Lyricists have written about space for as long as they’ve looked up at the moon, but the manned space flights of the 1960s inspired an unending connection between the cosmos and the rock-’n’-roll imagination. Plenty of ’60s rock songwriters looked skyward for songs: The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn imagined a friendly alien visitation in “Mr. Spaceman,” while the British Invasion went planetary with The Rolling Stones’ lonely, baroque “2000 Light Years From Home” and the Kinks’ jaunty “Supersonic Rocket Ship,” which aimed for an interstellar idyll.
Perhaps the greatest space rock song of all, though, is “Space Oddity,” David Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough single. Inspired by the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the song was released just nine days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon, and the BBC included it in its coverage of their landing. Bowie returned to the song’s character, Major Tom, in several later songs — and so did German New Waver Peter Schilling, who essentially rewrote “Space Oddity” in 1983 as “Major Tom (Coming Home),” with more menace, a happy ending, and lots of synthesizer.
Men often interpret space literally, if sometimes comically, while female songwriters go in the direction of metaphor very quickly. Elizabeth Morris of the Australian-English indie-rock band Allo Darlin’ makes “Neil Armstrong” into a sweet, clever ode to the inspiring grouch in her life, while psychedelic folk-rockers Liz Cooper & the Stampede imagine “Outer Space” as an escape from everyday ennui. In The Pretenders’ “Show Me,” Chrissie Hynde sings to an innocent visitor who (in the third verse) turns out to be an alien with “the Milky Way… still in your eyes.” Like many songwriters, from John Lennon in The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” to Lou Reed watching a satellite, Hynde looks up to the universe for love.
Listen to the playlist as you read this month’s stories about air and space.