The Curious Rock Career of L. Ron Hubbard, the Ultimate Cult Musician

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 1 2014 11:56 AM

L. Rock Hubbard

Revisiting the curious career of the ultimate cult musician.

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L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, crooner.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The early 1980s were a particularly strange time for Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s controversial founder, kept such a low profile that rumors abounded that he had, in the parlance of Scientology, “dropped the body.” The rumors gained such currency that Hubbard’s son, Ronald DeWolf, filed to become an appointed trustee of his father’s estate on the grounds that Hubbard had not made a public appearance since 1980, and was most likely dead.

Hubbard, whose fetish for secrecy and privacy rivaled late Howard Hughes’, countered the claims not by making an appearance but by signing an affidavit from his secret lair that asserted that he was experiencing a late burst of multifaceted, runaway creativity. “As Thoreau secluded himself by Walden Pond,” Hubbard waggishly boasted, “so I have chosen to do so in my own fashion. I am actively writing, having published Battlefield Earth, and my Space Jazz album.” (For the record, at no point during his seclusion in Walden Pond did Thoreau release an album named Space Jazz.)

The novel Battlefield Earth plays a central role, of course, in Scientology’s strange relationship with pop culture. But even people morbidly obsessed with Hubbard might not realize that before John Travolta donned platform boots to cackle maniacally at the foolishness of puny man-animals in the film version of Battlefield Earth, the book had been adapted into an album written by Hubbard called Space Jazz. Space Jazz wasn’t the only album masterminded by Hubbard in the final years of his life, as the eccentric guru boogied his way toward death. Collectively, these albums offer a fascinating glimpse into both Hubbard’s psyche and rampant egomania. (To describe these albums as music at all represents runaway narcissism on Hubbard’s part.) Though designed as proselytizing tools, these albums instead function as fascinating sociological and anthropological artifacts chronicling the secretive and insular world of Scientology at a strange, uncertain time.

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Space Jazz, released in 1982, was the product of a very specific cultural moment. Thanks to the popularity of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, space was the place and science fiction was the hottest genre around. Scientology wanted in, so an ambitious plan was hatched: Hubbard’s epic 1982 Battlefield Earth novel, to be followed by Space Jazz, and then a big-budget Battlefield Earth movie to follow in the mid-’80s, with John Travolta in the lead as hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Battlefield Earth wasn’t made into a film until 2000, at which point Hubbard was long dead and Travolta, aged out of playing a boy hero, was cast as the villain Terl instead. So Space Jazz is a forgotten curio despite its connection to one of the most notorious flops in pop culture.

Hubbard’s sonic space opera is, as you might imagine, a staggeringly strange piece of work, a bewildering cross between Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack (whose hero is referenced in the shameless opening track “Golden Age of Sci-Fi,” along with Superman and Buck Rogers), an amateur radio play, and a campy audiobook that goes overboard with special effects and musical cues. If you have not recently read all 1,050 pages of Battlefield Earth or seen the film, the album is completely incomprehensible; if you’re familiar with the story, it’s mildly comprehensible.

Musically, the album alternates between canned uplift (“Jonnie”, “Golden Age of Sci-Fi”) and droning dirges, broken up with patches of comic-book dialogue, robot voices, and laser-gun sound effects. A then-new, extremely expensive digital sampling synthesizer called a Fairlight CMI peppers the album; Hubbard seemed to imagine it represents the sound of the future, but it actually sounds more like the rightly discarded mistake of an abandoned past. Even for Battlefield Earth buffs like myself, Space Jazz is less a guilty pleasure than a harrowing endurance test. With Space Jazz, L. Ron Hubbard set out to re-create Battlefield Earth as a purely sonic experience. He succeeded all too well.

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Space Jazz was followed four years later by an album inspired by another of Hubbard’s late-period magnum opuses, the aforementioned Mission Earth, which Edgar Winter adapted for a concept album ostensibly written by the reclusive senior citizen, who had officially died by the time the album was released in 1986. So if Edgar Winter’s Mission Earth soars above Space Jazz to earn the dubious distinction of the greatest album L. Ron Hubbard ever wrote, that’s largely because the previous effort set the bar so low. Of the four albums credited to Hubbard, Mission Earth is the only one that actually sounds like music. It’s the only album that could conceivably be played on the radio without prompting confused cries of, “Why?” and “What?” and “Is this even music?” and “How could this have happened?”

The guitarist deserves a St. Jude medal for making typically convoluted couplets like “To Mission Earth I was assigned/ A planet that was seizure inclined” sound like the base components of actual music, and not the ravings of a madman. It helps that Mission Earth has a driving, propulsive beat that makes it easy to overlook the profound silliness of the lyrics—and that Winter brings to the project a scary conviction and effete theatricality to rival John Travolta’s in Battlefield Earth.

If I might damn Mission Earth with faint praise, it has some of the kitschy, campy stomp of The Elder, Kiss’ notorious concept album. Songs like “Just a Kid” and “Bang Bang” have the infectious hooks, narrative thrust and the ripe theatricality of show tunes; they’re not good by any stretch of the imagination, but they are listenable, which is more than can be said of any of the other albums Hubbard is credited as having written.

Thanks to Winter, Mission Earth rises to the level of cheesy mediocrity. Given his source material, that is a remarkable achievement. A lot of talented professionals worked on the commercially available albums credited to Hubbard, including Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, and Stanley Clarke (as well as Winter, of course), but Mission Earth is the only project that feels remotely professional.

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