The Moon, the astronomical body that orbits Earth, is one of the most inspirational objects for human creativity. It has inspired words from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Joyce, and paintings from Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Magritte. There have also been songs about the Moon, by artists including The Beatles (“Mr. Moonlight”), The Rolling Stones (“Moon Is Up”) and Pink Floyd (”The Dark Side Of the Moon”).
As well as prompting evergreen hits such as “Fly Me To the Moon,” the Moon has been the subject of comedy songs (Laurel And Hardy’s “Lazy Moon,” The Stargazers’ No.1 60s hit, “I See the Moon”), political songs (Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On The Moon”) and numerous instrumentals (Enya’s “Moon Shepherdess”). The Moon and outer space are often used in ballads to provide the imagery expressing the enormity of emotion. In 1960, Mel Tormé went as far as to record a whole album for Verve based on moon songs, called Swingin’ On The Moon.
Carpenters even recorded a song in 1976, ”Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”, which aimed to send out a telepathic message to visitors from outer space. The thought of the loneliness of interstellar travel inspired David Bowie to write “Space Oddity” and led to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man”.
As the world celebrates the anniversary of the Moon landing of July 20, 1969, we honor those astral explorers with our pick of the 20 best songs about the Moon and space travel. Some of your favorites – such as Simon And Garfunkel’s “Song About The Moon” – may have just missed out, so let us know in the comments if there are any songs that should have been on board.
20: “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” (Glen Campbell, 1974)
Jimmy Webb is one of the great modern songwriters and his song “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” is a shining example of his lyrical prowess: “Though she looks as warm as gold/The Moon’s a harsh mistress/The Moon can be so cold.” Numerous star performers have covered Webb’s moon song, including Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez and Joe Cocker. The definitive version, though, was the one by Glen Campbell for his 1974 album Reunion: The Songs Of Jimmy Webb.
19: “Moon At The Window” (Joni Mitchell, 1983)
Joni Mitchell said that, though some critics dismissed “Moon At The Window’ as “eccentric,” she thought that in the song she had “gone closer to jazz than I have ever gone while working harmonically outside the laws of jazz.” Wayne Shorter plays some intimate soprano saxophone on a track that took its name from the Zen poetry of Ryoken (“The thief left it behind: the moon at my window”). The song appeared on Mitchell”s 1983 album, Wild Things Run Fast.
18: “Once In A Very Blue Moon” (Nanci Griffith, 1984)
Pat Algar is a respected country music songwriter whose compositions have been covered by The Everly Brothers, Garth Brooks and Crystal Gayle. One of his sweetest songs proved a seminal one for Nanci Griffith, when she recorded “Once In A Very Blue Moon,” the title track of her 1984 album. She later named her orchestra after the song. “Once In A Very Blue Moon” has been covered by Mary Black and Dolly Parton.
The Moon is an inspirational object for country musicians, and other leading country songs about the Moon include ones by Hank Williams (“Howlin’ At The Moon”), Lyle Lovett (“Moon On My Shoulder”) Patty Griffin (“Moon Song”) and Dar Williams (“Calling The Moon”).
17: “Drunk On The Moon” (Tom Waits, 1974)
It is no surprise that Tom Waits has come up with original songs about the Moon, including “Grapefruit Moon.” Perhaps his best is “Drunk On The Moon,” which was recorded for the 1974 album The Heart Of Saturday Night. The jazzy, late-night atmosphere of the song complements inventive lyrics (“The Moon’s a silver slipper/It’s pouring champagne stars”) and the track features fine playing from tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb, who played with Louie Bellson, Chet Baker and Count Basie. “Drunk On The Moon” was inspired by The Terminal bar in Denver, Colorado. “There’s all different kinds of moons – silver slipper moons and there’s cue ball moons and there’s buttery moons and moons that are all melted off to one side, and “Drunk On The Moon” is about a muscatel moon,” said Waits.
16: “Shame On The Moon” (Bob Seger, 1982)
The first version of “Shame On The Moon” was cut by its creator Rodney Crowell (with wife Rosanne Cash singing harmony vocals). The song later became a massive hit for Detroit musician Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band. It was used as the single to promote his 1982 album The Distance, and the track features a sparkling piano solo by Little Feat member Bill Payne. “It’s like a cowboy song and the track is flawless, the best and tightest track on the album,” said Seger. “We cut it in like two hours, and everyone decided it was the miracle track. But then we had to decide whether to use it or not because The Distance was going to be a real rock album… the next thing we know, the Capitol Records guys are saying, ‘That’s the single!’ I’m beholden to Rodney for writing it.”
15: “An Ending (Ascent)” (Brian Eno, 1983)
Brian Eno’s landmark album Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks is being reissued, with an additional album’s worth of new recordings, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The songs from Apollo, originally released in 1983, have featured in films, television shows and commercials. “An Ending (Ascent)” was used in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. Among the new tracks on the 2019 release is a composition by Roger Eno called “Under The Moon.”
14: “Moonlight Serenade” (Glenn Miller, 1939)
Glenn Miller’s famous swing ballad “Moonlight Serenade” turned 80 in April 2019, and the bandleader’s signature tune is one of the most instantly recognisable melodies in popular music. Mitchell Parish subsequently wrote song lyrics – “I stand at your gate/And the song that I sing is of moonlight” – which were recorded by Frank Sinatra for a whole album of moon songs (Moonlight Sinatra, 1965). However, it is the instrumental version of Miller’s classic that endures. Other jazz musicians have been inspired to write and perform songs about the Moon, including Duke Ellington (“Moon Mist”) and Miles Davis (“Moon Dreams”), Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson (“Moon Song”), and Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt (“Moonglow”).
13: “Pink Moon” (Nick Drake, 1972)
Nick Drake played acoustic guitar and the minimalist piano solo on “Pink Moon,” the title track from his 1972 album, but his pretty solo seems out of kilter with the darkness of his lyrics: “Saw it written and I saw it say/Pink moon is on its way/And none of you stand so tall/Pink moon gonna get ye all.” This two-minute gem was written at a time when he was suffering from depression and living in a small flat in London’s Haverstock Hill. The pink – or blood – moon has been referenced as an evil portent since The Book Of Revelation and seemed to be Drake’s prophecy of dark days to come. It also provided inspiration for Sidney Bechet’s passionately expansive solo on “Blood On The Moon,” which was composed in the studio just before recording.
12: “Walking On the Moon” (The Police, 1979)
Sting’s memorable song, which he said came to him as a riff one night when he was drunk in Munich, went straight to No.1 in December 1979. The success of the single was helped by a lively music video that had been filmed a couple of months before, at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The video features The Police miming to the track in among spacecraft displays, interspersed with NASA footage; Stewart Copeland played drumsticks on a Saturn V moon rocket. A new version of “Walking On The Moon” appears on Sting’s My Songs album, which the singer described as “reconstructed” versions of his hits, “with a contemporary focus.”
11: “Man On The Moon” (R.E.M., 1992)
“Man On The Moon,” which appeared on R.E.M.’s eighth album, Automatic For The People, was a massive hit in 1992 and remains one of R.E.M.’s most popular tunes. It is the only entry in this list of songs about the Moon to deal with the conspiracy theories about the 1969 moon landing being faked. Mike Mills, who was credited as a co-writer of “Man On The Moon,” said that they had deliberately written about Andy Kaufman in the song because of odd theories that the comedian had faked his death. “He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things,” Mills said in 2018. “Did the Moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? Kaufman was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point, so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”
10: “Moondance” (Van Morrison, 1970)
Though Van Morrison’s sparkling lyrics – “Can I just have one more moondance with you, my love” – are catchy, they were in fact written after the Belfast singer had composed the music. “With ‘Moondance,’ I wrote the melody first,” said Van Morrison in 1973. “I played the melody on a soprano sax and knew I had a song, so I wrote lyrics to go with the melody. For me, ‘Moondance’ is a sophisticated song. Frank Sinatra wouldn’t be out of place singing that.” For the recording, incidentally, Morrison handed over saxophone duties to the late Jack Schroer.
9: “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” (Elvis Presley, 1954)
When Bill Monroe recorded a version of his own song “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” in 1946, he cut it as a slow waltz. Eight years later, a young Elvis Presley was larking about in Sun Studios with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. “We’re taking a little break and Bill starts beating on the bass and singing ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky,’ mocking Bill Monroe, singing the high falsetto voice. Elvis joins in with him, starts playing and singing along with him,” recalled Moore. Producer Sam Phillips recognised the potential of their interpretation and told them to record it as an upbeat, blues-based tune. “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” which was released as a 7” single on 19 July 1954 – just 12 days after being recorded – was an instant hit.
8: “Moonshadow” (Cat Stevens, 1970)
Cat Stevens is a master of memorable images, and he said that his favorite of all the songs he has written was “Moonshadow,” which was released as a single in September 1970, ahead of its inclusion on the album Teaser And The Firecat. Stevens grew up in the bustling Holborn area of central London and said that it was an experience on holiday that prompted him to write this song of hope. “In the West End of London there were bright lights, so I never got to see the Moon on its own in the dark, there were always streetlamps,” said the man now known as Yusuf Islam. “So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the Moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow. I thought that was so cool, I’d never seen it before.”
7: “Moon River” (Sarah Vaughan, 1963)
Though Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s delightfully romantic song “Moon River” will forever be associated with Audrey Hepburn’s version in the 1961 movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning song was later covered by some of the greatest singers of modern popular music, including Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart and Amy Winehouse. There is a great version by Sarah Vaughan on the 1963 Verve Records album Sarah Vaughan Sings The Mancini Songbook. If you want a moving version by a male singer, then check out Louis Armstrong’s interpretation, late in his life, on the album Hello, Dolly! His trumpet solo is sweet – as is the instrumental jazz version by Dizzy Gillespie. The song’s enduring appeal was demonstrated in 2018 with a fine version by Frank Ocean.
6: “How High The Moon” (Les Paul And Mary Ford, 1951)
The jazz standard “How High The Moon” was written by Morgan Lewis and lyricist Nancy Hamilton for the 1940 Broadway drama Two For The Show. Benny Goodman recorded the first instrumental version, but the classic version was by Les Paul and Mary Ford for Capitol Records in January 1951. The husband-and-wife recording spent nine weeks at No.1 on the Billboard chart and showcases the intricate, vibrant style of playing that made Paul such an influential guitarist. There have been hundreds of cover versions, in a range of genres and styles, including versions by Chet Baker (jazz), Marvin Gaye (soul), Gloria Gaynor (disco) and Emmylou Harris (country).
5: “Bad Moon Rising” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969)
As well as being a symbol of romance and mystery, the Moon can also be a portent of doom. When author Christopher Isherwood was making a living as scriptwriter at MGM in Hollywood in the 30s, he wrote a line into the 1941 Ingrid Bergman thriller Rage In Heaven about the bad vibes from the astronomical body: “The Moon. It’s staring at me, like a great eye.” Another bleak Hollywood movie, The Devil And Daniel Webster, inspired John Fogerty to compose “Bad Moon Rising,” which features lyrics about the “the apocalypse that was going to be visited upon us.” “Bad Moon Rising” is well suited to the soundtrack of the comedy-horror An American Werewolf In London (1981) and the song has been covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and Emmylou Harris.
4: “Blue Moon” (Billie Holiday, 1952)
“Blue Moon” evolved as a song from the MGM soundtrack-writing system, with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart penning the final version for a Clark Gable film called Manhattan Melodrama. The beautiful lyrics – “Blue moon/You saw me standing alone/Without a dream in my heart/Without a love of my own” – are tailor-made for any skilled vocalist to interpret. One of the finest versions was by Billie Holiday for Verve (with backing from jazz greats such as Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Oscar Peterson on piano). It is such a magnificent song that you could take your pick of versions by other artists, including Elvis Presley, Mel Tormé, Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin. The excellent Beck song about loneliness, “Blue Moon,” tips a nod to Rodgers and Hart by using the same song title.
3: “Fly Me To The Moon” (Frank Sinatra, 1964)
When songwriter Bart Howard first came up with the lyrics for his magnificent standard “Fly Me To The Moon” he originally titled the song “In Other Words.” There have been so many brilliant versions of “Fly Me To The Moon” that it would be impossible to pick the very finest, but among the best interpretations are those by Doris Day, Anita O’Day, Astrud Gilberto, Nat “King” Cole and Julie London. The most famous, however, is Frank Sinatra’s 1964 recording. Sinatra’s version was played on the Apollo 10 mission which orbited the Moon in May 1969. The song was also rumored to have been the first music ever heard on the Moon itself, when it was reportedly played on a portable cassette player by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, after he stepped on the Moon’s surface. Aldrin later said he could not remember for sure, however.
2: “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)” (Elton John, 1972)
Elton John said he was “blown away” by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and credited it as a major inspiration. So when Bernie Taupin came up with his own interstellar travel song – partly inspired by a short story in Ray Bradbury’s book The Illustrated Man – John leapt at the chance to record “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time).” John even used Bowie’s producer – former Decca Records man Gus Dudgeon – to be the controller on the ground for his inclusion in this list of songs about the Moon. In 2016, following Bowie’s death, John played an instrumental version of “Space Oddity,” which he then segued into his own hit “Rocket Man.” John’s song, which has been downloaded nearly half a million times, provided the title for the hit 2019 biopic about the singer’s life.
1: “Space Oddity” (David Bowie, 1969)
“Space Oddity” was rushed out as a single on July 11, 1969, five days before the Apollo 11 launch, and nine days before Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon. David Bowie’s main inspiration was the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his song is full of eerie, melancholy lyrics about a Major Tom who is stranded in space: “Here am I floating round my tin can/Far above the Moon/Planet Earth is blue/And there’s nothing I can do.”
The song was actually played by the BBC during its coverage of the Apollo launch. “I’m sure the BBC really weren’t listening to the lyric at all,” said Bowie. “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did.” Bowie would later revisit his Major Tom character in “Ashes To Ashes” and “Hallo Spaceboy.”