Everything you ever wanted to know about David Bowie’s Space Oddity

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45 years old today, Space Oddity is celebrated here by Simon Poulter of the excellent What Would David Bowie Do? blog.

Exactly nine days before Neil Armstrong made history by becoming the first human to make physical contact with another planetary object, the man who gives title to this very blog released a single that, 44 years later, came full circle when it was performed in space by the astronaut Chris Hadfield.

What irony, then, that Hadfield’s novel cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity should run into that most modern scourge, an argument over digital copyright. Despite Bowie’s own intervention, the real-life astronaut’s video had to be pulled from YouTube due to its licence expiring. Planet Earth is blue, and there was nothing he could do.

For a song that could have easily been received as a novelty – part inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and part a satirical stab at the very real space program (along with latter suggestions that heroin played some part in its theming) – Space Oddity was a landmark pop single.

Bee Gees influence

Released on the Philips label 45 years ago today, July 11, 1969, it was described by Melody Maker’s Chris Welch as a “Bee Geeian piece of music and poetry,” while Disc And Music Echo’s Penny Valentine noted how “Mr. Bowie sounds like the Bee Gees on their best record – New York Mining Disaster”. Both somewhat ironic comments given that the Bee Gees – who were then producing highly progressive songs – would later go on to be kings of disco cheese.

As Welch’s brief review concluded, Space Oddity was “a beautifully written, sung and performed” song, that “could be a hit and escalate Bowie to the top”. From the longer-term view, it did.

It was recorded at London’s Trident Studios with Rick Wakeman on Mellotron and Herbie Flowers on bass, not only establishing Bowie’s recurrent interest in space via Ziggy Stardust, of course, and the character of Major Tom (Ashes To Ashes, Hallo Spaceboy, Gemini Spacecraft), but pretty much launching The Dame himself, having hitherto been simmering away in London’s underground music scene, doing cod-Anthony Newley songs.

In essence, Space Oddity was a somewhat bleak song about an astronaut drifting in space to, we assume, his demise. But it was, simply, unlike anything else in the charts in the summer of ’69, that season of free love that would culminate with Woodstock, and in a year that would end with Altamont and the decadal change of the pop era to the rock era.

Listening back to the largely acoustic version of Space Oddity on the indispensable Bowie At The Beeb archive compilation (featuring hilariously understated links from John Peel), you get to appreciate just how brilliant a song Space Oddity was, despite its somewhat wiggy storyline.

Prog rock roots

Developed out of a 12-string guitar riff (the opening chords are E minor and A minor, if you fancy hiring your own space station and a video camera…), it set the tone for the era of prog rock to come (King Crimson, Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd all released debuts that year), shifting time signatures, jumping from woozy segments to the ‘chang-cha-chang, cha-chang, che-chang-chang’ guitar and handclaps bit, and back to outer space drift.

And then there was the original’s use of the Stylophone, mostly known as a child’s toy (and the less said about Rolf Harris’s endorsement of it, the better), but cleverly employed by Bowie as the analogue synthesiser it actually is. If you’re of an age to have owned, or had siblings who owned a Stylophone, I know you’d be lying through your back teeth if you haven’t at least once attempted to play the takeoff bridge from Space Oddity.

In this respect, Space Oddity takes its place in music history as a small but notable cog in the machine of pop’s development. 15 years after Elvis Presley changed the world forever with That’s Alright Mama and nine years after The Beatles turned the world on its head again with Love Me Do, David Bowie’s wry take on extra-terrestrial exploration can be rightly regarded for launching one of the most fascinating and enduring careers popular music has ever seen, one that – thankfully – continues to confound convention.

Btw for the five weirdest Space Oddity covers go here.