For seven and a half minutes on the night of July 20, 1969, Pink Floyd took thousands of BBC viewers to the moon. Of course, two men were already there: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronauts who became the first human beings to set foot on the lunar surface. However, the members of Pink Floyd—David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright—weren’t using science, calculus, and technology to transport people through space on that fateful evening. They were using music, specifically an improvised and largely forgotten song called “Moonhead.”
The piece isn’t ranked with Pink Floyd classics such as “Wish You Were Here” or “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Over the decades, “Moonhead” has remained one of the most overlooked entries in the band’s canon, despite its historic status. Pink Floyd was commissioned by the BBC to perform instrumental music live on the air as the Apollo 11 crew’s video and audio signals came streaming in across the emptiness of space, beating the Soviets at the race that had been spurred on by John F. Kennedy’s rousing moonshot speech in 1962.
Pink Floyd was uniquely qualified for the task. Syd Barrett, the group’s founding frontman, had parted ways with his bandmates in 1968, after his struggles with mental illness and drug use had made working with him almost impossible. But before he left, Barrett had stamped on the band a fascination with both science fact and fiction, as heard on such songs as “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” which Barrett either wrote or contributed to. By the summer of 1969, Pink Floyd was nowhere near the superstar level it would reach in the ’70s, but it was a cult band whose psychedelic explorations were firmly associated with outer space.
It was no surprise, then, that the BBC tapped Pink Floyd to appear on a special Apollo 11–themed episode of Omnibus titled, with perhaps with the slightest dearth of decorum, “So What If It’s Just Green Cheese?” This irreverent sentiment was reiterated in the middle of Pink Floyd’s performance of “Moonhead,” when an unidentified narrator breaks into the song to exclaim, “So they’re there, a quarter of a million miles away, up there on the moon, and early tomorrow morning they’ll step out and see once and for all if it’s green cheese or not”—referring to the fact that, in the wee hours of July 21, 1969, Armstrong would leave Homo sapiens’ first boot print on the moon, followed about 19 minutes later by Aldrin. For good measure, a young Judi Dench and a young Ian McKellen—pre-Dame and pre-Sir—read lighthearted poetry on the program.
The levity is understandable. Laughter was one way to deal with the very real possibility of failure—not to mention the existential enormity—that came with the Apollo 11 mission. Who were we, after all, to dare walk on the moon? It was a feat of hubris that echoed Icarus’s own. Amid all the triumphalism of Apollo 11’s anticipated success was a dark underside. A few jokes here and there helped keep spirits up, hence the raft of novelty songs that appeared at the time, from the psychedelic sound of “Man in the Moon” by the group Village to the hilariously twangy single “First Country Singer on the Moon” by Don Lewis.
The BBC’s suspense-puncturing quip about green cheese wasn’t enough to deflate the grandeur and mystique of “Moonhead.” Constructed of cosmic guitar effects, pulses of percussion, and Waters’s ominously descending bass line, it’s an eerie piece of improvisation that translates the breathtaking awe of the moon landing into music. Gilmour dismissed the song humbly as “a nice, spacey, atmospheric, 12-bar blues” that sounded “a bit off the wall,” but it’s much more than that. Presaging the ambient and new-age music movements that would come into their own in the ’70s, “Moonhead” is both ahead of its time and solidly a product of the moment—the zeitgeist caught in a vacuum tube.
Later, Gilmour realized the song’s place in history. “It brought it home to me, powerfully, that you could look up at the moon and there would be people standing on it,” he said. “It was fantastic to be thinking that we were in there making up a piece of music, while the astronauts were standing on the moon.” According to Gilmour, the song also marked a turning point for the band—the point at which outer space ceased to be Pink Floyd’s preoccupation.
“It didn’t have a significant impact on our later work,” Gilmour said of “Moonhead.” “I think at the time Roger, our lyricist, was looking more into going inwards, going into the inner space of the human mind and condition. And I think that was sort of the end of our exploration into outer space.” Once you’ve officially soundtracked the occasion of humanity’s first steps on another astronomical body, where do you go with space music? Even the band’s wildly successful 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon, used lunar imagery as a metaphor for the inner condition rather than a subject in and of itself.
“Moonhead” was included on numerous bootleg recordings over the decades, sometimes alternatively titled “Trip on Mars.” But it wasn’t officially released until 2016, on the Pink Floyd box set The Early Years 1965–1972. The song’s obscurity isn’t that hard to understand; Pink Floyd was more or less an underground band until The Dark Side of the Moon was released, and “Moonhead” was an ephemeral, extemporized thing, as fleeting as a wisp of lunar dust. Plus, it was overshadowed by the other song that was played on the “Green Cheese” episode of Omnibus: a new single by a barely known singer-songwriter named David Bowie that had been written and recorded as both an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and as a vehicle to capitalize on the Apollo 11 craze. That song was “Space Oddity,” and after being briefly banned by the BBC for being too depressing for that triumphant time, it became the most famous rock anthem about space. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had raced to the moon, with the American team emerging clearly victorious; so did Bowie win rock’s own inadvertent space race against Pink Floyd.
Apollo 11 continued to inspire musicians in the months to follow. Eminent rock bands such as The Byrds released songs such as 1969’s “Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins,” which celebrated the achievements of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, including orbiting Michael Collins, relegated to the dark side of the Moon as Armstrong and Aldrin strode lunar soil. Far less famous than The Byrds, but no less captivating, was Lucia Pamela, a singer whose 1969 novelty record Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela resembled a collection of show tunes broadcast from the deepest reaches of the galaxy. Eventually, popular music’s obsession with space took on different forms, as the Apollo program wound down, the Viking program took unmanned probes to Mars, the Voyager program carried musical messages beyond our solar system, and the space shuttle became fully operational. But in “Moonhead,” Pink Floyd encapsulated one of rock and roll’s—and one of humanity’s—most astounding eras.