Space Oddity • David Bowie
5:13 min • Philips • July 11th, 1969
Unless you’ve actually been floating somewhere in space yourself in recent weeks, you couldn’t have helped but notice that July 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Jr’s historic first moonwalk. If, like me, you were too young (or, heavens forbid, not yet born) to actually experience events as they happened it’s possible you’ve spent a small but not insignificant part of your life feeling a bit underwhelmed by the seemingly endless replay of so much shaky footage of men in giant BabyGro’s bouncing about in grey dust. Forty years on, there’s still no serious prospect of you, me or Joe Public getting a chance to go anywhere near the place, still no Saturday shutle from Bluewater or Lakeside and still no shops or pubs or nightclubs on the moon. Actually, do even astronauts go there anymore?
As a lifelong subscriber to the admittedly rather glib and heinous school of thought that Pop Music is infinitely more interesting and engaging than space travel I have been prepared to raise my glass and toast the year 1969 in honour of other, more tangible 40th landmarks. This year Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog and 1969 (OK!) also turned 40 – reason enough in my book to crack open a new packet of Pringles. Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites, Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine and The Temptations’ Cloud Nine are 40. Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love and The Stones Honky Tonk Women are also 40. And The Archies’ Sugar Sugar, Cilla’s Surround Yourself With Sorrow and Clodagh Rogers’s Boom Bang-A-Bang… well, they’re all 40, too. One giant leap for Popkind and all that. Finally, 1969‘s daddy-of-‘em-all pop artifact (and an undisputed byproduct of Saturn V’s blast-off) David Bowie’s Space Oddity also makes the big Four-O this summer.
Go on, listen to it now. It’s such a strange song, such an oddity. Major Tom, lost in space forever, floating in his tin can, far above the world. “Tell my wife I love her very much she knows” – you sort of know he ain’t ever coming back and suspect at the same time that he doesn’t much care either. Classic pop alienation and otherness from Pop’s greatest ever alien other.
What makes Space Oddity so great is that it’s both a classic pop record and a classic pop song. They’re different things. Play it again and you’ll find that as a record it’s still crisp and clean and utterly modern-sounding, like it could have been recorded yesterday. And yet sonically it’s also definitely of its time, too, marking a sort of bridge between the optimistic, horizontal late-60s and the more primal, thrusting fayre of the early-70s. Atmospherically it veers from tense (almost unbearably tense, in fact) to blind panic to blissfully resigned to utter chaos, confusion and degeneration. A textbook case of studio mastery to pack all of that into 5 minutes without it ever sounding forced or clunky. Instead, like a swan pedalling furiously under the water, Space Oddity seems to glide effortlessly towards its shocking conclusion.
So much for the record: as a song Space Oddity deserves its position among the defining Pop moments of the 1960s, sitting right up there alongside, say, God Only Knows, Hey Jude, The Tracks Of My Tears, etc.,. The Dame himself seems to have realized this when he re-recorded it in 1980 for the Kenny Everett TV show. Shorn of its orchestra, modish Mellotron and Stylophone, keyboards, backing vocals, and all but the absolutely essential musical parts (guitars, vocal, piano, drum) its naked eerie beauty was revealed.
Lest we forget it was of course also the track that sparked David Bowie’s glittering musical comet, his first stone-cold masterpiece in a career that in subsequent years would shoot many, many more beautiful asteroids across the pop firmament – from Life On Mars? and Rebel Rebel to Golden Years, Sound & Vision, Ashes To Ashes and beyond. He might have been around for years before Space Oddity but every single Bowie best of and hits compilation always begins right here. And while it’s easy now to look back on Space Oddity as the official starting point to probably the most thrilling pop story of ‘em all, it wouldn’t have felt like that to any but the most astute music fans of the day.
If your average Disc or New Musical Express reader had heard of Bowie at all before ’69 they might have dimly recalled the as yet hitless David Jones (responsible for serviceable but bog-standard Brit Beat Boom stuff) on TV complaining falteringly, feyly about being persecuted in the street for his long hair (“They call me darlin’, things like that”). Or they might have heard something of the terribly English, equally hitless early David Bowie releases (sort of Cockney Music Hall meets Syd Barrett, a real blast actually but it was never gonna fly).
Its probably fair to say that just about everyone except DB presumed Space Oddity was just a very nice novelty song, rushed out for the moon landing and a one hit wonder to be filed away with chart bedfellows from the time like In The Year 2525 or Where Do You Go To My Lovely? It might have taken a full three long years before the man got another sniff at the charts with Starman in 1972 – during which he morphed once more from a ringleted hippie child to disturbing crimson-headed androgyne – but thank God he knew where he was headed.
To celebrate the anniversary of Space Oddity, then, DB’s catalogue rights holders EMI have reissued the track with a contemporary spin. From digital music providers like iTunes it’s now possible to download all of the original US and UK single edits of the song plus the 1980 Kenny Everett re-record, a snip at £2.49 the lot. Even better, you also get the separate studio tracks that make up the original version so, for those of you that way inclined, you can literally create your own version of the man’s most famous song. It’s also available as an App for the iPhone which does the same thing, making for an interesting diversion for tedious Tube journeys and the like. But while this writer’s had a few pops at creating a new, better Space Oddity from its component parts you really can’t improve on perfection.