Space Oddity — David Bowie

by keren koifman

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Space Oddity — David Bowie

  • Joined Jun 2021
  • Published Books 1

Space Oddity — David Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough hit has continued to orbit the world of music

“I was out of my gourd… it got the song flowing”

Space travel dominated popular culture in the late 60s, ahead of the first mission to land on the Moon. In 1968, after numerous flop records, David Bowie still seemed light-years away from the breakthrough he craved. Bowie’s iconic character Major Tom was based on director Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. David Bowman, who was played by Keir Dullea in the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie began writing “Space Oddity” six months after seeing the movie, which came out in UK cinemas in May 1968.

“I found [the film] amazing,” Bowie told Performing Songwriter magazine in 2003. “I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

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Behind the Song

Bowie, reputedly lovelorn from splitting up with his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, composed a wistful sci-fi ballad called “Space Oddity”. He recorded several demo versions with his then-collaborator, guitarist John Hutchinson, some of which featured a Stylophone, a new, buzzing, semi-musical instrument. Played with a pen-like stylus, the Stylophone seemed futuristic but was sold in Woolworth, which somehow suited Bowie’s song. His cosmic adventures could be understood at ground level; thrilling and awe-inspiring, but small-scale, suggesting that even in space, humans had feet of clay.

 

1968,on Christmas Eve, astronaut Bill Anders captured his iconic photograph of Earth from the Apollo 8 spacecraft while circumnavigating the Moon.

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Space Oddity — David Bowie by keren koifman - Ourboox.com

NASA, Earthrise, 1968.

 

The Earthrise image was still resonating in the public’s imagination when Bowie retreated to his room in Clareville Grove, London to write his space cabaret. Composing on a 12-string Hagstrom guitar with a little sonic weirdness from a Stylophone given to him by Marc Bolan, he came up with “Space Oddity.”

 

 

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David Bowie – Space Oddity (early version)

 

 

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“It was clear that he had composed something extraordinary”

 

Bowie’s label, ‟Space Oddity” as a single. By the time it was due for release, the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon was front-page news. Initially, this was a problem, because Bowie’s new producer, Tony Visconti, thought the song was ‟a gimmick to cash in on the Moonshot”. Gus Dudgeon, the sound engineer who worked with Visconti, strongly disagreed, and was installed as the single’s producer. He had limited experience as a producer, but ‟Space Oddity” would make his name, as it would for Bowie, transforming Dudgeon into one of the 1970s’ most respected producers, with credits including Elton John’s similarly downbeat cosmonaut ditty, “Rocket Man”.

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Bowie recorded ‟Space Oddity” at London’s Trident studios on June 20 1969. The finished track matched Stylophone against the upmarket Mellotron, played by future prog star Rick Wakeman. The single was released on July 11, nine days before Apollo 11’s module Eagle disgorged Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on to the lunar dust. And, Armstrong’s famous saying “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The song’s Major Tom, plaintively asking Ground Control to tell his wife “I love her very much” from “a tin can” in the great void, had seen through the glory of space travel. Though this downbeat mood marked a sharp contrast to the hullabaloo around the lunar landing, Bowie’s record soared to number five in the UK. BBC radio did not feature it until Apollo’s crew had returned to Earth, though it was used to soundtrack some TV repeats of the landing.

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“It was picked up by British television and used as the background music for the landing itself in Britain,” Bowie said. “Though I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer, ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir!’”

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“Space Oddity” won the Ivor Novello Award in 1969 for songwriting excellence.

Despite its contrived beginnings, Bowie designed a cultural touchstone for a historic moment of human engineering and blind courage. Even 50 years hence, he appears to us fully formed on “Space Oddity” as a moonstruck balladeer and completely in synch with the times.

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Though ‟Space Oddity” cut Major Tom adrift, he enjoyed an impressive afterlife. Bowie revisited the character in “Ashes To Ashes” (1980), depicting the astronaut as a junkie, echoing his own troubles. 1995’s ‟Hallo Spaceboy” saw some of the lyrics rehashed at the prompting of collaborators Pet Shop Boys, and what is assumed to be Major Tom’s corpse took a grim curtain call in the video for ‟Blackstar”(2016). The song has been covered by over twenty artists, including Def Leppard, Tangerine Dream and Cat Power, and featured in the video game Rock Band 3.

 

David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes (Official Video)

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Perhaps inevitably, the Major actually travelled into space when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sang Space Oddity on the International Space Station in May 2013. Careful not to tempt fate, Commander Hadfield amended the lyrics so Major Tom finally made it home. Though the video caused consternation for lawyers (was a song performed in orbit subject to terrestrial copyright?), Bowie was delighted, declaring it ‟possibly the most poignant version”.

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“Rushing towards the stars”

In a 1980 interview, Bowie revealed Major Tom’s dilemma was a comment on what he saw at the time as the limits of American exceptionalism: “When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I thought I knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here was the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.”

 

 

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David Bowie – Space Oddity (Official Video)

 

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David Bowie – Space Oddity – Song Lyrics:

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground Control to Major Tom (ten, nine, eight, seven, six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I…

 

 

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