David Bowie’s countdown for Major Tom in his 1969 smash hit Space Oddity is arguably one of the most iconic moments in pop history. Legend has it that he wrote the song after watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when he was very stoned.
But not only Bowie was inspired by sci-fi films and the early space missions of the 1960s, a whole generation of artists dedicated songs to astronauts and their adventures. Here are five of the best examples.
Marvin Gaye – “Funky Space Reincarnation”
In this song from 1979 the master of soul pushes the limits of space-time continuum. In the lyrics he describes himself as the captain of a ‘space bed’, travelling a parallel universe to meet a woman that reminds him of his first wife. When he finds her, they make wedding plans, they want to get ‘married in June’, then they ‘smoke a joint from out of Venus’.
The Byrds – “Mr. Spaceman”
Around the mid-1960s Jim McGuinn, leader of the psychedelic rock band The Byrds, was so obsessed with science fiction that he wrote a concept album called Fifth Dimension. The best song on the record is arguably Mr. Spaceman in which McGuinn sings about communicating with alien life forms via radio broadcasting. In a later interview he stated: “I thought that the song being played on the air might be a way of getting through to them. But even if there had been anybody up there listening, they wouldn’t have heard because I found out later that AM airwaves diffuse in space too rapidly.”
Elton John – “Rocket Man”
John’s long time collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics for this classic from 1972, inspired by sci-fi writer Raymond Bradbury’s short story by the same name. In an existential monologue a Mars-bound astronaut struggles with the question as to whether he should leave his family in order to do his job or not. Famously, the song contains the line “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then”. Taupin assured fans that this a reference to drugs, but he did write it in the 1970s…
Sylvia Love – “Extraterrestrial Lover”
Given their playful and rather unscientific approach to electronic music, it’s an interesting side note of pop history that the creators of Italo disco around 1980 took their main inspiration from science fiction. Take genre classics like Charlie’s Spacer Woman, Humanoid Invasion by Laserdance or this criminally overlooked gem from 1979 in which the Dutch disco singer expresses her desire to, um, make passionate love to a stranger from another planet. Apart from that, this song deserves recognition for the best children’s music box solo ever.
Black Sabbath – “Into The Void”
The closing song on Black Sabbath’s legendary Master of Reality album is one of the band’s best, not only according to guitarist Tony Iommi. Surrounded by his heavy guitar riffs, Ozzy Osbourne sings about the Earth becoming so terrible that a crew of astronauts fly off into space to find a new planet to live on. It’s a dark and apocalyptic vision Osbourne is painting here, and apparently he struggled with the lyrics’ complexity. “Rocket wuhptupittipuh, what the f**k,” Iommi recalls him saying. “I can’t sing this!”