On 11 July 1969, David Bowie’s Space Oddity was released as a single – making it 45 years old today.
Reaching number five on the UK singles chart, the song propelled the young Bowie into the public eye and gained momentum over the years, achieving international success. Upon its 1973 re-release, it hit number 15 on the Billboard Chart, making it Bowie’s first hit single in the US; it was also popular in Canada, hovering at number 16. The year 1975 saw it reissued in the UK, where it topped its previous position and spent two weeks at the peak of the singles chart.
With a knowing nod towards Stanley Kubrick’s cult film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Bowie had loved when it was released the year before, the song features on Bowie’s second studio album. In retrospect, Space Oddity contains many early signs of Bowie’s genius songwriting: a creative take on popular culture, provocatively brooding lyrics and inventive instrumental layering.
Cut to today, and the British public is still hungry for Bowie. In 2013, his first album for 10 years shot to number one and received rave reviews; his Ziggy-era backing band, The Spiders from Mars, have announced they’ll be playing a London show this September, and Bowie himself is rumoured to be playing a concert at some point in the near future, despite apparent stage fright.
So clearly Space Oddity‘s birthday can’t go uncelebrated – the song represents the beginning of an era of pop innovation, visual boundary-pushing, striking musical metamorphosis and continuous personal reinvention, spearheaded by Bowie. A quick YouTube search shows that Space Oddity has spawned a spate of remarkably – well, odd – cover versions, which is only fitting for someone as strange as Bowie. Enjoy.
1. The Flying Pickets
The most well-known of our selection, but still an elusive cover by British a capella group The Flying Pickets. It was only ever recorded as a live version, and features on their album The Flying Pickets Live (1986). The ensemble’s vocally sophisticated take on other hits – their cover of Yazoo’s Only You in 1983 earned them the Christmas number one spot – defines this track, but it’s their interpretation of ‘space’ noises which are particularly entertaining. Skip to 1:06 to see what I mean.
2. This random group of Chinese guys
I’m sure if I could understand Chinese, this would make a lot more sense – but from where I’m sitting, it just looks like these friends broke into a musical instrument shop and stuck a camera phone in front of them. Musically, it’s a pretty sound cover, but there are some ODD things going on. Aside from the fact that the guy who comes on screen at the start has quite obviously just used the loo (listen out for the flush), there’s the guy playing the cajon drum in some weird mask (presumably an intergalactic reference) and at 3:40 the singer and one guitarist pull some straaaange faces.
3. Ukulele Orchestra of the Western Hemisphere
This cover by Los Angeles-based ukulele group, the Ukulele Orchestra of the Western Hemisphere, is a mash-up of Space Oddity and Radiohead’s Creep, and it works pretty well. It even features a short clip of a rocket launch 50 seconds in!
In an interview, Bowie reportedly told Rolling Stone magazine that Radiohead are ‘the best band around’, so this is an excellent match.
4. ‘Space Oddity with a difference’ by a red-wigged YouTuber
You’ve got to appreciate this fan’s dedication to weirdness, à la the androgynous Bowie of the ’70s. Not sure singing with a banana (3:08) was ever on the agenda, but the theatricality of this home-grown cover is spot on. Prepare to see flying cans (3:51), an impressive starry jumper and a dangling Mars bar (0:40). In her own words, ‘completely spaced out’.
5. KC Roberts & The Live Revolution
This offbeat duo comprises a guy playing a set of improvised instruments in his bath, while a guitarist sat on the sink to the side plays funky, arpeggiated chords. They actually get some good sound from the saucepans, bucket and bottles, helped out by the bathroom’s great acoustics – the guitar gives this cover a vibe that is very Nile Rodgers (and Rodgers himself has worked with Bowie).