I never cease to be amazed at the breadth of incredible music from the past that’s out there to be discovered. The rarities that get excavated by musical archaeologists like Light in the Attic, Numero, Now Again, Finders Keepers, Johnny Trunk and the like, conjure for me the cavernous warehouse in New Mexico at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only instead of ancient artefacts and alien spacecraft, the crates are filled with vinyl and reel to reel masterpieces of every shade of ‘what-ifs’, ‘might’ve beens’ and ‘ahead of their times’.
Jim Sullivan’s 1969 bone fide masterpiece UFO is one such record, that made no impact on its release and were it not for a reissue by Light in the Attic might have remained forever a jealously guarded secret, amongst the cellophane protected obscurities of the most dedicated collectors.
Sullivan was a big Irish-American with a UFO obsession who grew up in South California and later moved to Los Angeles to try his luck as a musician. In the late 60s he got a residency singing and playing his guitar at the Raft club in Malibu, a haunt for LA’s hip young things like Lee Majors and Harry Dean Stanton, and where friends scrabbled together the money to lay down his songs in the studio, backed by the Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector’s session musicians. The result was just under 30 minutes of the most beautifully crafted, joyous yet melancholic and eerie Americana that flows like one unified piece of music composed of 10 perfect songs clocking in at around three minutes each.
On March 4, 1975, Sullivan got in his VW Beetle and began driving on the open highway from LA to Nashville, where his estranged wife, Kathie Doran, was living and performing. He checked into La Mesa Motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, but didn’t sleep there. He was reportedly seen walking away from his car, which he abandoned at a ranch 26 miles from the motel, into the New Mexico desert, and was never seen again. In the car he’d left his money, clothes, guitar and a box of unsold records, each one a little, black, plastic disc of other-worldly musical perfection, with songs about UFOs, and leaving your family to drive on long dark highways to meet “the Magic Man”.
5 other great American UFO songs:
The Pixies – Motorway to Roswell (1991)
It’s never made sense to me why Trompe Le Monde, The Pixies’ swansong, is almost universally considered their weakest (It’s their most interesting, I reckon).
‘Motorway to Roswell’ is the penultimate on the record and kind of functions as their bow-out, the slightly eerie piano line repeating as they leave the stage after Frank Black has repeated the line to a crescendo, each time with more gusto: “I started driving on the Motorway…”
Steve Vai – Little Green Men (1984)
Vai was a hair-metal figure of ridicule in the grunge era of my youth. I don’t know why I ended up listening to Flexible, the record Vai recorded at home (maybe via Zappa), but that’s when I heard Little Green Men. It’s not everyone’s cup of mushroom tea, but I’d love to live on a planet where this song was appreciated.
Megadeath – Hangar 18 (1990)
More Roswell references except with a lot more double kick drum and rip-the-arse-out-of-it guitar solos (while Dave Mustaine was singing about beer).
The Ramones – Zero Zero UFO (1989)
I love the line: “If you think it’s a pack of lies, I saw it with my own eyes”
Model 500 – No UFOs (1985)
Model 500 was Juan Atkins’ post-Cybotron project. This was Techno before Techno existed, and Atkins was shaping the Afrofuturist sci-fi aesthetic from the off. While a club track, this works as a proper song too.