Fifty years ago today. my parents say they rousted out of bed and sat me down in front of a TV to watch Neil Armstrong set foot n the moon. I’d be lying if I remembered it. but earlier that afternoon at a church picnic, I definitely recall watching the landing itself on a tiny black-and-white TV that someone had set up in a barn.
While there are plenty of playlists commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing (just Google “moon music” and you’ll see what I mean.) Instead, I’ve compiled something a little more intertwined with that day in 1969.
1. David Bowie’s big break
Up until the summer of 1969, David Bowie was a part-time mime and a failed folksinger. But inspired by Stanely Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowie had written a song about a doomed spaceman named Major Tom, the first version of which was recorded on February 2.
Before the song could come out, however, Bowie’s deal with Deram Records expired and the fate of any new music was uncertain. Fortunately, his major was able to negotiate a one-album deal with RCA/Phillips, which agreed to release both “Space Oddity” and the album of the same name.
At first. the song was considered a novelty track, something to ride the coattails of the moon landing, which is exactly RCA/Phillips’ plan.
However, because the hero in the song dies (apparently), it was seen by some as a bit crass. The BBC went so far as to ban the song throughout the mission. But when the crew of Apollo 11 returned safely, the song was un-banned and became part of the Beeb’s coverage. The song caught fire and reached #5 on the UK charts.
One other thing: “Space Oddity” was used in a commercial for the Stylophone., the device that makes the ghostly string sound in the song. This clip offers some cool insight into the little machine.
2. Pink Floyd jams along to Apollo 11
Looking to make their moon landing coverage slightly more hip and space-age for the overnight crowd (Neil Armstrong set stepped off the LM in the middle of the night British time), the BBC hired Pink Floyd to jam along to the live pictures of the mission. They were set up on one side of a BBC TV studio, across from a panel full of scientists and commentators and told to make some kind of cool noise.
The resulting improvisation was called “Moonhead.” It was never officially released (I think) but it has appeared on a number of Floyd bootlegs. And, of course, there’s YouTube.
3. The astronauts took their own music to the moon
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were much too busy training to leave Earth to make mixtapes for their trip. That job fell to a friend named Mickey Kapp.
Kapp Records was one of the 400,000 or so private companies that contributed to the American space effort. Mickey was friendly with a couple of the astronauts, which is how he learned NASA had given each one a then-state-of-the-art Sony TC-50 cassette player, an ancient ancestor of the Walkman.
The idea wasn’t to play music; NASA’s plan was for the astronauts to make voice memos on their way to and from the moon.
Knapp asked the astronauts if they’d like some music for their cassettes. They could listen and tape over the music whenever they needed to record something for science. You can actually hear some of that music playing in this inflight recording.
So what was one those tapes? Vanity Fair has documented things here.
4. Brian Eno’s post-Apollo tribute
Eno believes he saw Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 flying overhead on April 12, 1961. And while he thought that was cool, he wasn’t inspired to compose any space-related music until many years later.
In 1983, Eno’s experiments in ambient music led him back to the space race,. Working with his brother Roger and collaborator Daniel Lanois, he created Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks in 1983. It ended up being paired with a documentary entitled For All Mankind which appeared in 1989.
5. More music for the first moon landing
Johannes Kreider created “Music for the First Moon Landing” in 2005. Better late than never, right?
6. A song for Neil Armstrong
Musician Greg Karber posted this on YouTube in 2012.
7. Buzz Aldrin’s collaboration with Snoop.
Buzz and Snoop? Together? Believe it.
8. A song cycle for the entire space program
This is one of the more recent musical tributes to the space program. Click here to listen.