April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In this article we will count down our top ten favourite popular songs written about extra-terrestrials and other worlds from the 1950s to date.

The public are always open to songs written about aliens, space travel and other worlds. Perhaps it is by exploring this mysterious topic that we learn something deeper about ourselves as human beings in the process. In this article we will count down our top ten favourite popular songs written about extra-terrestrials and the other worldly in general. Nailing it down to just ten was no easy task: notable also-rans included Katie Perry’s E.T., I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper by Sarah Brightman/Hot Gossip, and the unforgettable Star Trekkin’ by The Firm. Along the way we’ll hope to learn something about what we find so attractive about songs dealing with this theme. So here we go….


10) The Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley (1958)

This early rock n roll novelty song topped the US Billboard charts in the summer of 1958 and reached number 12 in the UK charts. The song tells the story of a “one-eyed, one-horned” alien being who comes down to Earth looking to eat purple people and play in a rock and roll band. It’s quite touching of the writer (Wooley himself) that he gives this most universally human of motivations (to play rock n roll) to the alien, and it makes us the listener feel bad for having judged the alien on his looks alone. Thankfully things turn out okay in the end for our extra-terrestrial friend when he turns up on TV “playin’ rock and roll music through the horn in his head”. All’s well that ends well!

The Purple People Eater, Sheb Wooley


9) Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Space by The Carpenters (1977)

Although the song was originally released by Canadian prog-rock band Klaatu a year earlier, we’ve gone for the Carpenter’s version due to Karen’s fine vocal performance. The song urges its listeners to use the combined power of their minds to enable them to contact the “occupants of interplanetary space”, claiming in the opening line that “In your mind you have capacities you know, to telepath messages through the vast unknown”. The message is a cordial one you’ll be glad to hear, with the last line of the signal saying “we are your friends”. The song featured on a 2011 episode of the BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System, hosted by Professor Brian Cox.

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Space, The Carpenters


8) Starlight – Muse (2006)

Who would think we’d even dare to leave out British rockers Muse and this modern rock favourite? After all it’s such a deliciously driving bass line intro to this track from their fourth studio album Blackholes and Revelations. Indeed it’s a line from “Starlight” that gives the album its name. Lead singer Matt Bellamy wails “I will be chasing a starlight, until the end of my life, I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore” and we believe his feelings of bleak existence through the angst in his great vocal performance. The piano riff also goes down as one of the most memorable in recent pop rock history.

Starlight, Muse


7) A Spaceman Came Travelling – Chris de Burgh (1975)

This festive number by British-Irish singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh actually failed to chart upon its initial release but found a place on subsequent Christmas compilation albums and has remained a festive favourite ever since. The lyrics tell a story of a spaceman who arrives at Earth, “And over a village he halted his craft, and it hung in the sky like a star”. What happens next is not totally clear and has lead to many different interpretations of the lyric. The village appears to be that of Bethlehem, and the time that of the birth of Jesus: “He followed a light and came down to a shed, where a mother and child were lying there on a bed”. Perhaps the spaceman is an angel; maybe all angels are aliens! Whatever your viewpoint, the softness of de Burgh’s vocals and the hauntingly beautiful melody make this record one of the much-loved classics.

A Spaceman Came Travelling, Chris de Burgh


6) Planet Claire – The B52s (1979)

A song about a mysterious woman from Planet Claire who “drove a Plymouth Satellite, faster than the speed of light”, this number by American new wave band The B52’s comes from their self-titled first album. We are given some clues as to what Planet Claire is like: “Planet Claire has pink air, all the trees are red”. It’s not surprising the song didn’t do so well commercially due to the nearly two-minute instrumental intro. The Foo Fighters have been known to do a great, heavier live cover version of the song.

Planet Claire, B52s


5) Space Truckin’ – Deep Purple (1972)

This is one for the metal fiends with its memorable, heavy guitar riff in the chorus, fine drum work and vocal screeching later on in the track. Deep Purple boast to us of riding around the galaxy, “we’ve rocked the Milky Way so far, we danced around with Borealis”, and there’s some nice wordplay with the line “We’ve got music in our solar system” –this is great stuff for the poetry alone. It’s not just us who think the song is great – those who have covered the song include Dream Theater, Iron Maiden and, bizarrely, William Shatner.

Space Truckin’, Deep Purple


4) Go! – Public Service Broadcasting (2015)

Perhaps the most out-there entry in our countdown, this experimental project by London-based progressive group Public Service Broadcasting earns its placing for the shear cleverness of its conception. The song features on the band’s Race For Space album that used historical clips from the British Film Institute of the 1960s US-Soviet battle for superiority over the heavens. Go! centres on the successful Apollo 11 Moon landing. The song doesn’t feature any original lyrics, but that’s not the point. The pulsating instrumentals complete with spacey synths, rhythmically pounding drums and driving guitar riffs move the narrative along nicely with the audio clips from Mission Control. It’s compelling stuff.

Go!, Public Service Broadcasting


3) Subterranean Homesick Alien – Radiohead (1997)

Oxfordshire rockers Radiohead probably never surpassed their superb 1997 work OK Computer, and it’s from that album that we picked Subterranean Homesick Alien to come straight in at number three. At first the song seems to have a playful attitude, belying its eerie soundscape to tell us that “aliens hover, making home movies for the folks back home”.  Indeed our protagonist holds hope of going up onto their ship, to “show me the world as I’d love to see it”. But things take a turn for the worse as Thom Yorke laments that his friends would never believe him, and the world would “shut him away”. It’s a truly terrifying thought and tells us that the prospect of alien life isn’t always a rosy one.

Subterranean Homesick Alien, Radiohead


2) Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to be a Long, Long Time) – Elton John (1972)

Allegedly written after Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin saw a shooting star in the distant sky, Rocket Man soared to number two in the UK singles charts and number 6 in the US Billboard rankings back in the Seventies. The lyric tells of a well-grounded astronaut (“I’m not the man they think I am at home”) who is having trouble adapting to life in space – “I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife, it’s lonely out in space”. The song also serves to demonstrate how spacemen are not too different to the average human back on Earth, for even the humble star of our adventure admits “all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week”. The song has gone down as a true rock classic, even being declared by Rolling Stone magazine as number 245 in its all-time list of greatest songs.

Rocket Man, Elton John


1) A Space Oddity – David Bowie (1969)

Possibly Bowie’s best known song, A Space Oddity wins the contest for its fine originality and also good timeliness – the song was released just five days before Apollo 11 launched Neil Armstrong et al to the Moon. Bowie is in great lyrical form on the song, both telling the story of a stranded astronaut but also adding in some great social commentary along the way – “the papers want to know whose shirts you wear” and the smartly conceived “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”. The song also cleverly works in a launch countdown in the build up to the first chorus. Pure Bowie genius.

A Space Oddity, David Bowie

So what do all these songs have in common, other than the theme? Well they all tell a good story, and sometimes the outcome is good (like for The Purple People Eater), other times not so great (poor Thom Yorke locked in the asylum). What they do is teach us is that there are many perspectives on the often purely speculative subject matter of aliens and space. We should all try to embrace this spectrum of ideas on what has always proved to be a fascinating topic of choice for musicians and writers more generally.

Peter Fox is studying for a PhD in Physics

Banner image: Sound waves in space, Ezume Images