At 7:59 pm on Sunday, July 20, 1969—50 years ago today—a human being first set foot on another world.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent two hours, 31 minutes and 19 seconds on the moon, while Michael Collins was in lunar orbit above them. They collected rocks and soil, planted a flag and left a plaque with drawings of the Earth, the signatures of Aldrin, Armstrong, Collins and Richard Nixon, and the words: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
That’s right. When the Earth dies and all traces of humanity are wiped from the planet by winds and tides, the only American presidents whose names will remain recorded in the entire universe will be Barack Obama’s on Mars and Richard Nixon’s on the moon.
While I’d rather write a heartfelt tribute to those three great people and their legendary accomplishment, unfortunately, this is a humor column on a music site, so the best I can do is songs about space interspersed with jokes. Sorry. I probably wouldn’t do as good a job as Aldrin anyway.
David Bowie — “Space Oddity”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, music, like the rest of pop culture and society, was fixated with space travel. After all, humanity had just put a man on the moon, which prior to that was shorthand for something virtually impossible. Why wouldn’t we be excited? I’m still excited.
One of those space songs appropriately came from David Bowie, who may very well have been from space himself because it’s hard to believe a human being could be that talented in so many ways.
The included video isn’t of Bowie performing the song, however. It’s of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performing the song on the International Space Station. Like… in space. Which is the most beautifully appropriate tribute I can imagine.
Elton John — “Rocket Man”
The other space song from that era to achieve legendary status is Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
I know I’m probably going to get trolled for this, but I’m not generally a fan of Elton John’s music. I am a fan of the man, oddly enough—his radio show is great, and he was brilliant in the second Kingsman movie—but the music never really resonated with me. Except this song, which is simultaneously haunting and hopeful.
There’s a version of this one that’s more appropriate than the official video, but unlike Hadfield’s above, the quality of the only YouTube video I could find is… poor. Paul and Storm (along with Jonathan Coulton, MC Frontalot, John Roderick, Jason Finn and Hank Green) performed “Rocket Man” in honor of Neil Armstrong at a concert shortly after he died in 2012.
I was in attendance at the show, and I’m pretty sure it was dusty in there or something.
Frank Sinatra — “Fly Me to the Moon”
Every now and then, I give myself a song that’s just way too on the nose if I like it enough, and this is one of those times.
It’s completely outside my normal tastes, which are admittedly ridiculously diverse as it is, but I love Sinatra. I also love Count Basie, whose namesake orchestra provides the music behind this version. And while it’s a metaphor, he literally mentions flying to the moon, so I’m counting it.
It’s my column; try and stop me.
Gordon Lightfoot — “Sea of Tranquility”
Every now and then I’ll take an excuse to put yet another Gordon Lightfoot song on the list because, as you probably know if you’ve read this column more than once, I love Gordon Lightfoot. [Gokhman note: interestingly enough, Willis did this at the expense of one to the greatest R.E.M. songs of all time!] And while I was never a huge fan of the album version of this song, it’s consistently amazing live. In person it will make you emotional, and you will not know why.
That said, this song actually is appropriate to the theme. Apollo 11 landed on a basalt plain named Mare Tranquillitatis, and “Mare Tranquillitatis” translates to “Sea of Tranquility.”
The B-52s — “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”
There are a lot of songs that mention the moon or space. But since space is big and empty, and the moon is quiet and associated with night, most of those songs are varyingly degrees of sad and wistful. And that’s fine. They’re all very good songs.
The problem is that the moon landing was the pinnacle of American optimism. It solidified a belief that we could do literally anything, the future was bright and our potential was boundless. By the ’80s we would have colonies on Mars and Venus, and we’d be going golfing on the moon for the weekend.
It was basically the opposite of 2019 in every way.
So for this weekend, just for a break from pretty much everything else in the entire world, let’s try to internalize some of that optimism. Let’s all look back to the amazing things we’ve done, not just the United States, but humanity as a whole, and try to imagine what we might accomplish next. Let’s spend a day or two being upbeat.
In that spirit, I’m not closing out with one of the sad, wistful songs. I’m closing out the list with The B-52s, the least sad, least wistful band with a song about the moon. Listen and let yourself smile.[Gokhman note: Wrong! I get to finish this column. I presumed U2 would have have had a great song about space travel. This is the closest I could find. But lest you forget, U2 was the only band to make a habit of talking to astronauts at every concert while the astronauts were IN FREAKING SPACE. So watch this mini doc and amazed by the communicative power of music and science].
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.