Stephen Hawking, Rock Star: How He Helped Shape Songs by Pink Floyd, U2 and Others
Renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. And while he may have been more interested in classical music than popular music, he still managed to notch up an impressive series of rock star credentials.
While the works of composers like Wagner helped him deal with a rare and gradually paralyzing disease that was diagnosed when he was 21, he retained an interest in the world of rock. Asked about having attended a Depeche Mode show, Hawking once said, “It was a great concert, they had real energy. I don't think many people would have expected to see me there but I'm very glad I went, even though I was sitting just in front of the speakers and my ears were ringing for the next 24 hours. .. I try to make it to a pop concert every now and again. I have also seen Pink Floyd and Tracy Chapman while I was in the U.S.A. And Status Quo...but I left after 20 minutes – they were terrible.”
Hawking also helped shape the works of some rock artists over the years. His distinctive voice -- channeled through a speech-generating device he controlled with a cheek muscle -- showed up in songs by Pink Floyd, U2 and others.
David Gilmour was so moved by a 1994 TV ad featuring Hawking that he used samples from it on not one but two Pink Floyd songs: “Keep Talking” from 1994’s The Division Bell and “Talkin’ Hawin’” from 2014’s The Endless River.
Watch Stephen Hawking's 'Speechless' TV Commercial
“This was the most powerful piece of television advertising that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gilmour said soon after The Division Bell’s release. “I just found it so moving that I felt that I had to try and do something with it, or with him or something, in some way.”
Listen to Pink Floyd's 'Keep Talking'
Listen to Pink Floyd's 'Talkin' Hawkin''
When U2 recorded their concert movie Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris in December 2015, they were performing a show that had been rescheduled as a result of the Paris terrorist attack the previous month. Hawking’s pre-recorded speech, “Stephen Hawking Global Citizen,” a feature on the Innocence + Experience tour, achieved the desired result.
“When we see the Earth from space we see ourselves as a whole," Hawking said. "We see the unity, but not the divisions. One planet, one human race. We are here together and we need to live together with tolerance and respect … We must become global citizens … Be brave. Be determined. Overcome the odds. It can be done.”
Watch Stephen Hawking Voiceover at U2 Concert
The opening track on Norwegian punk band Turbonegro’s 2005 album Party Animals, "Intro: The Party Zone,” features Hawking’s familiar electronic voice saying, “Greetings, my name is Stephen Hawking. Anyway, please follow our denim leaders as they enter the final black hole – a new dimension in rock music. Welcome to the party zone.” It’s not clear whether he collaborated with the band or whether they sampled or copied his voice from elsewhere ... or even if he was aware of the tribute.
Listen to Turbonegro's 'The Party Zone'
British comedian Jon Holmes’s show on BBC 6 Music, which ended in 2012, included a section in which Hawking read out lyrics suggested by listeners, with performances having included Electric Six’s “Gay Bar” and Zodiac Mindwarp’s “Prime Mover.”
Incidentally, that's not Hawking on Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” from 1997’s OK Computer. It's actually a speech synthesizer that came with Apple Macintosh computers of the era.
Listen to Radiohead's 'Fitter Happier'
Yes sang about exploring the depths of the famed scientist's mind on "Real Love," a track from their 1994 album Talk. Todd Rundgren paid tribute to him with a song called "Hawking" on his 1989 album Nearly Human. “The inspiration was not anecdotal – one person with a disease – so much as the concept of what bravery is and what humanity is,” Rundgren told the L.A. Times in 1990. “So many people waste themselves. They just kind of fall into an average consumerist existence, and life is an endless round of the latest TV show and the latest movie. They forget the greater questions of what existence is about, why these things are here for our benefit.”
Listen to Todd Rundgren's "Hawking'
Brian May, Nikki Sixx, Steven Tyler and Paul Stanley have all paid tribute to Hawking since his death was announced. The Foo Fighters even included part of the professor’s quote in their tweet: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up.”
Check out some of the tributes below.