“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” These now famous words were spoken by Neil Armstrong, commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, as he set foot for the first time on the lunar surface. Since then the phrase has entered the global vernacular, and the event is burned into our collective consciousness. When you talk with people who watched the landing live on their TV sets, in black & white, they always remember exactly where they were at the time. So near, yet so far away: who would have thought that we would actually reach the Moon in our lifetimes? As famed French chanteuse Edith Piaf sang in her 1950 song, L’Hymne à l’amour (“Hymn to Love”), “I’d grab the Moon if only you asked me”. In the immediate post-war period, the Moon seemed as distant as ever – that “inaccessible star” as Jacques Brel called it in his song La Quête (“The Quest”/“The Impossible Dream”, from “Man of La Mancha”). After thousands of years of dreams, fantasies, books and songs, the United States would be the first nation to unfurl its flag on the Moon, on July 20, 1969. At Thales Alenia Space, we’re partners in some of the most fantastic missions to explore the Solar System, including a number of Moon exploration projects. In this article, we wanted to share our passion for space by taking a closer look at ten songs about the Moon and/or space in general, songs that have left their mark on pop music over the years. So join us on a syncopated voyage to the Moon, not in chronological order, but as the mood strikes…
Fly Me to the Moon
This song was written in 1954 by Bart Howard, who originally called it In Other Words. The song has been covered by countless artists, but it’s still Frank Sinatra’s familiar 1964 version that made it a worldwide hit. His jazz-inspired take on the original came just at the right time for America, so recently traumatized by the assassination of President Kennedy in late 1963. In fact, it was JFK himself who announced to Congress back in 1961 that the United States would set foot on the Moon by the end of the decade. More recently, Sinatra’s timeless version has featured in a number of films, including Wall Street directed by Oliver Stone in 1987, Apollo 13 by Ron Howard in 1995 and Deep Impact by Mimi Leder in 1998.
Still in the sixties, but in an entirely different vein. The 1961 Blake Edwards film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was a smash hit, largely due to Audrey Hepburn’s unforgettable performance. The song Moon River provided a leitmotif for the film, softly sung by the actress herself. With words and music by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, Moon River would win an Oscar in 1962 for best original song. There are over 500 recorded versions of this song.
Fast forward a few years, and straight into the pop charts… Enter the early 1970s, a time of bell-bottom pants and ruffled shirts with butterfly collars… The king of folk-pop was Cat Stevens, a British singer-songwriter born in London to Greek-Swedish parents and with a mystical and spiritual take on life. Nature and the elements are recurring themes in his song. So it’s hardly surprising that the Moon inspired this iconic acoustic melody, a track on one of his most famous albums, “Teaser and the Firecat” (1971). He sang “I’m being followed by a Moonshadow…” but aren’t we all?
Another classic track that’s timelier than ever! Following the huge success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s now the turn of Rocket Man, a recent film that depicts the skyrocketing career of Elton John, especially during the key period from 1969 to 1983. We’re still in the early 1970s, but now seemingly on another planet. Ever the eccentric, Elton struts about in platform shoes, weird and wonderful glasses and outlandish costumes – including his famous baseball uniform. It’s all about extravagance and excess, but with tongue firmly in cheek. In his famous track Rocket Man from the 1972 album Honky Château (recorded at the Château d’Hérouville), what was he really trying to tell us? Some saw the anguish of the lone astronaut sent into space, not sure he’ll come back alive. Others cited a virtually open reference to recreational drugs: "And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then". It was the magnificent talent of wordsmith Bernie Taupin who made it all so delectably ambiguous. While Rocket Man doesn’t refer to the Moon directly, it earns its place in this list since it’s a space song that still resonates today.
Walking on the Moon
British band The Police took things even higher in 1979 when they released the hit album Regatta de Blanc, a distinctive mix of rock, pop and especially reggae, a huge influence on this album. Singer-songwriter Sting evokes the parallels between being in love and being practically gravity-free on the Moon. He says, “Being in love is to be relieved of gravity.” We agree! The band played the part too, since they shot the video clip at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And it’s not sure the straight-laced guys at NASA were happy about drummer Stewart Copeland using an old Saturn rocket engine nozzle to beat out the rhythm!
Dark Side of the Moon
Dark Side of the Moon has snuck sideways into our list, since we’re not talking about one track, but a whole album! Pink Floyd’s masterpiece is the third best-selling albums of all time. Not to mention that the Dark Side poster – a striking image of light dispersed through a prism – was hung on the bedroom walls of millions of teenagers around the world. It’s a truly groundbreaking album. Floyd started out in the mid-sixties. Led by poet Syd Barrett, they were the epitome of British underground psychedelic music. The band changed their mood in the early 1970s, becoming more mystical and moving into “prog rock” (you know, those songs that lasted ten minutes or more…). The album was a monster hit when it came out in 1973, partly because it was so far ahead of its time. Today, it hasn’t aged a bit. The band’s new driving forces were Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, since Syd Barrett had spaced out a few years earlier... Dark Side is a raw yet acutely insightful album, talking about all aspects of society, including its “dark side”. It touches on the themes of crass consumerism, money, the passing of time and madness (referring to Barrett). It short, it’s the most successful concept album of all time. But what’s it got to do with the Moon? Frankly, except for the sometimes airy aspect, nothing! In passing, it’s worth noting that a Chinese space probe landed on the far (or “dark”) side of the Moon in 2019 – a world first. Had they listened to Dark Side of the Moon when they were teenagers? We’d like to think so.
For Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, the Moon is serious business! Supposedly, he’s more likely to communicate on days when there’s a full Moon… After releasing the album Harvest in 1972, a must in the country-folk-rock repertoire, Young returned in 1992 with Harvest Moon, a sumptuous and now classic album, very much in the folk vein. The title track is just as wonderful. For anyone who hasn’t listened to Neil Young, check out Harvest Moon. It’s light, airy and heady – in short, out of this world!
Now here’s a song with a long and varied career! Written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart (music and lyrics) in 1934, it subsequently went through several rewrites. It was recorded by a number of artists in the 1930s, including American jazz singer Connee Boswell. It just kept being reborn, with successful recordings in 1949, the 1950s and even the early 1960s. Perhaps the three best-known versions today are by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley. People tend to read the song differently. The narrator, who’s struggling at the start of the song, tells the (blue) Moon, his confident, that he’s sad and alone. The title, of course, is from the well-known expression, “once in a blue moon”, referring to a second full moon in a single month, which only occurs once a year and is called a “blue moon”. The whole song is a play on these words. And in this case, the blue moon saves the narrator, since he falls in love again during the song. Blue Moon is in fact a blues-inflected ballad with – unusually for the genre – a happy ending. Perhaps the most moving version is by Billie Holiday – magic, fragile and timelessly elegant.
Blue Moon of Kentucky
After Blue Moon came Blue Moon of Kentucky, written in 1946 by bluegrass musician Bill Monroe. It’s been recorded many times, including by Elvis Presley in 1956 – who was just 21 at the time and in his musical prime. He was still recording with Sun, under the guidance of owner and producer Sam Philips. In Presley’s version, this song of desperate, fleeting love is sung at a driving rockabilly pace, unlike earlier versions, which are more country or bluegrass style, or a combination of the two. Elvis could sing all music styles, not just rock’n’roll and country, but also the blues, gospel and soul (think Suspicious Minds). Even Elvis was looking skyward in the 1950s, with titles like Blue Moon and Blue Moon of Kentucky.
It would be hugely remiss not to include David Bowie in this list. He didn’t refer specifically to the Moon, but Bowie was definitely a major “space fan”, with songs such as Space Oddity, Life on Mars, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Ashes to Ashes, etc.
The song Space Oddity, directly inspired by the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001, A Space Odyssey, was even broadcast by the BBC in 1969 as part of their coverage of the Apollo 11 mission – you can’t get much closer than that! It was also released as a single just five days before the Apollo 11 launch.
The song’s lyrics are a sci-fi film in a capsule. After a faultless launch, Major Tom runs into a technical hitch following his spacewalk. He is fated to drift in space, all alone in his vessel and facing an ineluctable end. The famous line, “Can you hear me Major Tom?” implies a loss of contact between ground control and the astronaut. The track has been rereleased several times and has hugely contributed to David Bowie’s international fame. In May 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sang the song while at the controls of the International Space Station. It was again a huge hit, this time online, and cemented David Bowie’s reputation as the “Space Singer”. When a song is that brilliant, it simply doesn’t age, and that is indeed the case for Space Oddity 50 years on!
See you soon for the next “Space Chronicles”.
Fist artistic view © Thales Alenia Space/Marchioro