The year 1969 was a big year and at The Diversity of Classic Rock we are celebrating two big events that happened that year: The Moon Landing and Woodstock. To celebrate 50 years since the moon landing, we’re going to talk about space rock and spaced themed classic rock songs. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Liftoff! 🚀
Context: The Space Race
Let’s first talk context about the 60s. Usually mentioned in history class when we get to this decade: the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Space Race. Let’s try to keep this short.
People have always had a fascination with space and our place in the universe. It all began with people just looking up at the sky and asking questions about what’s out there and where we are. First beginning with what we could see with the naked eye, and then with technology we could see more. I’m not an astronomer and there’s many other places where you can find out the history of the field.
The Space Race was a post WWII competition between Cold War rivals and superpowers, The United States of America and the USSR, starting in the mid 50s. This race to get objects and people into outer space developed from the nuclear arms race.
Before any of this going to space talk, the Germans had missile technology capable of sub-orbital spaceflight. Germany was partitioned and the Americans and Russians were fighting to get the best rocket engineers from Germany on their side.
In short, here’s each country’s firsts. If you want a full list, click here. What an exciting time to be alive! Imagine if we put more money into space exploration!
Where the Soviets won:
- First to put a satellite into orbit, that was Sputnik – 4 October 1957
- First dog in orbit, Laika on Sputnik II – 3 November 1957
- Luna 1 was the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the Moon – 2 January 1959
- First impact into a celestial body, in this case the Moon – 14 September 1959
- First animals to make it back from space alive, Belka and Strelka – 19 August 1960
- First human in space, Yuri Gagarin – 12 April 1961
- First planetary flyby, Venus – 19 May 1961
- First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova – 16 June 1963
- First space walk, Alexei Leonov – 18 March 1965
- First soft landing on the Moon – 3 February 1966
Where the Americans won:
- First solar powered satellite – 17 March 1958
- First communications satellite – 18 December 1958
- First weather satellite – 17 February 1959
- First chimpanzee, Ham, in space – 31 January 1961
- Telstar was the first active communications satellite – 10 July 1962
- First Mars flyby – 14 July 1965
- First human crewed spaceflight and orbit of the Moon – 21 December 1968
- First humans on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – 20 July 1969
By 1975, the two superpowers started getting along better and we had the Apollo-Soyuz test project, the first multinational manned mission.
Disclaimer: I don’t like animal testing. Just stating the facts here.
Let’s move onto the main event, the music.
What even is space rock? It’s a subgenre of rock that can be described as psychedelic or prog that sounds futuristic and out of this world, hence the name space rock. It began in the time of the space race and this subject was on a lot of people’s minds, so naturally people wrote and sang songs about it.
Space was a new horizon. If we’re talking about modern history – 1800s to now, there are not a lot of places on earth that haven’t been explored or discovered. According to this video from Real Life Lore, New Zealand was the last major place humans settled and that was in 1250-1300 AD. During the European colonial days of the 1400s-1600s, there weren’t that many true discoveries, just a few scattered islands. Humans didn’t see Antarctica until 1820 (although landing there didn’t happen until 1895). In fact, humans saw Uranus before Antarctica. After Antarctica, what else is there? Space.
An early example of space rock and concept albums is Joe Meek’s I Hear a New World, released in 1959. It’s no Tommy, SF Sorrow, Dark Side of the Moon, or The Wall. The Alvin & The Chipmunks like voices make this hard to listen to. This album is far from conventional and it made The Wire‘s list of 100 Records That Set The World On Fire (When No One Was Listening), a list of obscure albums that made an impact. Meek had a fascination with weird sounds which came from his time working as a radar operator, on top of that, the space race was just beginning and he had an interest in that, so he created this concept album about life on the moon. This wasn’t the last time though that he had something to do with a song about space.
Fast forward 3 years and “Telstar” came out. This time, it was a success for songwriter and producer Joe Meek. Telstar, as you can see above in the little timeline was the name of a pioneering communications satellite, which had just launched into orbit in July of 1962. The song came out the next month. This was one of the first sci-fi songs to be a chart success. The appeal was in its futuristic sound from the clavioline, a precursor to the synthesiser. It sounded like nothing else on the radio and it was a precursor to The British Invasion that would come in 1964.
Fast forward to 1967 and we have Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. They released their debut album, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn. On this album you’ll hear space rock sounds on the songs “Astronomy Domine”, “Lucifer Sam”, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and “Pow R. Toc H.”.
“Astronomy Domine”, written by Syd Barrett, was Pink Floyd’s first foray into space rock, and a very good one. Domine is the Latin vocative of “Lord”. Their manager, Peter Jenner, is the voice in the intro reading the names of planets, stars, and galaxies, into the intercom, to mimic the sound of an astronaut. Rick Wright’s Farfisa and Syd Barrett’s guitar playing through an echo machine gave it that psychedelic space rock sound. We can’t forget about these solar system themed lyrics. No mistaking this song for being about something besides outer space.
“Jupiter and Saturn. Oberon, Miranda, and Titania. Neptune. Titan. Stars can frighten”
– Syd Barrett – “Astronomy Domine” (1967)
“Interstellar Overdrive” is an epic length instrumental with a space rock sound and title. Space rock band Hawkwind covered this song, so we can say that this was an influence.
Pink Floyd kept releasing more space rock songs like “Let There Be More Light” and “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun” from Saucerful of Secrets. Those songs were not Barrett compositions though, but Roger Waters’. These songs have science fiction themes.
If you though “Interstellar Overdrive” was too long, get ready for the 23 minute long “Echoes”. Your 3 minute pop song’s over? We’re still on the intro. Typical prog rock. The “ping” intro gives you that space rock ambiance and some people even make comparisons between this song and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Originally, this song was supposed to have lyrics about the meeting of two celestial bodies, but that changed because they didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a space rock band.
While not about space (actually more about mental illness, greed, time, and death), their breakthrough, The Dark Side of the Moon, has some space rock elements and has a song on it called “Eclipse”.
“And all that is now, and all that is gone, and all that’s to come, and everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”
– Roger Waters – “Eclipse” (1973)
Marc Bolan described T Rex’s sound as “cosmic rock”, even though he’d be classified more as glam rock. He was quite successful commercially.
Moving onto Hawkwind, one of the first space rock groups, as in their music was mostly space rock, but it had elements of metal and prog rock. Throughout their discography, you’ll hear many songs with sci-fi themes. Embedded below are their albums In Search of Space and Space Ritual. The latter is a live album, and the band collaborated with sci-fi author Michael Moorcock, who wrote the lyrics for the spoken word sections of the songs. Of course, a live album doesn’t show the visuals and Hawkwind’s live shows had visuals that added to the music: liquid light show, dancers, and outrageous costumes.
Next, we’ll talk about space rock from continental Europe. Eloy (Germany), Omega (Hungary), and Grobschnitt (Germany).
Eloy were more like British prog rock bands than krautrock bands. Between 1973 and 1977 some of their songs had a space rock sound. I can hear some Pink Floyd influences on “Inside”, but this song is harder rock. I also hear some Deep Purple-esque organ on “Floating”.
Omega have more of a psychedelic sound. Their early albums like 10,000 lépés take inspiration from The Beatles, but they were dipping their toes into space rock, which can be heard on later songs like “Don’t Keep on Me Waitin'”.
This compilation album has some more of their more space rock sounding songs.
A really cosmic live album from Grobschnitt, whose name translates to rough cut, “Solar Music” is considered an epic. “Mühlheim Special” and “Otto Pankrock” are also worth the listen. Like Hawkwind, their live shows were over the top, incorporating pyrotechnics and sketch comedy. Their shows could go on for over 3 hours.
Going into the 80s, a significant space rock act, inspired by Hawkwind, but with a New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound, are Mournblade.
Much of space rock or cosmic sounding rock songs were not done by musicians that were purely or even mostly space rock, so that is what the main focus of this blog is. If you want to find out more about space rock, especially prog influenced, check out Prog Archives.
Other songs about space/space themed titles
To keep this section well-organised, I will list the songs by musician to make it easier to find songs you’re interested in and more readable. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good start to a good space themed classic rock playlist.
Alan Parsons Project:
Sirius (1982): A song named after the brightest star in the sky, part of the Canis Major constellation. If you’re from Chicago, like me, you associate this song with The Chicago Bulls. A cosmic sounding prog rock classic that segues nicely into “Eye in the Sky”.
Space Cowboy (1972): From their album, Made in England. Yeehaw!
There’s A Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon) (1979): A funny title. Our moon doesn’t have a name. What should we call it? Quirky new wave with the band members shouting the names of planets. Makes me think of Sailor Moon.
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (1967): Psychedelic song that got its name from a drawing John’s son Julian made. Imagine stargazing and seeing Lucy up there in the sky with diamonds (stars?). Not strictly space inspired, much of this was inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
Flying (1967): Originally called “Aerial Tour Instrumental”, this psychedelic instrumental is about the sensation of flying, either in space or in your mind.
Across The Universe (1970): An obvious one. More psychedelic folk than space rock, but the lyrics are beautiful.
Billy Lee Riley:
Flying Saucers Rock and Roll (1957): One of his most famous songs, a novelty song about UFOs. Back in the 50s, UFOs were called flying saucers and that’s when the cultural phenomenon with them began. More than likely that UFO is just an aeroplane, balloon, satellite, bright star, or even a planet.
Planet Caravan (1970): A psychedelic song about floating through space with the one you love.
Supernaut (1972): A play on the word “psychonaut” or maybe “astronaut”, meaning explorer of the psyche or someone who uses psychedelics to experience intentionally induced altered states of consciousness, exploring their mind as an astronaut explores space.
Blue Oyster Cult:
Astronomy (1974): Not so much to do with outer space, but actually part of a rock opera. It’s about Desdinova’s realisation that he was born as a result of Les Invisibles’ intervention and accepting his fate as their eternal servant. This song appears on multiple albums.
Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (1976): About UFO sightings. Love the wah wah effects in the intro.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band:
I’m the Urban Spaceman (1969): The band’s biggest hit. Is it about drugs or space? Who knows! It’s the 60s.
This band always had a space kind of aesthetic and on their album covers you can see a spaceship shaped like a guitar. Paula Scher designed it, Roger Huyssen illustrated it, and Gerard Huerta designed the lettering.
The Launch A) Countdown B) Ignition C) Third Stage Separation (1986): An instrumental with a space themed title. That’s the fun thing about instrumentals, you can interpret what they mean as you wish.
Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983): People from my generation would best know Brian Eno as the guy who composed the Windows 95 startup sound, one of my favourite sounds of the 90s. Ironically, the sound was composed on a Mac.
Ambient space themed album recorded for a documentary called Apollo, that featured 35mm footage of the Apollo moon missions, originally a non-narrative collection of NASA footage. Brian Eno mentions in the liner notes for the album that when he watched the moon landing in 1969, that he wanted to approach the moon landing in a different way with this album. He thought the event was strange, but it wasn’t as enjoyable because of the poor video quality, all the journalistic coverage, and the melodramatic and uptempo story.
The album has a mix of darker sounding tracks like “Under Stars”, “The Secret Place”, “Matta”, “Signals”, “Under Stars II”, and “Stars”; smoother tracks like “An Ending (Ascent)”, “Drift”, and “Always Returning”; and tracks with guitars and a country sound like “Silver Morning”, “Deep Blue Day”, and “Weightless”. A very relaxing album, I listened to it while on the train between Prague and Krakow.
Star Fleet (1983): A song by Brian May’s side project in the 80s of the same name. The musicians who played on this track are Eddie Van Halen, Alan Gratzer (drummer for REO Speedwagon), Phil Chen (session bassist), Fred Mandel (session keyboard player), and Roger Taylor (backing vocals). This song is based on the theme for Japanese sci-fi series X-Bomber, a favourite show of Brian May’s son. A bit cheesy, but I love the guitar solos.
Eight Miles High (1966): Not about space per se, but inspired by them flying to London. Space is a lot more than 8 miles high. Still a great song.
Mr Spaceman (1966): When this whimsical song about extraterrestrial life came out in 1966, the term “space rock” was used to describe it. It’s also considered an early example of country rock. What makes this different from space rock as we know it is that it is country themed. Yeehaw!
Sasquatch (1982): A space/proggy instrumental.
Chris de Burgh:
A Spaceman Came Travelling (1976): This art rocker who supported Supertramp on their Crime of the Century Tour, released this Christmasy song. The inspiration came from him reading Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken and thinking about what if the Star of Bethlehem was a spacecraft and there’s someone in the sky watching over us?” William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” also inspired this song.
Lots of space themed songs here!
Space Oddity (1969): Some people think that this song is the first in an unofficial trilogy. Some say the two sequels are “Rocketman” and “Major Tom”. The song tells the story of fictional astronaut Major Tom who leaves the Earth. Everything seems to be going to plan, but after 100,000 miles, he’s not feeling well and tells Ground Control, “Tell my wife I love her very much”. Ground Control inform him that his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong, and they lose contact. Major Tom’s last words in the song:
“Here am I floating ’round my tin can, far above the moon. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”
It was released only 9 days before the moon landing and recorded exactly a month before. He also made a music video for the song, over a decade before MTV was launched. The Major Tom character appears in multiple songs.
Life on Mars? (1971): A song with bizarre lyrics about rebellion and references to pop culture. Is it Lenin or Lennon he’s referring to? Who knows? Considered one of David Bowie’s best songs and among the best songs of the era, it critiques uninteresting pop culture and capitalism. The thing is, isn’t David Bowie part of that pop culture? It’s often compared to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. About the title that is repeated in the song, it can be interpreted as “I’m bored with the Earth, can we go to Mars?” or “What is the meaning of life?”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972): This album has a lot of songs with a space themed title or lyrics. It’s a glam rock/rock opera concept album about Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous bisexual messenger for aliens. Stardust saves the Earth, but he has five years to live. “Moonage Daydream” uses some sci fi imagery in the chorus:
“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe. Put your ray gun to my head. Press your space face close to mine, love. Freak out in a moonage daydream.”
In “Starman”, Ziggy sends a message of hope to the youth via radio. The Starman is an alien saviour and the song’s story can be compared to religion, the Second Coming of Christ. Some even think this song inspired the 1977 Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ashes to Ashes (1980): Major Tom makes an appearance to this sequel of sorts to “Space Oddity”. Turns out that Major Tom is a junkie. His approach to this song was an 80s style nursery rhyme as an epitaph for the 70s, a time when he was struggling with drug addiction. There’s a reference to his 1977 album, Low in this lyric:
“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky. We know Major Tom’s a junkie. Strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all time low”
Space Truckin’ (1972): The closing song from their album, Machine Head, this song talks about space travel.
Time (1981): A concept album about a man from the present day (1981) who is trapped in the year 2095. This album marks ELO moving from their symphonic rock sound to a more electronic/synth sound, which gives this album a space/futuristic sound. What’s really cool about this album is that it is one of the first major concept albums all about time travel and it’s very much loved by retrofuturists.
The plot basically goes like this: In 1981, a man drifts into a state of twilight and travels to the year 2095, where he meets a fembot. He thinks about how the 80s were so simple compared to over a century later. He is saddened looking at his surroundings, feeling lonely, and tries to get in touch with his girlfriend in the 80s, attempting to communicate through a dream, but it doesn’t work. He tries to come home to the 80s, but it doesn’t work so all he can do is hold on.
At the time the music video for “Hold On Tight” was made, it was the most expensive at £40,000.
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time) (1972): A song inspired by Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and “Space Oddity”, with some people even thinking this is an unofficial sequel to the song. An astronaut goes to Mars for work, leaving his family, reflecting on how he’s not who people think he is. Could be a metaphor about fame and the meteoric rise to stardom and how it’s like space travel.
Star Trekkin’ (1986): Very cheesy novelty song that parodies Star Trek. It reached #1 in the UK in 1987. How it became a hit was a happy accident. Only 500 copies of the single were pressed and one of the members of the band sent copies to various radio stations all over the UK with a note listing the studio’s phone number. It quickly gained traction thanks to a station in Liverpool who gave out the studio’s phone number. From there, it got played on Radio 1, which boosted the song’s position on the charts from #74 to #13. Two weeks later, it reached #1.
Starrider (1977): One of the few songs where Mick Jones sings lead vocals. Simply about someone riding on a star through the universe.
Fly Me to the Moon (1964): A cover of Kaye Ballard’s “In Other Words” from 1954. In 1960, Peggy Lee popularised the song as “Fly Me to the Moon” when she performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show. Joe Harnell recorded a bossa nova version of the song in 1962, which was a top 20 hit. The song also won a Grammy for Best Performance by an Orchestra – For Dancing.
Frank Sinatra’s version was recorded with Count Basie. It was played on the Apollo 10 mission, which orbited the moon and was basically a dress rehearsal for walking on the moon, just testing the components and procedures. It was the first song listened to on the moon, when Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon with a cassette player playing the song.
Inca Roads (1975): The opening track of One Size Fits All explores the stereotypes of aliens landing in the Andes Mountains. If you like unusual time signatures (a trademark of prog) and marimba, you might like this song.
Dream Weaver (1975): A song inspired by Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, a book George Harrison gave to Wright. He got the term “Dream Weaver” from John Lennon’s song “God”. The song is spiritual and about mind weaving dreams, but references flying through space in these lyrics:
“Fly me high through the starry skies Or maybe to an astral plane Cross the highways of fantasy Help me to forget today’s pain”
“Though the dawn may be coming soon There still may be some time Fly me away to the bright side of the moon And meet me on the other side”
Throughout this blog post you see lots of songs that use space travel as a metaphor for dreaming and travelling through your imagination, whether with psychedelics or not.
“Dream Weaver” was used in classic rock related movies like This is Spinal Tap and Wayne’s World.
Spaceman (1972): About someone who wanted to be an astronaut all his life, but now that he’s an astronaut he finds that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be and he wants to come back to earth, but he can’t come back, so he’s stuck in space.
“Star Cycle” and “Space Boogie” (1980): Two space themed instrumentals on his album, There and Back. Both songs have a futuristic sound.
Third Stone From The Sun (1967): A great space rock/psych instrumental and one of my favourites from Are You Experienced. I love the wind sound effects and jazz influences.
The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice (1967): Abbreviated as “STP with LSD”, this song references planets, the Milky Way galaxy, and the zodiac.
Valleys of Neptune (Recorded in 1969, not released until 2010): My favourite of the three songs here, this song is one of the most sought after Hendrix tracks that was not available commercially, until recently. I love the visuals painted by the lyrics. Makes me think of the ocean.
Spaceman (1977): A different sounding Journey from the more famous 80s Journey, this song is about flying, however the narrator says “I’m not a spaceman”.
Dust in the Wind (1977): Kansas’ biggest hit, this song is so beautiful and one of my favourites on this list. Here are a couple of lyrics that are my favourites in the song:
“Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind.”
That’s true indeed and I think this quote helps me put things in perspective. Even though the song has more of a religious/spiritual meaning, you could think of this quote in a more scientific way. Where did we all come from? We’re just on a sphere with lots of dirt floating through the universe.
“Now don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever, but the earth and the sky. It slips away and all your money won’t another minute buy.”
Wala Twist (1963): A song about cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Polish girl group Filipinki also performed this song. I don’t speak Polish so I wouldn’t know what the lyrics say, but if you are from Poland and want to give a short basic translation, leave it in the comments. 🙂
Tereshkova is still the youngest woman to go to space. Her beginnings were quite humble, as a textile factory worker and amateur skydiver, the latter of which was the reason why she was chosen to go to space. She joined the Air Force as part of the Cosmonaut Corps.
When she returned from space, she was celebrated and toured around the world, touring more than any other Vostok astronaut. She made 42 trips abroad between 1963 and 1970.
This Time Tomorrow (1970): A song about travelling, relaxing, and thinking about where we’ll be in the future. The opening lyrics:
“This time tomorrow, where will we be? On a spaceship somewhere sailing across an empty sea…”
Supersonic Rocket Ship (1972): A song about wanting to escape this overcrowded world. What a mood. This song is in the soundtrack for Avengers: Endgame.
3:47 EST (1976): Canadian band Klaatu’s debut album has a few songs with space themed titles: “Calling All Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” (famously covered by The Carpenters), “Anus of Uranus”, and “Little Neutrino”. The band’s name comes from an alien character in the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. They were often compared to The Beatles, being dubbed The Canadian Beatles. Seriously, people actually thought they a secret Beatles side project. I can definitely hear some Beatles influences there so I wouldn’t say people in the 70s were completely insane.
Around The Universe in 80 Days (1977): A reference to Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”, but with an outer space twist.
Kometenmelodie (1974): From their album Autobahn, this two part instrumental has a futuristic sound. Kraftwerk were one of the first successful electronic music acts.
Spacelab (1978): Futuristic electronic sounds with “Spacelab” being repeated.
You can find the whole space + classic rock playlist on my playlists page. What’s your favourite song on this list? Share your thoughts in the comments section!
Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick.
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