Tuesday, May 24, 2011

10 Songs to Commemorate JFK's "Man on the Moon" Speech

May 25th, 1961 - fifty years ago (was it really fifty years!) President John F. Kennedy made his famous "Man on the Moon" speech- where he threw down the gauntlet and said that the U.S. will send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. Whatever you think of his politics, or personal life, you have to respect someone who can so decisively set a major goal and make sure it gets done with no excuses.

That said, the so-called "race for space" became a time of epic importance and achievement for both the United States, and all humankind, we still reap the benefits of the technologies developed to meet JFK's challenge, and, not surprisingly, the theme of manned spaceflight has inspired many songs in popular music across many different genres. Read on, and see a few of them...

1) Astronomy Domine - Pink Floyd (1967)

Recorded during the height of the space race, This song is the first track off the first album from the masters of psychedelic/progressive rock giants Pink Floyd. The title of the song is a latin phrase that roughly translates into "An Astral Chant".

The song begins with spacy, atmospheric sounds with a vocalization that sounds vaguely like a message broadcast in a garbled radio transmission or over an intercom- imitating a transmission between an astronaut and mission control perhaps? The main part of the song features a descending keyboard/guitar figure that would fit right in with music from an old science fiction movie from the 1950s. Parts of the song seem to borrow ideas from Gustav Holst's famous symphonic piece "The Planets" - and the chanted lyrics contain a listing of planets and moons known to exist at the time.

2) Space Oddity - David Bowie (1969)

David Bowie's early work is difficult to classify - while it has characteristics similar to the Beatles early work, it also has a strong vein of psychedelia, and early progressive elements. The song "Space Oddity" was inspired by the 1968 film "2001: A Space Oddysey," and tells the story of an astronaut who goes out on a spacewalk, and muses about floating through space. The song ending is ambiguous- it is unclear if the astronaut (named Major Tom) survives the trip or not.

The song was featured during the BBC news coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Many fans have implied that the song is really about David Bowie's experimentation with heroin- an accusation he has not directly denied. Whatever your interpretation- this space inspired song is the one that put David Bowie on the map.

3) Into the Void - Black Sabbath (1971)

"Into the Void" starts out with a slow and heavy "Doom Metal" style intro, and then moves into the slightly faster main riff, where singer Ozzy Osbourne talks about blasting off from Earth in a rocket ship. The music is very gloomy- the song implies that the  rocket ride is being used to escape the Earth rather than to explore space. The lyrics imply that the Earth is being ruined by pollution, corruption, hate, and war, and that escaping into the void, and leaving Earth to it's own devices is a better fate than being trapped there.

The song is fairly popular among die-hard Black Sabbath fans, and has been covered by Alternative Metal/Grunge band Soundgarden (with alternate lyrics), and Stoner Rock band Kyuss (their last single ever). Jame Hetfield of Metallica had claimed that "Into the Void" is his favorite Black Sabbath song as well.

4) Walking on the Moon - The Police (1979)

"Walking on the Moon"  was on eof the more memorable hits produced by the Reggae New Wave band "The Police." The song was originally conceived by Vocalist/Bassist Sting while walking around a hotel room drunk. The riff in his head seemed to go with the words "walking around the room" - but he decided that it would sound silly that way, and changed it to the more famous lyric "Walking on the Moon". He also based part of the song on his musings while walking home from his girlfriend's house, stating that "being in love is to be relieved of gravity."  

The band filmed a video for the song in 1979 at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. During the video, drummer Stewart Copeland can be seen drumming on a Saturn V rocket- the type of rocket used for the Apollo missions.

5) Countdown - Rush (1982)

In 1981, in A VIP Area of Kennedy Space Center called "Red Sector A"- the three members of Rush were among the people there to witness the first launch of the space shuttle Colombia- the STS-1 mission - the first manned space flight since 1975. The awe-inspiring experience was the direct inspiration for the song "Countdown."

Countdown recounts the feelings of awe and wonder experienced during the launch in a very poetic style - /The earth beneath us starts to tremble/With the spreading of a low black cloud/A thunderous roar shakes the air/Like the whole world exploding/.

The band dedicated the song to the Shuttle's crew, John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen.

6) Bark at the Moon - Ozzy Osbourne (1983)

"Bark at the Moon" may mention the moon, but it has little to do with the space race of the 1960s unless you apply a great deal of poetic license. The song is, however, about  a common superstition surrounding the moon and it's effects on people- one that has been featured in many Horror films- werewolves. The song talks about a werewolf that terrorizes a town, but is captured and killed. The werewolf is later resurrected to continue it's reign of terror.

Superstitions such as werewolves have one non-obvious connection to the drive to reach the moon - myths and superstitions revolving around the moon are part of the sense of mystery and wonder that has inspired mankind to think about the moon for centuries- and indirectly contributed to our desire to explore it.

The song, and the album of the same title, was the first material Ozzy Osbourne recorded since the untimely death of guitarist Randy Rhoads. A young guitarist named Jake E. Lee was chosen, and remained with Ozzy for the next five years.

7) The Final Countdown - Europe (1986)

Swedish Glam Rock band Europe dusted off an old keyboard riff and decided to use it as the basis for a song that would serve as a fanfare to open their live concerts. Little did they know that they had just written their most popular hit song- one that would be used as introductory music for sporting events throughout the world for decades. The band initially had mixed feelings about the song, thinking that it was too keyboard-heavy for a rock band. Fortunately, for them, they kept the song, which was a huge commercial success.

Aside from the song's iconic keyboard lead part, the song speaks vaguely or space travel- as a metaphoric statement about achieving success and striving for greatness. The lyrics were, in part, inspired by David Bowie's classic song "Space Oddity."

8) Third Stage (album) - Boston (1986)

The album "Third Stage" by the band Boston has plenty of obvious references to space travel. I include the entire album here, since the bulk of the album has an overarching concept based on the idea of a rocket launch as a metaphor for growing up from childhood to a mature adult. The conceptual part starts with the second track "We're Ready" which represents childhood, and being ready to "take off" into the journey of growing up. The instrumental "The Launch" continues this idea, and represents a musical depiction of a rocket launch, and segues into the next track "Cool the Engines" - travelling forward at full speed, and taking the risk of pushing the engines to the breaking point- a metaphor for the teenage/young adult years.

The songs "My Destination" and "A New World" explore the ending of the journey- testing the waters of new found maturity, and beginning to come into your own as an adult. "To Be A Man" is the final destination- the song reads off a litany of traditional virtues that a grown man should aspire to. The next two songs, "I Think I Like it" and "Can'tcha Say(You Believe in Me)/Still in Love" show our hero reaping the rewards of his successful journey.

9) Man On the Moon - R.E.M. (1992)

"Man On the Moon" was yet another hit single from Alternative/College Rock band R.E.M. The song makes many references to the career of comedian Andy Kaufman, lampooning Kaufman's impersonations of Elvis, and his association with wrestlers Fred Blassie and Jerry Lawler. The song also uses the idea taken from popular conspiracy theorists that the American moon landing was actually faked on a sound stage in Los Angeles. It is believed that the use of ideas from the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory, combined with references to Elvis, are meant to lampoon another crazy theory that Andy Kaufman actually faked his own death. The song lyrics repeat the idea of "nothing up his sleeve" - but it is not completely clear if it is implying that the conspiracy theories have any credence or not.

The song would later be used, and even give it's title to the 1999 film "Man On The Moon" about the life of Andy Kaufman.

10) Rocket - The Smashing Pumpkins (1993)

"Rocket" uses the idea of a rocket as a metaphor for breaking free. Songwriter Billy Corgan has stated that the sentiment he was going for in the opening lines- /Bleed in your own light/Dream of your own life/ was that he wanted to be judged for his own talents rather than viewed as someone working in the same style of music as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, or Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrell. He'd rather go down with the ship on his own terms than ride someone else's coattails- so "Rocket" became and expression of breaking free creatively, and following his own path. /The moon is out, the stars invite/I think I'll leave tonight/.

The video for the song depicts a group of children building a rocket in their backyard under the noses of their parents, who remain oblivious to what they are doing. The children take off, and fly to another planet where the band is playing, only to find that the band has aged greatly during their trip- a cautionary tale that freedom may mean an unexpected failure.

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