplanetary craft reach another solar system.[i]
However, in 1953 an even stranger attempt to contact aliens took place – World Contact Day. On this occasion, the message was sent not by spacecraft but by telepathy.
World Contact Day was the brain child of Albert K. Bender, a factory worker from Connecticut who headed one of the few large organisations that studied UFO sightings that existed at that time – the International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB).
The reasoning behind World Contact Day was that if aliens were visiting us in flying saucers and if telepathy was a reality, then it might be possible to contact the visitors through thought alone. The collective telepathic ability of many people concentrating on the same message at the same time would surely get through to the aliens.
World Contact Day was declared as 15 March 1953. On that day at a set time (adjusted for one’s time zone), all members of the IFSB in the USA, UK, France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand were asked to close their eyes and concentrate on a message that had been previously memorised. This was the message:
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft! Calling occupants of interplanetary craft that have been observing our planet EARTH. We of IFSB wish to make contact with you. We are your friends, and would like you to make an appearance here on EARTH. Your presence before us will be welcomed with the utmost friendship. We will do all in our power to promote mutual understanding between your people and the people of EARTH. Please come in peace and help us in our EARTHLY problems. Give us some sign that you have received our message. Be responsible for creating a miracle here on our planet to wake up the ignorant ones to reality. Let us hear from you. We are your friends.
We are among you and know your every move
As the day arrived, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of flying saucer enthusiasts all over the world sat down in a quiet place and concentrated on the message. Alfred Bender did the same but the experience he described was markedly at odds with the saucer-eyed hopefulness of the recitation he had memorised.
Bender described how after lying down on his bed and concentrating on the message three times, he developed a sudden chill and intense headache and noticed an unpleasant smell of rotten eggs before seeming to lose consciousness.
He described small blue lights swimming in his brain while an odd feeling of weightlessness came over him. He opened his eyes to find himself floating above his body. It was then that the aliens made contact with a voice Bender described as being in his head. The aliens had the following discouraging message:
We have been watching you and your activities. Please be advised to discontinue delving into the mysteries of the universe. We will make an appearance if you disobey.
The aliens, it seems, were on some special assignment and did not want to be disturbed by humans. ‘We are among you and know your every move,’ they told Bender ominously.
When Bender was aware of being back on his bed, his room was filled with a yellow mist and a shadowy figure stood by his bed before everything melted away.[ii]
Bender’s out of body experience sounds very like an episode of sleep paralysis, a disorder in which the sleeper awakens to find him or herself feeling paralysed or floating, often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations in a kind of waking nightmare.
Perhaps Bender had a persecution complex, as aliens were not the only ones keeping watch on him. As well as World Contact Day, Alfred Bender was also responsible for an iconic element of UFO folklore – the Men in Black. Bender claimed to have been visited by three sinister, darkly clad agents who warned him away from his study of flying saucers. This was the first encounter with these notorious Men in Black, who according to UFO legend, threaten and intimidate UFO witnesses to keep quiet about what they have seen or what they know.[iii]
World Contact Day may not have succeeded in reaching aliens (unless you believe Bender’s ufological adventures), but it did inspire a song that was surely the Carpenter’s weirdest moment – ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognised Anthem of World Contact Day)’.
Klaatu Barada Nikto
For me, though, this song entered my life as a teenager in the early 1980s. Browsing second hand records on a market stall in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire one afternoon, I was struck by the gloriously sunny cover of an album by a mysterious band called Klaatu. Some of the song titles appealed to my teenage mind – ‘Anus of Uranus’, ‘Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III’ and most of all ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)’.
The album was priced at 50p, but I wasn’t going to part with my money that easily. I asked the market stall holder if he’d play a bit on his little turntable. He was curious himself to see what the band sounded like and put on side one track one: ‘Calling Occupants of interplanetary Craft’.
We looked at each other in bemusement as a variety of birdsong came floating from the speaker. After several more seconds of birdsong, the stall holder picked up the stylus and moved it further into the track. Still birds singing. He moved the stylus again. Still birds. ‘I don’t believe this!’ he gasped before moving the needle a final time. And then the song started:
In your mind you have capacity you know
To telepath messages through the vast unknown…
A song about sending telepathic messages to aliens was enough to convince me. I coughed up my 50p and fell in love with the album and the band.
The band Klaatu were something of an enigma. They took their name from the alien in the 1951 science fiction movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, (that’s Tom Cruise in the 2008 remake). Their album sleeve has no band photo, no named credits and no indication of the identity of the band.
This led to some intense press speculation that the band were actually the Beatles reformed under a pseudonym and numerous spurious ‘clues’ were found on the album (and various solo Beatle albums) that were supposed to confirm this. The record label, Capitol, seemed in no hurry to scotch the rumours.[iv]
However, while some songs have a distinct anglophile feel and there are some hints of 60s psychedelia, the singers are clearly no scousers. They were in fact Canadian.
As the Beatle rumours went global, Klaatu were actually in London recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. They were working on their second record Hope, a concept album about an alien civilization that destroyed itself leaving as its only survivor a cosmic lighthouse keeper forever keeping watch over his ruined world. But that’s another story.
Fellow Canadian Richard Carpenter heard Klaatu’s debut album and decided to record a cover version of ‘Calling Occupants’, utilising 125 musicians and making it their biggest (and strangest) recording. The success of the movie Star Wars made this song seem perfect for a single, and though it performed modestly in the US, it was a top ten hit in the UK in 1977. ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognised Anthem of World Contact Day)’ was at the time the longest title of a hit single.[v]
In the movie that gave the band Klaatu its name, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the character Klaatu (an alien peace emissary) uses the pseudonym Carpenter. I assume that this pseudonym is actually a nod to Jesus Christ the Carpenter rather than Richard or Karen Carpenter. Still, it’s a pleasing synchronicity.
The lyrics of ‘Calling Occupants’, written by two members of Klaatu, Terry Draper and John Woloschuk, were inspired by Alfred Bender’s recitation and invite us send a telepathic message – on ‘World Contact Day’ – out to aliens in their spaceships asking them to make contact with Earth and save us from destroying ourselves.
The album’s still one of my favourites and certainly the best 50p I ever spent.
The sixtieth anniversary of World Contact Day in 2013 led to a week of alien and UFO related activities as well as another telepathic attempt to call those occupants of interplanetary craft.[vi]
And now as we approach the seventieth anniversary, we need those interstellar policemen more than ever.
If you want to telepath along on 15 March, the 2013 version of the recitation is below.
Happy World Contact Day!
[ii] Albert K. Bender ‘By mental telepathy’, in Jay David, The Flying Saucer Reader (1967) The New American Library New York
[iii] James W. Moseley and Karl T. Pflock, Shockingly Close to the Truth Prometheus Books Amherst 2002