MOJO celebrates moon landing week with XI classic 'n' crazy tunes about space. David Sheppard sets the controls...
You'll need to have been holidaying on another planet to miss the fact that this week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo XI mission--mankind's giant leap to the Moon. Human enthralment with our nearest celestial neighbor has taken many forms but it's a fascination that's perhaps found its most persistently evocative expression in music. Where would the love song be without a convenient heavenly body to rhyme with the month of June?
The arc of public wonderment at NASA's achievements can actually be mapped in popular song. It started with awed, early '60s homages like Walter Brennan and the Johnny Mann Singers' bathetic "The Epic Ride Of John H. Glenn" and The Tornados' buzzing, eponymous tribute to the Telstar satellite, evolved into mid-decade space fantasies like Pink Floyd's "Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun" and The Byrds' "Mr Spaceman" before washing up in the post-Apollo XI ennui of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," Elton John's "Rocket Man" and Lou Reed's "Satellite Of Love."
Music had gone hand-in-pressurized-glove with the lunar program. For their own amusement, each of the Apollo astronauts was issued with a new-fangled personal cassette player (a 'Moonwalkman'?) and even as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to disturb the lunar soil, their colleague Michael Collins zoomed above the Sea Of Tranquility in his lonely Columbia command capsule immersed in the suitably wonderstruck strains of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. More typical Apollo astronauts plumped for reassuringly homely country music (although the inscrutable Armstrong took a tape of spooky theremin études).
Less than a month after the marvel of the Moon landings the Woodstock Festival would offer a very different kind of epochal '60s moment--the hirsute ying to Apollo XI's crew-cut yang. Music's relationship with space would shift perceptibly: humankind's touching of the void a still fertile, if increasingly ambiguous metaphor for songwriters to conjure with.
With all this in mind, here follows a miscellany of 11 (geddit?) post-Apollonian space songs which you almost certainly won't be hearing during NASA's 40th anniversary celebrations.
The Byrds--"Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins": An economical one minute and forty seconds mostly given over to a nerve-jangling launch pad countdown before Roger McGuinn's strummed autoharp and plaintive vocal peal off a brief but touching folk homage to the Apollo XI crew.
Gil Scott-Heron--"Whitey On The Moon": Like Stewart, proto-rapper Scott-Heron can't accept American space triumphalism with the country blighted by social inequality: "No hot water, no toilets, no lights / But Whitey's on the moon"--caustic but funky.
Duke Ellington--"Moon Maiden": Outer space vibraphone and a sand-and-molasses Ellington vocal turn capturing of the moon into a thing of lubricious seduction ("I've made my approach / And then revolved...")
Harry Nilsson--"Spaceman": Capacious orchestral pop number tips a laconic space helmet to post-mission, psychological emptiness--quite possibly an allegory for the late singer's own protracted "orbit" of debauchery.
Sun Ra--"Space Is The Place": A free-jazz celebration of the heavens from an ensemble whose leader claimed to hail from Saturn. Look out for massed astral chanting, comet tail sax solos, alien synths and what sounds like a gaggle of testy space geese.
Brian Eno--"Silver Morning": Highlight of Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks album, recorded to soundtrack the space documentary For All Mankind. Collaborator Daniel Lanois' twangy electric guitar cadences aptly bridge the chasm between the heavenly firmament and a Houston honky-tonk.
OMD--"Apollo XI": Frenetic synths and breezy percussion frame a litany of iconic, sampled Apollo XI soundbites, including Armstrong's legendary "One Giant Leap" speech. It's essentially a pocket history of the first lunar landing that you can moonwalk to.
Parliament--"Mothership Connection (Starchild)": Bonkers funk outing on which band leader Bootsy Collins (in Messianic "Starchild" guise) invites us to board his Mothership to "Do the loose booty"--not something you can imagine Armstrong and co readily assenting to, especially as it ends in a forbidding explosion.