Space Oddity At Half-Century

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Space Oddity (earliest demos, ca. December 1968-January 1969).
Space Oddity (“Clareville Grove” demo, ca. late January 1969).
Space Oddity (Love You Till Tuesday, full-band version, February 1969).
Space Oddity (“Mercury demo”).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (Hits à Gogo, 1969).
Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola.
Space Oddity (Ivor Novello Awards, 1970).
Space Oddity (live, 1971).
Space Oddity (live, 1972).
Space Oddity (BBC, 1972).
Space Oddity (live, Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show,” 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Space Oddity (Tibet House Benefit Concert, February 2002, w/ the Scorchio and Kronos Quartets, Adam Yauch & Philip Glass.)
Space Oddity (last live performance, 5 July 2002).
Space Oddity (a last snippet, March 2004.)

It was the beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury, his first British Top 5 hit, his first American Top 20 hit and, some years later, his first British #1. “Space Oddity” led off the album it titled; it leads off Bowie compilations and retrospectives. When he died, some television tributes led off with it; that night, they sang it in the streets.

An odd beginning, though. Its status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. Though it was a novelty single with a sell-by date (the July 1969 moon landing), “Space Oddity” didn’t chart until months after the moonshot and its highest chartings came in the mid-Seventies. Some in the Bowie camp thought it was a mistake at the time—his friend Tony Visconti refused to produce the single, considering it cheap, a publicity stunt (“it’s not a David Bowie record, it’s ‘Ernie the Milkman’,” he later said). Visconti wasn’t wrong. In hock to the great Bee Gees’ death bubblegum hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Major Tom to Ground Control: in the event of something happening to me; Ground Control to Major Tom: for once in your life you’re alone), “Space Oddity” is a gimmicky folk song clad in extravagant garb.

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In December 1968, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt funded the production of Love You Till Tuesday, a collection of promotional videos. He hoped to revive Bowie’s moribund career, with LYTT serving as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network (it wasn’t released until 1984). While there were films shot for David Bowie tracks, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a Feathers song, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”

It’s unknown when Bowie first got the idea for a “spaceman” song, but an almost certain starting point was May 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London. The film played there for months, mostly to the young and the altered. In a typical 2001 screening, Visconti, high from drinking cannabis tea, had to talk down a tripping couple terrified by the “Stargate” sequence, as he wrote in his autobiography. Bowie saw 2001 (allegedly “out of my gourd…very stoned”) several times and was taken by Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth’s shots: a star-child looming above the Earth; the dead astronaut Frank Poole floating off into space; a man in space talking to his daughter on Earth via video-phone.

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Like 2001, much of postwar SF had offered that humanity’s ventures into space would drive it mad or transfigure it in some way. In Gordon Walter’s “No Guarantee,” an astronaut violently hallucinates while talking to Ground Control. An astronaut in Terry Pratchett’s “The Night Dweller” realizes “we were in a void with nothing below us…it was cold and empty and hostile.”

And in Ray Bradbury’s “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut hurls himself into the void:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

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Jane Conrad, Barbara Cernan & Leslie Bean celebrate their husbands’ moonlaunch on Apollo 12; 16 November 1969 (Lee Balterman)

Against this stood the American astronauts: ex-athletes and Air Force pilots with pretty, television-ready wives and scads of healthy-looking children. They all seemed to live on the same suburban street. “NASA was vending space,” wrote Norman Mailer, who interviewed the Apollo 11 crew before the moonshot. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was “a salesman with a clear mild modest soft sell.” But there was something strange in the Apollo astronauts too, something that lay beyond the jokes about astronaut food and golf and the hundreds of tedious tasks they’d perform, as if they were celestial mechanics. For Mailer, an astronaut like Armstrong had “something close to schizophrenia in his lack of reaction to the dangers about him.”

The astronauts had an easy familiarity with death; they were salesmen over an abyss. Major Tom’s disaster (is it a disaster at all?) voiced the collective dread that the moon landing could go horribly wrong, with death or lunar exile (an extended death) shown on live TV. “A song-farce,” Bowie called “Space Oddity” not long after the moonshot. He’d written it as an “antidote to space-fever.” That “the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing but a human being.”

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It’s fitting that Bowie made “Space Oddity” demos while he had a serviceman’s haircut (due to a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in late 1968)

The man on earth, playing his 12-string acoustic in his room at 22 Clareville Grove in South Kensington, working up a song. After four years in pop music, David Bowie had no record contract and was reduced to a relative handful of folk and mime gigs. In 1968, he’d tried his hand at film parts and musical theater (he unsuccessfully auditioned for Hair), did a cabaret audition, some modeling. Though among his more lucrative jobs of the period was for a TV spot for Luv Ice Cream, his manager kept telling him that work would turn up. So Major Tom is sent into orbit by Establishment figures who monitor him and need him to do his share of media promotion. The song ends with Major Tom ignoring his cues and walking off stage.

Bowie also was writing as the first serious relationship of his life crumbled. He cut the first studio take of “Space Oddity” during his final break with Hermione Farthingale. There was a numbness in the song, a longing to sever ties and drift into the void. As Bowie said of it in summer 1969, “at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at…he’s fragmenting.”

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Among the first substantive interviews of Bowie’s professional life, by Mary Finnigan for the International Times (15-21 August 1969).

All of this was swirling in “Space Oddity”—a technocrat American astronaut cracking up, a failed pop singer out in space writing a letter to his lost girlfriend—but there were pantomime qualities in the song as well. The hand-wringing “she KNOWS!” cried by Ground Control when Major Tom tells his wife he loves her; the stage-Italian pronunciation of “most-a pe-cuil-ee-ah way.”

As with “When I’m Five” or “There Is a Happy Land,” it was fundamentally a child’s song, one they could perform via walkie-talkies. Using simple rhymes (“can you hear” jump-cuts to “here am I floating…”), Bowie favored the kid’s word over the bureaucrat’s: it’s “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence.” “Major Tom” was an action hero’s name, another Dan Dare. The Apollo 11 astronauts called their capsule “the cathedral.” But it was a tin can here: you could see the wires it hung from.

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Ground Control fears the worst (Love You Till Tuesday; Thomson, 1969)

In John Hutchinson’s memoir, he recalled first hearing “the bare bones” of “Space Oddity” a week or two before the Love You Till Tuesday filming. This would place its earliest extant demos (as heard on the Spying Through a Keyhole box) around the tail end of 1968 through mid-January 1969. Farthingale said she first heard “Space Oddity” in November 1968 (Bowie also once said that he wrote the lyrics in that month) and there’s an intriguing Feathers setlist from the period with an unknown piece called “Here Am I,” suggesting that its bridge may have been written first.

(There have been dubious co-authorship claims—LYTT’s director Malcolm Thomson once said some of “Space Oddity” was communally written over a few nights when he and his assistant Susie Mercer visited Clareville Grove—“we all produced lines. It was very much a spontaneous thing among a group of people”—and Marc Bolan told Spencer Leigh that he’d written “part” of the song (declining to say which part) and had suggested that Bowie sing it like Robin Gibb.)

What could be the first recording that Bowie ever made of “Space Oddity” is a fragmentary solo demo in which the bridge is all but completed, while the verse melody and the Ground Control/Major Tom dialogue structure are close to being set. The way that Bowie sings the verses reminds me a bit of John Lennon’s verse phrasings on the then-just-released “Bungalow Bill” (“he went out tiger hunting with his el-e-phant and gun”). There are some clunky early lines (“I think my life on earth is nearly through”), and a clearer depiction of what happens to Major Tom—his spaceship goes “off course, directions wrong”— but it’s striking how much of the song is already in place.

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Some “Space Oddity” chords, from Acoustic Guitar, February 2007.

Its chord sequence was the fruit of a year’s dabbling in folk music, with Hutchinson translating some of Bowie’s ideas into proper chord shapes (he was essential to tacking down the bridge, as Hutch contributed the opening Fmaj7 and the quick run of ninth chords (wrongly omitted in the above chord chart: see below).

Bowie had fingered through progressions on his 12-string, following internal voices of his guitar—playing chord changes that sounded right to his ear and that he achieved with easy movements, like converting a F major barre chord (“and I’m”) into F minor (“floating in a”) by lifting a finger. Later compositions like “Quicksand” would share this tactile sense of movement.

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Parallel movements of electric guitar and Stylophone (“Sty.”) in the opening verse

So the chord pairings of the intro (a slow dance of Fmaj7/E and E minor) and the first verse’s alternating C majors and E minors, present a division to be exploited. On the single recording, the guitarist Mick Wayne sounds two harmonics (E and B) while Bowie’s Stylophone drones two whole notes a half-step apart (C and B). Before the first verse starts, Major Tom is already high in space, Ground Control far below him.

The song was full of these resonances, its harmonic language telling half of the story. Take the E7 chord that appears in the second verse (“really made the grade”) to question the prospective key of C major. It was as dramatic a move harmonically as the vocal leap on the post-liftoff  “this is Ground Control to Major Tom” was melodically. Shifting to E7 instead of the expected E minor brightened the song, expanded it outward. Or take the bridge’s “planet earth is blue” section (B-flat major 9/ A minor add9/ G major add9/ F), a folk-style descending progression whose opening chord (Bbmaj9) was a far distance from C major, a move ratifying Major Tom’s choice (or doom) to stay out in space.

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The “liftoff” bars

He’d never written anything on such a scale before. In a touch over five minutes, there was a faded-in intro, a 12-bar solo verse, a “liftoff” sequence, a duet verse, a bridge, a two-bar acoustic guitar break, a six-bar guitar solo, a third verse, another run of bridge, break, and solo, and a “Day in the Life”-style outro to the fade.

In 2002, Bowie said he’d been “keen on…writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…[that’s] probably what I really wanted to do in the late Sixties. I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” He storyboarded the song, each section setting up the next. The spoken “countdown” backing vocal built suspense in the latter half of the opening verse, leading to a D major chord (“God’s love be with yoooou”) aching to be resolved by the “liftoff” sequence. The acoustic guitar breaks (C-F-G-A-A, Bowie slamming out the last two chords) worked as stage-clearing (they may well have come from the Fifth Dimension’s “Carpet Man”).

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At present, the only surviving video of DB’s 1969 TV appearances to promote “Space Oddity”: the Swiss Hits à Gogo, 3 November 1969 (the dry ice was a leftover from its Halloween show)

I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“It was a song always intended to be sung by a duo,” Hutchinson wrote of “Space Oddity,” whose initial vocal arrangement evoked another, more successful folk pair—Hutch as Ground Control Simon, Bowie as Major Tom Garfunkel. Hutchinson was the song’s primary voice until midway through the second verse, when Major Tom transmits back at last: Bowie soaring over a seventh for his opening phrase (because it’s a seventh interval rather than an octave, Bowie’s phrase has a yearning, striving quality; it’s a goal not quite reached.)

Hutchinson, having left working with Bowie in the spring, would be a ghost in the single recording, his absence heightening its sense of loss and dislocation. Bowie now sang the opening verse in imitation of his former partner, harmonizing with himself in octaves. (In live performances in 1972-1973, Mick Ronson took over harmonies.)

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A studio recording of “Space Oddity” was cut for Love You Till Tuesday on 2 February 1969, a few days before its tonally bizarre promo film was shot: a half-panto, half-borderline softcore short. Marred by leaden drumming and a wheezing Bowie ocarina solo, the LYTT “Space Oddity” oddly downplayed the Stylophone, which Bowie had started playing around Christmas 1968 and had been key to the song’s development—the Stylophone is central in all but the earliest demo.

A small portable synthesizer with two settings, “normal” and “vibrato,” the Stylophone was played by touching a stylus to its tiny metallic keyboard. Bowie worked out a progression on it for the opening verse, a two-note sequence that he later shifted up an octave (on “papers want to know,” the Stylophone moves between A-flat and G). Heard isolated in the mix, the Stylophone is a futurist police siren. In the single’s outro, while Wayne sends guitar notes into the exosphere, Bowie frantically taps at his little keyboard as if making one last SOS.

Making the Stylophone prominent in the “Space Oddity” mix gave the single a futuristic hook and added to its hokey charm. Although recorded at a top studio at a substantial budget (£493.18), the single had a winning sense of amateurishness. Orchestral instruments would play only secondary roles: the strings’ massed entrance in the liftoff sequence; the spacewalk of darting flute and moaning celli in the bridges; the bow scrapings in the outro, a homage to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” used in 2001. Meanwhile, the two synthesizers, doughty little Stylophone and brooding Mellotron (the latter played by Rick Wakeman and held in reserve until the first bridge), bore much of the song’s dramatic weight. They were its vocal chorus, its other string section.

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A Dudgeon memo right before the “Space Oddity” session, via Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now

Gus Dudgeon, who produced the single, mapped out its recording like a battle plan (much of it was cut on 20 June 1969, but there was an overdub session a few days later). Unable to write music, Dudgeon used colors and squiggly lines to mark where he wanted various instruments to come in, with Paul Buckmaster helpfully translating his scrawls into charts.

With only eight tracks at hand at Trident Studio, Dudgeon had to be economical, which led to such inspired moves as recording Wayne’s Gibson ES-335 on the same track as the Stylophone, furthering the sense that the two instruments were astronaut and home base. Struggling to keep his borrowed Gibson in tune, Wayne cut a take with a flat low E string, “the warped note swamped with reverb,” but Dudgeon liked the sound and told him not to retune. Wayne used any trick he could muster, picking between his guitar’s bridge and tailpiece, using a chrome-plated cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide for the takeoff sequence, giving a distorted pressure-drop tag to his first solo (he sounded like a bass synthesizer), moving off his fingerboard for the outro. His two solos, for which Bowie asked him to play like Wes Montgomery (“which meant to play octaves”), were a pair of sweeping orbits, the last escaping Earth’s pull.

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Flowers and Cox’s lines in some of the last bars of “Space Oddity”

Herbie Flowers and Terry Cox were the track’s secret movers. Drumming for Pentangle at the time, Cox served the song well—a man with a funkier bent would have struggled with what was basically a pop tone poem. Opening with parade-ground snare, Cox soon develops a pattern to drive the track: for each bar, two sets of kick drum/closed hi-hat eighth notes he punctuates with a pounded snare and crash cymbal. (He subtly shifts to ride cymbal 16ths and high toms for bridges and solos.) In Flowers’ bassline, a tolling root-note fixation in the opening verse warms to a dancing movement in the second, with a descending two-octave “spacewalk” to kick off the bridges.

Asked to ad lib in the outro, the two did a jazz duet, Flowers playing a roaming, chromatic line that peaked on a high A, Cox hissing his ride cymbal and retorting on his toms. (Cox recalled the session as being “loose,” with Bowie and Dudgeon letting players improvise many of their parts.)

Liftoff

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DB performing “Space Oddity” on the Irish “Like Now!,” 13 December 1969 (video likely wiped)

Major Tom isn’t hearing anything. Is he dead, David?

Probably, that’s left unanswered. But it is clear that he really enjoys being on the moon.

Bowie, to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, 30 August 1969

The world, or at least a small corner of London, first heard “Space Oddity” on 5 July 1969 when it played over the PA system during the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert. While the BBC reportedly played “Space Oddity” at some point during its moon landing coverage two weeks later (it far more favored “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the official soundtrack of space thanks to 2001), the single barely charted upon release and sales quickly tapered off despite Pitt paying a chart-rigger £140 to get the single into Record Retailer.

Here, it seemed, was the maddening last chapter of David Bowie’s career. The song that his label, manager, and friends thought was finally the one, the song he said he felt forced into recording, his big sell-out record, had suffered yet another chart death, performing little better than “Liza Jane.” Then he caught a break.

With a dearth of new releases in September, Philips’ new marketing director set his entire staff to flogging the single. “Space Oddity” rebounded, peaking at #5 in November. (It was the success Bowie might have had in 1967 if Deram had gone in on “Love You Till Tuesday.”) It helped that many “serious” rock acts were abandoning the singles charts, leaving room for “Continental” crooners, sex chansons, cartoons, the occasional reggae masterpiece and a few weird one-offs. “Space Oddity” sounded like nothing else, but it sounded like 1969.

And it kept being called back for encores. It was an American hit in 1973 and two years later RCA reissued it in Britain as a maxi-single. It hit #1 at last.

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He remade it at the end of the Seventies, recording a new version for a New Year’s Eve telecast, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? (he did). Bowie sheared the song to acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums. The great influence was John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, particularly “Mother.” Instead of a liftoff sequence, there were now 12 seconds of silence; instead of a spiraling-outward coda, a faded-out snare figure.

“[David] Mallet wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.’ I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments,” Bowie later said. “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.”

“Space Oddity” had ended unresolved, the door of the capsule left open. Bowie’s reduction of the song closed it off: space was empty. Soon afterward, Bowie decided to look up Major Tom to see what had become of him.

1969-1979-2009-2019-202?

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Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project, 1976).
Space Oddity (memorial crowd in Brixton, 11 January 2016).
Space Oddity (Chris Hadfield, 2013).
Space Oddity (Kristen Wiig, 2013).
Space Oddity (Flaming Lips, 2016).
Space Oddity (Seu Jorge, 2016).
Space Oddity (Gail Ann Dorsey, 2017).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had 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.

Bowie, 1980.

Knowing each night…I get that much closer to never singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly.

Bowie, on the “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990.

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“Space Oddity” is a half-century old today. Of course, we’re commemorating a non-event. Few people at the time—perhaps only David Bowie, his friends and manager—were aware of a new single that hit British record shops on Friday, the 11th of July 1969.

In the early Seventies, “Space Oddity” had its uses for him. It fit in his Ziggy Stardust scheme: a late 1972 Mick Rock promo video is Bowie as a bone-tired Ziggy, singing about his fellow lost cosmonaut. (“I really hadn’t much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song,” Bowie wrote in 2002.) Its after-hours cabaret 1974 tour version is a man in a phone booth dialing himself. But it was also a silly song that got him a freak hit, and he was wary of being shackled to it. Performing “Space Oddity” on the Ivor Novello Awards in 1970, he already looks a bit chagrined by it. A decade later, he did “Space Oddity” as fan service, with businesslike 1983 tour performances. There was more vigor in his 1990 tour, where “Space Oddity” was the usual set opener. It was the end of the line for the song, he said, so he’d give it a lengthy public burial.

He’d play it three more times. A farewell solo piece at his 1997 birthday concert, where he promised fans he’d keep surprising them. A gorgeous arrangement for Tibet House in February 2002, with a string octet and Adam Yauch on bass (someone else whose death still feels like a break in the world). And a last one-off performance later that summer in Denmark, a gift to his touring band.

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“Space Oddity” was born mournful, and became ever more so over the years. Bowie had linked the Apollo astronauts (who thought they’d be the opening act of a new age of space exploration and turned out to be one-hit-wonders) to the doomed astronauts of science fiction to the lost boys of the imploding counterculture, and had wrapped them up in a playground hymn.

The American space program soon became a series of loops, going nowhere (I wonder sometimes if I am of the last “space” generation, and I was just an infant during the last moon landings). The year 2001 would be remembered not for Jupiter missions but by fanatics destroying New York skyscrapers. In 2013, when we had gone no further into space than when “Space Oddity” first charted, a version sung by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral. It was a video of a man singing in a tin can that many had forgotten was out in space; Hadfield was a project manager with a glorious view from his office windows.

Bowie once said Major Tom was the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the void and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy: that humanity would sink back into the world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky really is the limit. Or as Hadfield sang from space: “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.”

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I wrote the first version of this essay in the late autumn of 2009, with an economy in pieces and a restlessness, a potential in the air. I did a revision for Rebel Rebel in the summer of 2014, a time that now feels stuck between stations. Here’s another revision, written in a world that would have appeared surreal even to that half-decade-gone summer. “Space Oddity” shifts with the weather: it can be eerie, “dated,” tragic, yearning, young, time-blighted. It’s a lost future for the present, a past for the future to discard or preserve. Where will it land in ten years’ time? And as its composer said, where are we now?

End Credits

Space Oddity.

Written by David Bowie (Essex Music International/ Onward Music Ltd).

Recorded: (1st “Keyhole” demo) ca. December 1968–mid-January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, South Kensington, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; (2nd “Keyhole” demo, “Clareville Grove” demo) ca. mid-to-late January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: also Stylophone; John Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar; (1st studio take) 2 February 1969, Morgan Studios, 169 High Road, Willesden. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, ocarina, Stylophone; Hutchinson: acoustic guitar, lead and harmony vocals; Colin Wood: Hammond organ, Mellotron, flute; Dave Clague: bass; Tat Meager: drums. Produced: Jonathan Weston; (“Mercury” demo) ca. early-to-mid March 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone; Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocal, acoustic guitar; (single) 20 + ca. 23 June 1969, Trident Studios, 17 St. Anne’s Court, London. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone, 12-string acoustic guitar, handclaps; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman: Mellotron; Herbie Flowers: bass; Terry Cox: drums; unknown musicians: piano, organ, 2 flutes, 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 2 arco basses. Produced: Gus Dudgeon; engineered: Barry Sheffield; arranged: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster; (Italian version, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”) 20 December 1969, Morgan Studios. Bowie: lead vocal (Mogol, trans.); (Visconti/DB remake) ca. early September 1979, Good Earth Studios, 59 Dean Street, Soho, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Hans Zimmer: piano; Zaine Griff: bass; Andy Duncan: drums. Produced: Bowie, Tony Visconti.

First release: (single) 11 July 1969 (Philips BF 1801, UK #5); (“Ragazzo Solo”) ca. February 1970 (Philips 704 208 BW); (Visconti/DB remake) 15 February 1980 (RCA BOW 5, UK#23); (“1st studio”) 13 May 1984, Love You Till Tuesday; (“Mercury demo”) 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision; (“Clareville Grove” demo) 12 October 2009, Space Oddity (reissue, DBSOCD 40); (“Keyhole” demos) 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Broadcast: (recording dates) 25 August 1969, Doebiedoe; 2 October 1969, Top of the Pops; 29 October 1969, Musik Für Junge Leute; 3 November 1969, Hits à Gogo; 5 December 1969, Like Now!; 10 May 1970, The Ivor Novello Awards; 22 May 1972, Johnnie Walker Lunchtime Show; 20 October 1973, The 1980 Floor Show; 18 September 1979, Kenny Everett’s Video Show. Live: 1969-1974, 1983, 1990, 1997, 2002.

Among the many sources for this multi-revised beast over the past decade: Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now, Kenneth Pitt’s The Pitt Report, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination, Paul Trynka’s Starman, The David Bowie Story (radio documentary), the Gilmans’ Alias David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roger Griffin’s Golden Years, and, most of all, the complete band score David Bowie: Space Oddity—Off the Record. Also a number of contemporary articles, especially Mary Finnigan’s International Times interview (15-21 August 1969), Jojanneke Claassen’s “David Bowie’s Great Love Is His Arts Lab” (Het Parool, 30 August 1969) and Penny Valentine’s “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969). Larry Hardesty figured out the mechanics of this song for me during book revisions. Around the time of the original entry in 2009, Tom Ewing made mention of the blog, which got it some substantial attention and, ultimately, led to a book contract. So thanks again to Tom, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to meet in the years since.

7 Responses to Space Oddity At Half-Century

  1. type40ttc says:

    A fantastic reflection/re-visit. As always, thank you for the work you’ve put into this blog and your two books. Cheers! (P.s. Here’s my/our little tribute to celebrate its 50th anniversary: https://soundcloud.com/canary-band/space-oddity)

  2. MC says:

    Thanks for this piece, Chris, and thank you as well for the Toronto snippet, the last time I would get to see the man live. (Is that really 15 years ago, already?) Happy birthday, Major Tom!

  3. postpunkmonk says:

    Like most Americans’ this song was my introduction to David Bowie. I first heard the song when the US re-released it in 1973 happened. The alienation that it embodied was perceptible, but not knowable to me as a ten year old. As such, it stood outside of the Top 40 songs I listened to and pointed the way forward as an outlier to where my music taste would venture as I matured. In that respect it’s up there with “Autobahn,” “Walk On The Wild Side,” and “Love Is The Drug” as US Top 40 hits that really stood apart from the pack and had an effect on my in advance of their fair-to-middling US chart popularity.

    I think that Visconti was crazy to consider this a novelty song. It had that topicality hook, yes, but this was not “The Laughing Gnome.” This was a song of emotional depth that was asking unanswerable questions. Existential questions. And Gus Dudgeon got to reap the rewards with his somewhat florid production. I wonder if Visconti had deigned to produce it; would the song have still become a hit? In some ways, the rich, rococo sound of it worked to its benefit. This did not sound like the BBC Radiophonic workshop offering up Dr. Who music. None of the sonic spaceman clichés were offered. It sounded as rich and dark as Major Tom’s interior.

  4. postpunkmonk says:

    I’m glad someone liked my mangled syntax and massive typos! Sigh. When am I going to learn; haste makes waste? I guess I shouldn’t be commenting while at work…

  5. Stolen Guitar says:

    The beginning…and the end.

    Because it was always in my subconscious, always. I simply can’t remember a time when I was unaware of this song. And though I rarely play it now, when I do hear it, I’m reminded of so many moments in my life. Not all Bowie related, of course, but there’s a real sense of continuity, of a connection with something outside of me and my life. Something that almost certainly started with the Lift Off With Aysha Starman performance, and yet it’s this song that feels like the real beginning of my attachment to David Bowie.

    It’s a totemic thing for me, the representation of Bowie in my life as an actual presence…a real thing. And since his death, it’s become even more significant for me; so much so, I often get teary when I hear it somewhere in the ether.

    I feel fortunate to have it in my life.

    Thanks for yet another great addition to this invaluable library, Chris.

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