Ah, the Moon. Our only natural satellite, orbiting Earth, timelessly marking out the seasons, progressively unveiling itself, from crescents to quarters. Isn’t it majestic when it’s round, full and shining shamelessly in the starry night sky?
Beyond our reach until 1969, today it’s a highly coveted destination, with astronauts about to set foot there again…
The Moon back in sight
Why is the Moon suddenly back in sight, when the last crewed mission to the lunar surface was Apollo 17 in 1972? Well, since then a host of scientific discoveries have made this celestial body as rare as it is precious. First, as we suspected – but it was only confirmed in 2008 – there’s water on the Moon. We’ve also found oxygen and hydrogen atoms. And these could also be extracted from the lunar ice to make rocket fuel, for example. Other resources include Helium-3, an energy-producing isotope, which could power future rockets for the next step in the space race: sending people to Mars and deep space. The Moon could serve as a staging post for even more ambitious missions to the Red Planet. What used to be the stuff of science fiction is now becoming reality.
Here at Thales Alenia Space, we have the privilege of being one of the major companies involved in the Lunar Gateway, a planned space station in lunar orbit and one of the pillars of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land people on the Moon by 2024. While American company CommStar Space Communications is counting on us to deploy a hybrid Earth-Moon communications relay satellite by 2023, we’ll also be supplying Earth-Moon telecom technologies for NASA’s VIPER rover, which will search for water on the surface.
As you can see, the Moon is very much part of the daily lives of our engineers specializing in space exploration. But today, it’s not technology or business we want to talk about — it’s music!
We’re passionate enthusiasts first and foremost. So, in this article we wanted to take a break from our work to look at a selection of 10 songs about the Moon — 10 songs that have influenced pop culture forever. Last year, we suggested 10 Moon songs for you to (re)discover. Today, we’re pleased to bring you another 10 lunar-inspired tracks, just because we love them and want to share them with you. So, without further ado (and not necessarily in chronological order)…
Sisters of the Moon – Fleetwood Mac
With their 1977 Rumours album, Fleetwood Mac became one of the most influential rock bands in music history. Doling out one hit after another, the record sold millions around the planet, making the five-piece lineup nothing less than a social phenomenon. Rumours has sold over 40 million copies to date, propelling it into the Top 10 best selling albums of all time. Weaving together elements of folk, rock, country, blues and stripped-down ballads, the record is truly monumental, with such legendary hits as Go Your Own Way, The Chain and Don’t Stop — used by Bill Clinton as a campaign song on numerous occasions in the run-up to the 1992 US presidential elections. But it’s the subsequent double album Tusk, released in 1979, which features the song Sisters of the Moon. After the huge success of Rumours, Tusk was seen as less accessible and was critically less well received than its predecessor. But success is relative — Tusk is no less remarkable and sold millions of copies. The track is sung by Stevie Nicks, who also had huge success with her debut solo album Bella Donna in the early 80s. Other than the title, what’s the connection with the Moon? Well, none — if you take it at face value. But the lyrics by Nicks are mystical, ghostly, esoteric. And how she delivers it is just perfect — her rasping, hypnotic voice just takes you there!
The Killing Moon – Echo & the Bunnymen
Some records are timeless, spanning the decades without aging a bit. That’s the case with Ocean Rain from Echo & the Bunnymen, released in 1984. The lead single, The Killing Moon, was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and has since achieved cult status. The group’s frontman Ian McMulloch is well known for his sweeping statements in interview. Born in Liverpool, home of the Beatles, McMulloch said in the early 80s: “We’re the greatest band in the world, and our new album’s a masterpiece…”. And he was probably right, since they delivered three works of pure genius between 1980 and 1984: Crocodiles (1980), Porcupine (83) and Ocean Rain (84). Musically, they shift between new romanticism, in the noblest sense of the term, new wave, rock and alternative. The cold electronic soundscape was overlaid by warm string arrangements of sheer class. The singer, who co-wrote the song, attributes its astronomical associations to his childhood interest in space. And don’t you think his voice sounds a lot like Bono’s? Soundwise somewhere between The Cure, U2 and The Verve, this Echo & the Bunnymen record transcends time, largely thanks to its rich orchestration and refined string arrangements. Sublime!
Man on the Moon – R.E.M.
After the huge success of their 1991 album Out of Time, featuring the planetary hits Shiny Happy People and Losing My Religion, R.E.M. released an absolute masterpiece in 1992, winning acclaim from critics and fans alike. Automatic for the People contains several sumptuous tracks, not least Everybody Hurts. The record has a restrained, acoustic feel, melancholic in places, but never gloomy. Lead singer Michael Stipe brilliantly combines desolation, quality lyrics and elegant yet understated music. The album, with its timeless production values, contains a real gem, Man on the Moon, which pays homage to American comedian Andy Kaufman, who died in 1984, long before his time. In 1999, movie director Miloš Forman — who also brought us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus — shot a biopic on Kaufman, with Jim Carrey in the lead role. The movie’s title was directly inspired by the R.E.M. track.
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Change of register, we’re now back in 1969. One of the most famous groups of the time was Creedence Clearwater Revival. Formed in San Francisco, home of flower power and the beat generation, Creedence was a long way from the psychedelic pop and rock movements coming out of the West Coast. And far from the pop and folk melodies of the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds or Scott McKenzie. Soundwise, their style was direct and unembellished. CCR was a well-oiled machine, the musicians true professionals. They were much closer to southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, who brought us Simple Man and Sweet Home Alabama, or Jefferson Airplane. What do you think Bad Moon Rising was referring to, given events at the time? A thinly veiled critique of the Nixon administration, the song — unsettling in places — hints at The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan and especially the Vietnam War, which America was embroiled in from 1963 to 1975. This engaging song was the group’s second-biggest hit, just behind Proud Mary.
Moonlight Shadow – Mike Oldfield ft. Maggie Reilly
One of the more surprising songs in our list, but we’re sure you know it. Moonlight Shadow was played all the time on FM stations in Europe for years. But did you really listen to the lyrics? When Maggie Reilly sings “carried away by a moonlight shadow” it’s a direct reference to death. It’s a poetic metaphor for the other side of the mirror. It echoes the line “break on through to the other side” by the Doors. When genius English multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield enlisted Reilly for vocal duties, he asked her to approach it with “the lightness of a butterfly”. Moonlight Shadow is laden with contradictions, torn between the bounciness of the melody — it’s a pop ballad with Celtic influences — the softness of Reilly’s delivery and the thinly veiled violence of the lyrics: “he was shot six times by a man on the run”. It was released to the airwaves in 1983, three years after John Lennon’s murder in the archway of the Dakota, his residence in New York City. Oldfield must have been unconsciously influenced by Lennon’s death as he wrote Moonlight Shadow, but there’s little proof. Either way, it remains his greatest commercial success to date, even ahead of Tubular Bells, a masterpiece of instrumental progressive rock with Celtic influences. The opening theme of that album was used for the soundtrack of William Friedkin’s super-scary 1973 horror movie, The Exorcist.
The Whole of the Moon – The Waterboys
“I saw the crescent / You saw the whole of the Moon” — now there’s a punchline that’s hit home in its time. If you’re not familiar with this track, listen to This is the Sea, the 1985 album by The Waterboys. It was one of the most brilliant albums of the year. The sound of the band’s early albums became known as “Big Music”. The records are extremely well produced, epic, grandiose in the noblest sense of the word, heroic and lyrical. The arrangements are so meticulous, you’d think the album came out last week. The voice of Scottish lead singer Mike Scott does the rest. The soundscape is similar to U2’s Unforgettable Fire and the early albums by Simple Minds, with resolutely pop/rock content and Celtic influences in places. Their next album Fisherman’s Blues, released in 1988 and equally brilliant, marked a sea change in their sound and is a genuine Celtic rock production. The Whole of the Moon is their greatest commercial success. Aided by Mike Scott’s charisma, The Waterboys certainly deserve a global reputation, don’t you think?
Pink Moon – Nick Drake
Some artists never gain the recognition they deserve. And Nick Drake was one of them. This extremely talented young English singer-songwriter recorded three excellent studio albums. All three were commercial failures, but all three have since been included in the 1,000 greatest albums of all time. Pink Moon is the third and final album by this hugely talented artist, who died at just 26. The clarity of his guitar playing, with such a delicate plucking style, and the poetry of the lyrics have earned Drake significant posthumous popularity as a timeless cult artist. His unmistakable style sets him apart from other folk singers of the time. The extremely minimalist, uncluttered arrangements give the impression it was recorded only recently. It hasn’t aged a bit, though it came out in 1972. In 1999, the title track was used for a TV ad for a Volkswagen convertible. This led to a surge in record sales and chart success, albeit 27 years too late. It just goes to show: when a song is genuinely great it can resurface years later to reach new generations. And that’s exactly what Pink Moon has done.
Marquee Moon – Television
Marquee Moon is probably the longest “Moon song” of all time, or at least one of them. It runs for 10 minutes 40 seconds, during which two furious guitars battle it out. Released in 1977, Marquee Moon is an excellent record from the post-punk period — up there with Horses by Patti Smith or Talking Heads 77, their debut album. Tom Verlaine (born Thomas Miller) really is at the controls of this album, writing all the lyrics and music. A literature buff, Verlaine grew up devouring the poems and novels of Bill Knott, Rilke, Hamsun and Lautréamont. With Marquee Moon, he set the bar high, garnering the acclaim of rock critics, despite a mixed reception from the public. The album marked a break with all that had gone before. Indeed, you might say there’s a before Marquee Moon and after. The New York sound was deliberately cold, even glacial, and urban. But it’s all in there — lyrics, music, handpicked musicians. Marquee Moon is deemed one of the best albums of 1977. If you like Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Talking Heads and The Strokes, you’ll definitely be impressed by this first, highly ambitious record from Television.
Child of the Moon – The Rolling Stones
It’s not the best known song by the Rolling Stones. Released as the B-side to the global hit single Jumping Jack Flash, Child of the Moon contains some cryptic lyrics and strange, psychedelic music. It’s often interpreted as an enigmatic declaration of love by Mick Jagger to Marianne Faithfull. Recorded in 1968, the song, with its meticulous orchestration, is a mix of blues rock and Cajun rock. And with its poetic words and rhythmical music, rather melancholic in places, Child of the Moon is one of the forgotten treasures of the Stones back catalogue. If you’re a fan, well worth a (re)play!
Moonage Daydream – David Bowie
We couldn’t end this list without a nod to David Bowie. Last year, if you remember, we looked at Space Oddity — and for good reason. The song had been used by the BBC for its live coverage of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. Bowie had always been passionate about science fiction and wrote numerous songs about space: Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Starman and Ziggy Stardust to name just a few. The song we look at today is Moonage Daydream, which appears on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the album that established Bowie as a legend. Prior to Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had achieved some success but was struggling to find his musical identity. But was this really what he was trying to do, since none of his albums was like anything before it? Having oscillated between folk, blues and pop, Bowie was now propelled to the rank of international superstar in the Glam Rock genre, alongside such artists as Marc Bolan of T. Rex and the members of Roxy Music. And with Ziggy Stardust, he raised the bar. It wasn’t just a record but a concept album, like The Wall by Pink Floyd or Melody Nelson from Serge Gainsbourg. The story has all the makings of a sci-fi movie. Earth only has five years left before it will be destroyed (hence the track Five Years). Suddenly, alien Ziggy Stardust arrives on the planet with his Spiders from Mars, becomes a rock star, descends into excess of every kind, then finally ends his days (in Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide). A musical feat that just had to be attempted, without resorting to overdramatization. Bowie rose to the challenge most convincingly, writing all the tracks except one and working with a genius guitarist and arranger in the person of Mick Ronson. The album is excellent, and the song Moonage Daydream, with its incredible guitar playing, is a strong track. Make no mistake, the album is much more complex than it first appears. Bowie’s voice transforms from one track to the next. He also addresses more serious issues, pays homage to the suffragettes with Suffragette City and decries Earth’s fragility and decline with Five Years (you could draw a parallel today with the direct impact of climate change on our planet…). Ziggy Stardust propelled Bowie to the lofty heights of success, which it took him years to get used to and where he shall forever remain.
There are so many other Moon songs as well. We could cite Blue Moon by Beck, Half Moon by Janis Joplin, Mountains of the Moon by the Grateful Dead, New Moon on Monday by Duran Duran, Mr Moonlight by the Beatles or the albums Moondance by Van Morrison and Moon Safari from French electro band Air.
See you soon for the next “Space Chronicles”!
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