Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, no longer walks the earth. If it is true that great astronauts never die — they just go into eclipse — then we can imagine him treading the dark side of the moon. Who knows: maybe out there, he can even tune in to songs about him and the moon landing.
Of which, let me tell you, there are quite a few: enough to fit into a dedicatory programme, the kind they would have on radio in the pre-FM days. It wouldn’t even be necessary to cheat during song selection and include, for example, Paul Simon’s Song about the Moon, which uses the moon as a metaphor, or REM’s Man on the Moon, which actually expresses scepticism about the event.
The song that comes first to mind is Armstrong, by ex-Kingston Trio member John Stewart, released as a single the same year as the moon landing. It sees the Apollo 11 mission as overshadowing the squalor, poverty and hatred on the earth it left behind. Interestingly, Calcutta is mentioned in the song, a version of which, by Lobo, was a favourite on radio in the city during the Seventies.
In 1983, US punk-rockers Angst had a track named Neil Armstrong, which mentions the first man on the moon; while Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire in 1989 included in its checklist of American historical events a reference to ‘Moonshot’ — the July 1969 landing. Another American musician, Jonathan Sprout, a composer of material primarily for children, has since the mid-90s released three albums on people he considers real American heroes; one of them is Armstrong, in a song called First Man on the Moon: an unexceptional, uncritical biographical paean, but still worth a listen.
Not all musical responses, though, have been American: British rockers Black Grape, in the mid-90s, produced In the Name of the Father. But were they being adulatory, or merely astronaughty, while claiming in the song that Armstrong had certain spherical body parts larger than King Kong’s? Despite this claim — or perhaps because of it — I find the song musically more appealing than two bland electronic tributes released the day after Armstrong’s passing by UK band Torpa and titled First Step and The Other Side of the Stars.
A composition that actually pre-dates the moon landing, but has a title that perfectly justifies its inclusion, is Bart Howard’s Fly Me to the Moon. At Armstrong’s memorial service, this song was sung by Diana Krall, who had also performed it at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the giant step for mankind.
The last song on this lunar list, like the first, has a Calcutta connection. It is from the soundtrack of the seventies Bangla film Joy Jayanti, and features Sandhya Mukherjee (singing playback for Aparna Sen) referring, at one point, to the first moon-walker (Ke prothom chande geche, bolo to naam?). Whatever the musical qualities of the song, it suggests how an American’s small step was indeed received the world over as humankind’s giant leap.
The writer, who teaches English at a city college, often wishes he could play music instead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org