Writing The Killing Moon

When Ian McCulloch wondered what the chords of Space Oddity would sound like backwards

Backwards chords are a starting point. Like Bowie’s own ‘cut-up technique’, beginning backwards can ignite whatever’s lying just out of reach in a songwriter’s imagination:

But techniques are just a spark. The songwriter has to build the fire and fan the flame.

Some of the words to The Killing Moon arrived unannounced:

“One morning, I just sat bolt upright in bed with this line in my head: “Fate up against your will. Through the thick and thin. He will wait until you give yourself to him.” You don’t dream things like that and remember them. That’s why I’ve always half credited the lyric to God. It’s never happened before or since.”


“The rest of the lyrics came quickly, almost as if I knew them already. The title and a lot of the astronomical imagery, such as “your sky all hung with jewels”, came about because, as a kid, I’d always loved The Sky at Night and Star Trek, and I remembered the moon landing. I was up all night wishing I had a telescope.”

It takes a wordsmith to transform Star Trek and the Moon Landing into ‘your sky all hung with jewels’, with its mix of light, floating y and w sounds and its vivid imagery. None of us have ever seen a sky all hung with jewels. We can all picture it.

It takes a group of musicians to build the whole sound picture of a song. All four members of Echo and the Bunnymen are credited as songwriters for the track. Read guitarist Will Sergeant‘s take on the process here. A chance trip to Leningrad with bassist Les Pattinson fed the balalaika-influenced middle of The Killing Moon. Pete de Freitas, the drummer, had been influenced by Dave Brubeck’s Take Five into augmenting the luscious feel of The Killing Moon by using brushes, rather than just playing through the track with a straightforward beat:

Back to the words: in The Killing Moon, the words carry their meaning in their sound, with just enough sense to them to make us think, in some corner of our imaginations, that we understand what Ian McCulloch means as he sings them to us.

The whole song is as big as the night sky, dotted with spacious-vowelled words: up in your arms, he will wait until, in starlit nights I saw you. The words float.

The only two words that stick to the ground are killing and unwillingly. Their ng sounds, made in the back of the throat, slow the tongue to the speed of porridge. Which makes unwillingly feel extra unwilling: it’s a word that slows the tongue down even more by forcing it to return into position behind the teeth to make the ly sound.

The ng makes killing feel serious, but as killing is always followed by moon or time, Ian McCulloch’s mouth resets into a light touch of the lips for the m or a quick tap of the tongue for the t. Both moon and time then open out into spacious vowel sounds. Unwillingly, with its tongue-trapping middle, is already slow before it slows even further in the un-open sound of mine.

All words in a song line behave differently, and communicate a different feeling to your audience, depending on what comes before or after them. If you’re writing a  song in English, think of your tongue. How fast or slow do you want it to move? We’re talking milliseconds, or micro-milliseconds, but when you’re singing to an English speaking audience, every tiny clue in the sound you produce paints a picture in their minds. It’s not meaning that they’re listening for – often the words can’t be distinguished on first listening – but it’s the feel of the words, their sound.

Ian McCulloch doesn’t say that unwillingly mine came to him in a dream. The sound picture of the words will have felt right in his mouth.

In The Killing Moon, McCulloch’s starlit has a vowel sound as wide open as Bowie’s Starman. Both have the magic of the stars and the twinkling beauty of a starlit night in their sound.But only because the magic and beauty are sung into the words.

Listen to the way Ian McCulloch sings the words ‘starlit nights’. He tips the intonation just an unusual touch extra onto the first syllable of starlit and stretches the vowel sound, just enough for us to notice.

What do we listeners notice? We notice the stars in the sky. He makes us stop for a millisecond. He gives our imaginations time to pause and look around. We see infinity.

There’s more than one way to sing about stars. And more than one way to paint them into your listeners’ minds. You choose, by the way you sing any English word, how your listeners understand it. All words have many possible mental pictures attached to them.

Or, like this word or this one, have no particular, set picture already attached to them. So they’re available for you to colour any way you like when you sing them, by the way you sing them.

Don McLean, in Vincent (Starry Starry Night) wants us to think about Vincent Van Gogh. He doesn’t want us to stop and think and stray into our own imagined stars. He wants to keep us focused on the stars Vincent painted in 1889, in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, Southern France. These stars:

“while in the asylum, he couldn’t get outside at night and so painted his Starry Night from memory.”

Don sings the word starry wistfully but matter-of-factly. Which tells us how to imagine the starry, starry nights in his song: painted from memory on a canvas sky. Not Starman, not Star Trek and not starlit:

All good singers lead their listeners by the ear. Ian McCulloch tethers the billowing, mystical landscape of his song by calling our attention to certain words. Peg words, if you like. They call us back to him, and help him lead us through his song, rather than letting the song float away from him.

Cruelly is a peg word. Ian has seeded his song with sound echoes. Moon is shadowed by blue, you, too, soon and through. The sounds of Killing pulse in unwillingly, will and until. And cruelly? It contains an echo of Killing Moon. The vowel sound of moon with the thick double ll of killing, but backwards, just like David Bowie’s chord pattern.

Ian McCulloch stretches the word cruelly. He sings it with enough difference to make us pay attention, but not so much that we take cruelly to be the most important word in the song. Cruelty isn’t the theme of The Killing Moon.

The theme of the song is just out of reach. I’ve seen it discussed in forums, with absolute certainty, as a song about an unhappy Indian arranged marriage “because of the sitar” or as a song about a cult sacrifice, a lovelorn werewolf or a hunter in love. All things to all people.

Ian McCulloch says now

“It’s a psalm, almost hymnal. It’s about everything, from birth to death to eternity and God – whatever that is – and the eternal battle between fate and the human will. It contains the answer to the meaning of life. It’s my ‘To be or not to be…’”

Here’s Ian McCulloch talking about the inspiration of Bowie backwards:

And Bowie himself, not always in perfect focus, in 1970, winning a prize for Space Oddity forwards:

If you’re going to sing The Killing Moon:

  • Give the words space. Ian McCulloch has provided light, airy vowel sounds for you to sing. The song’s feeling of mystery and meaning are built of those sounds.
  • Watch the video of Ian McCulloch speaking. His speaking voice is a tighter, Liverpool sound. Notice the difference between how he speaks and how he uses words in The Killing Moon. There’s a reason for that difference: the song needs space to be mysterious, speaking doesn’t.
  • Choose the words that you will use to tether the song so that it doesn’t float away into meaninglessness. These are the words that you will sing with the vowel or consonant sounds slightly different from normal, or with the stress placed slightly differently from standard. For your audience to notice. Ian McCulloch chooses starlit nights and cruelly, sometimes he chooses killing.
  • Your choices will depend on what the song means to you and what you’re trying to communicate when you sing it. But choose you must.

The words of The Killing Moon can be sung differently. Listen to Nouvelle Vague cover version. What do you think?:

©SingBetterEnglish 2018


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