The anniversary of Apollo 11's successful mission deserves a lunar-themed playlist of bangers
This weekend marks 50 years since NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong boldly took mankind’s first step on the surface of the Moon, so make sure you toast one to Buzz Aldrin, the oft-forgotten Michael Collins (who, despite going all the way into space, didn’t actually get to join his esteemed colleagues for a casual lunar stroll) and the late Armstrong at some point this week.
The success of the US’s world-renowned Apollo program, typified by that moonwalkin’ Apollo 11 crew half a century ago, has proved to be a creative catalyst for many a songwriter in the years since, with our enduring fascination with the Moon and space having been brought that little bit closer to home by Armstrong and co.’s antics in 1969. From Frank Sinatra to Arctic Monkeys, plenty of our favourite musicians have been, and will likely continue to be, inspired to pick up their pen and/or instruments after looking up at the soothing yet curious glow of the Earth’s all-natural satellite.
Here’s our selection, then, of some rather excellent Moon tunes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Moon landing.
R.E.M. – ‘Man On The Moon’
A classic and a curveball to kick us off. Rather than lauding Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins’ achievement, the actual meaning behind the title of R.E.M.’s country-rock classic is instead a far more ambiguous affair. Written about the surrealist entertainer Andy Kaufman, Michael Stipe utilised Kaufman’s life story as a vehicle to briefly explore a range of subjects which include the Moon landing (and the tiresome conspiracy theories about whether or not it actually happened). “Andy Kaufman was a performance artist,” bassist Mike Mills told NME in 2017. “He wasn’t a comedian, he wasn’t a comic, he was a performance artist. Some of what he did was funny, some of it was annoying, some it was irritating – but it was always provocative. As such, as someone that you couldn’t really pin down in terms of what he was and what he was not. Was he dead? Was he faking?
“He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things [in ‘Man On The Moon’]. Did the Moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.” Still, it’s got a good chorus, right?
Björk – ‘Moon’
“As the lukewarm hands of the Gods / Came down and gently picked my adrenaline pearls,” is quite the way to start any song, but what else would you expect from Björk? The harp-heavy opening track on her 2011 multimedia album ‘Biophilia’ addresses the long-debated connection between lunar phases and the human body, as well as the regular opportunities one has to start fresh with each new lunar cycle. “The symbolism of the Moon as the realm of imagination, melancholy, and regeneration is expressed in ‘Moon’ by musical patterns… which wax and wane, and by lyrics about rebirth,” the very detailed entry for ‘Moon’ on the ‘Biophilia Education Project’ reasons. “The certain musical scale of ‘Moon’ affects the emotional feel of the song, melancholia.” Have a listen and see if it moves you.
Frank Sinatra – ‘Fly Me to the Moon’
Originally written in 1954 by jazz composer Bart Howard, his creation really took flight (sorry) and grabbed imaginations when ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ released his version of the crooner classic in 1964 — just as the Apollo program was starting to get serious. Five years later, it became the first ever song to be played on the Moon after Buzz Aldrin grabbed the aux cord (sorry, cassette) and put on Sinatra’s Quincy Jones-arranged take on ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ just before stepping off the spacecraft. “The first music played on the Moon…” Jones reflected to The New York Times in 1990. “I freaked.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival – ‘Bad Moon Rising’
Obvious titular Moon reference aside, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s inclusion here for the timelessly jaunty ‘Bad Moon Rising’ is particularly fitting as the song, like the Moon landing, is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Reaching the heights of number two in the US Hot 100 singles charts in late June 1969, ‘Bad Moon Rising’ would’ve definitely been blasting out of NASA’s radio as they prepared for the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16.
David Bowie – ‘Space Oddity’
Bowie’s astronomical breakthrough single also turns 50 this month, with the 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired song introducing the world to ‘Major Tom’ for the first time. Released days before Armstrong and Aldrin stepped foot on the Moon, ‘Space Oddity’ was rather inevitably used by the BBC for their coverage of the Moon landing. “It was picked up by the British television and used as the background music for the landing itself,” Bowie later recalled. “I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all!
“[‘Space Oddity’] wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a Moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that!”
The Police – ‘Walking on the Moon’
Who knew Sting was such a space nerd? Well, actually, he isn’t. “I woke up in a Munich hotel room and had that bass riff in my head and started walking round the room,” he told Event Magazine back in 2013 about the origin of this Police track. “‘Walking on the moon‘ seemed a useful metaphor for being in love; that feeling of lightness, of being able to walk on air. It’s an old idea.” OK, so it may not explicitly be about the Moon landing, but Sting and his bandmates did pay homage to the Apollo program by trekking out to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for ‘Walking On The Moon”s accompanying video.
Radiohead – ‘Sail to the Moon’
As you might’ve gathered from the title of their spectacular ‘A Moon-Shaped Pool’ back in 2016, Thom Yorke and co. are quite big about the Moon. 13 years previously, the ethereal ‘Hail to the Thief’ track ‘Sail to the Moon’ saw Yorke keeping it brief but impactful after (presumably) gazing up at the Moon one day. “I was dropped from moonbeam / And sailed on shooting stars,” he sings, before taking one of the album’s many thinly-veiled digs at George W. Bush (remember him?). “Maybe you’ll be president / But know right from wrong / Or in the flood, you’ll build an Ark / And sail us to the moon.” Count us in!
Janis Joplin – ‘Half Moon’
Released posthumously as part of Joplin’s ‘Pearl’ album in 1971, ‘Half Moon”s blues-rock fervour still makes for an invigorating listen today. Joplin’s distinctive and powerful vocals are of course a key ingredient here, with the Moon evidently serving as a key inspiration (“Half Moon, night time sky / Seven stars, heaven’s eyes“) for this particular track.
Daft Punk – ‘Contact’
“Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about, and it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby,” the vocal sample on ‘Contact’ begins, ushering in the gigantic closer to Daft Punk’s still-stunning ‘Random Access Memories’. That sample is taken from audio recorded during the final Moon mission, Apollo 17, and Thomas Bangalter’s lasting admiration for the Apollo program and the late Eugene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon) was clear when explaining in a rare 2013 interview why they’d chosen to use that particular sample. “The last Apollo,” Bangalter reverently told GQ about the poignancy of Cernan’s transmission to mission control. “The last captain of the last mission…”
What next: robots on the moon? You shouldn’t rule out anything when it comes to Daft Punk…
Pink Floyd – ‘Brain Damage / Eclipse’
‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ had to be included here, and we’ve selected the final two tracks from the seminal concept album for inclusion on our Moon-inspired list. The Moon isn’t cast in the best light here, with the final lines of ‘Eclipse’ concluding: “And everything under the sun is in tune / But the sun is eclipsed by the moon…“
Roger Waters, who wrote both songs, later cleared up all doubt and clarified that “the album uses the sun and the Moon as symbols: the light and the dark, the good and the bad, the life force as opposed to the death force. I think it’s a very simple statement saying that all the good things life can offer are there for us to grasp, but that the influence of some dark force in our natures prevents us from seizing them. The song addresses the listener and says that if you, the listener, are affected by that force, and if that force is a worry to you, well, I feel exactly the same too.”
Arctic Monkeys – ‘Four Out of Five’
The Moon continues to be a muse for musicians in the present-day, with Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ referencing the name of Apollo 11’s lunar landing site (not the ‘Hotel + Casino’ bit, obviously) in its title. A Kubrick-inspired Alex Turner went a bit Mr. Burns-Spruce Moose in the video for the single ‘Four Out of Five’, which advertises the Moon-situated titular hotel and its exquisite “taqueria on the roof“. All together now: “Lunar surface on a Saturday night, dressed up in silver and white…”
And finally: Beastie Boys – ‘Intergalactic’
Alright, so there’s no actual mention of the Moon or the 1969 landing here, but: a) the original demo apparently contained an excellent reference to Neil Armstrong playing golf on the Moon, b) this song is still an absolute banger.
Happy Moon Landing Day, everyone!