The one damned song David Bowie loved to hate: Space Oddity at 50

“Giant steps are what you take…” — Sting

In the 1990s, David Bowie told anyone who would listen that he was so sick and tired of his old songs, one of the richest and most revered back catalogues in popular music after The Beatles, that the vast majority of these songs he regarded as musical albatrosses he never wanted to hear again. 

A wildly mercurial character, Bowie always had a strained relationship with his own material, though. Veteran on-off producer Tony Visconti told me in 2000 that when he’s creating and recording, “he loves what he does,” but once a project is completed he’s done and keen to move on to something kinda new, often dismissing his previous work as “of its time.”

However, there were two damned songs he reserved a particular ire for: the plastic soul of 1974’s Young Americans he went on record to say “I loathe”, and good to his word (for a change) the one about the pimp and the caddy was retired for good after 1990’s Sound + Vision tour. Here’s a rather sparse version taken from a show in Milton Keynes, where I was living at the time.

Then there was a novelty song he wrote in the 1960s that was so out of character and so different from anything he’d done before… or indeed since. Bowie was so tired of being remembered for it that, in an amazingly reckless fit of pique, he threatened to guerrilla raid his own New Jersey vault where much of his material was stored (badly, according to Rykodisc’s Jeff Rougvie) in order to locate the master tape and burn it.

Ha ha ha, hee hee hee, it weren’t The Laughing Gnome, but Space Oddity.

Bowie recognised that the one about Ground Control to Major Tom launched his career, but it also felt like juvenilia he’d rather not have been forced to re-live when he did a concert. He put it away at the end of the Diamond Dogs tour of ’74, and he didn’t revive it until 1983’s record-breaking K-Tel, sorry, Serious Moonlight tour.

Space Oddity kickstarted The Dame’s dazzling career as a rock superstar, pioneering musician, and cultural icon, and had been completed during a week of on-off sessions at Trident Studios in London’s Soho on the very day I was born, 26 June 1969. Premiered at the Rolling Stones’ free festival in Hyde Park on 5 July and released by the Phillips label the following week, it celebrates its 50th anniversary today.

Space Oddity’s status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. It was a gimmicky, opportunist single with a sell-by date (the Apollo 11 moon landing of July ’69), from the former David Jones from Bromley, a no-hot wonder who’d flitted from group to group and recording an eclectic palette of music for the previous five years. He’d released one self-titled album in June 1967, which had flopped badly, just a week after the Fab Four’s era-defining Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

As the final year of the decade dawned, his folk-poetry-performance group Feathers was in the process of disintegrating, following his split with colleague and girlfriend Hermione Farthingale. 

As a last ditch attempt to get some attention for his protégé’s moribund career, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt decided to showcase his songs with a long form promotional film that featured Feathers – which also included David’s musical partner John Hutchinson – and some solo performances from the singer-songwriter. This would propel his boy into the big time, thought Pitt, who died in February this year aged 96.

The Love You Till Tuesday film served as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network. While there were promotional videos shot for tracks from the debut album, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a lightweight Feathers ditty, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”

Originally performed in Feathers’ live shows as Here Am I, by the time of filming at the end of January 1969, it was called Space Oddity.

Partly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi behemoth 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had been released in the UK the previous May, the song was written around the time that the Apollo 8 space mission was taking place. This was the first manned spacecraft to reach the moon and orbit around it: the stage was set for man to set foot on the moon.

Space Oddity was written about the fears and loneliness of space travel – the real-life astronauts were taking huge risks leaving and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere; while 2001 featured an astronaut that was cut adrift from his craft, while another had to find mankind’s destiny in the inky blackness of the cosmos.

Taking the shape of a conversation between an astronaut (Major Tom) and his team back on Earth (Ground Control), the song vividly depicts the take-off of a rocket and the experience of floating in the empty vacuum of space. As the song ends, Major Tom loses contact with home and is left drifting in the void, leaving Ground Control to hopelessly repeat: “Can you hear me Major Tom?”

As is evidenced by a clutch of primitive early home demos that the Bowie estate have recently released (via Parlophone Records, with hilariously inflated prices: no, I didn’t buy them either) in the run up to the apparent “ongoing celebrations” of Space Oddity at 50, Bowie originally designed Space Oddity as a Simon & Garfunkel styled two-hander with jazz folk guitarist John Hutchinson as “Ground Control” communicating with Dave as “Major Tom”, the doomed spaceman. 

In the Love You Till Tuesday version, Major Tom is kidnapped by some loose-lipped “space maidens” who lead him off for a life of unfettered bliss. Very Sixties. The sound of the song is far from the epic widescreen stereo production that would eventually appear as a single.

Come the finished recording, and Bowie plays both roles – famously, this most schizophrenic of pop stars had become an expert at taking on different personalities as his career progressed.

On set with Suzanne Mercer and Samantha Bond filming the Space Oddity sequence at Clarence Studios in Greenwich, on 6th February 1969, directed by Malcolm J. Thomson. My parents wed six days later, also in London

Unfortunately, Pitt couldn’t get any TV stations interested in his Bowie special, and the film remained on the shelf until 1984, by which time the subject was playing Fame, Fashion and Let’s Dance to stadium audiences around the world.

This left Bowie clear to re-record Space Oddity as a single for his new label, Phillips/Mercury. He went into London’s Trident Studios on 20 June 1969 to lay down a new version, which featured star keyboard player Rick Wakeman on the ancient pre-synthesiser sampling keyboard the Mellotron. On bass was Herbie Flowers, later known for his work on Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side.

On the new Oddity, Bowie played the Stylophone – a brand new electronic toy instrument popularised by Rolf Harris, which gave the song a “futuristic” sound. You can hear the Stylophone buzzing low in the track during the first couple of verses.

Produced by future Elton John collaborator Gus Dudgeon (usual producer Tony Visconti thought the song a “cheap shot” and passed it on, a bit like pass the parcel: “It’s not a David Bowie record, it’s Ernie the Milkman,” the Brooklyn boy later said), the remade Space Oddity was dramatic, unusual, very Bee Geesian, and very much of its time. It was released on Friday, 11 July 1969 – five days before Apollo 11 was due to set off and land the first man on the moon.

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, floaty folk song clad in extravagant window dressing.

Unfortunately there was some reluctance on the part of the BBC to play a song about a space mission that appears to go wrong: with three astronauts on Apollo 11 taking huge personal risk, the single could have been considered in terrible taste should the moon landing meet disaster. 

Major Tom’s shining disaster 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 claimed 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.”

Once the Apollo 11 astronauts returned safely to earth on the 23rd of July, there were no such qualms, but the moment had been missed: the single crept into the charts at the end of August at the lowly position of Number 48. It seemed like Space Oddity was destined to be another flop for David Bowie.

More over-priced satin ‘n tat. Minus the satin

It was the beginning, but an odd beginning, though. Space Oddity didn’t chart until months after the moonshot: Luckily, a very late promotional push for the song in the quiet month of September saw interest in the track pick up – the single peaked at No.5 on 26 October 1969 and remained on the chart for 13 weeks. Job done. 

Bowie even recorded an Italian-language edition of the song with completely non-spacey lyrics called Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola (“Lonely boy, lonely girl”). It’s a bit weird.

Space Oddity was also Bowie’s first single for the Mercury group, his first Top 10 hit anywhere in the world, his first American Top 20 hit (though he had to wait until 1972 to score that) and, some years later, his first chart-topping 45 in his homeland. 

Space Oddity led off the album it titled (though again, not until 1972: Dave’s sophomore set was confusingly called David Bowie until then; it leads off the major DB compilations and retrospectives.

When he died in 2016, some television tributes led off with it; it even gained the Thin White Duke his first ever No.1 single in France.

They sang it at public gatherings all over the world, from Brixton to the streets of Brazil, and at the Sydney Festival.

As Bowie said of Space Oddity in the summer of ’69, “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.” Fragmenting was what David Bowie always did best.

Though he stuck to his guns and refrained from performed Young Americans after 1990, Bowie did relent on Space Oddity a couple of times for one-offs, but never properly on a tour.

For his pay TV 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in January 1997, he ended the night with a haunting, solo semi-acoustic rendition, the video of which is about to be rejigged for yet another golden “celebration”. 

Curiously, I remember playing this live take of Space Oddity to the esteemed journalist John Harris at work, when we were both working on a Bob Dylan special at Q magazine in London. The performance got to 1 minute and 18 seconds in before Bowie started to lazily slip into his affected, much mocked Mockney accent, which sent John into a state of apoplexy.

Crimson faced, he leapt up from his editor’s seat and turned the stereo off.

“See, that’s what they’ve always said about David Bowie: no soul.”

You can imagine my surprise when he became one of the talking heads lavishing praise on the Dame on BBC programmes such as Francis Whateley’s Five Years: The Making Of An Icon.

Bowie had un-retired the hits for his show-stopping set at Glastonbury in June 2000, but, alas, Space Oddity was the night’s most obvious omission.

However, just two years later the song did make a brief comeback, at a Tibet House benefit concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 2002, and, for the last time, at a Heathen Tour show five months later, on 5 July in Horsens, Denmark.

On his final trek, the 2003/04 Reality Tour, despite doing 112 gruelling shows, Bowie never once did a complete Space Oddity. Every once in a while he’d say to the crowd, “You remember this one…” and play the first few lines of the song to a rabid reception before stopping cold. “But we’re not playing that one.”

He never did burn that master tape either.

Steve Pafford, Paris

Postscript: Though he hadn’t performed the song in five years, Bowie revisited Space Oddity in a stripped down primal scream version for Thames Television’s New Year’s Eve Special, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? But only because it was the song’s 10th anniversary end of the decade thingy.

It was released a few months later as the B-side to the one-off Alabama Song single, the first David Bowie release of the Eighties. Of course, Major Tom would reappear later that year in the peerless Ashes To Ashes, and thanks to the Pet Shop Boys, made a brief cameo in the PSB’s radical remodel of Hallo Spaceboy (1996), and lastly, in the slightly disturbing video for Blackstar from 2015.

Bye Bye, Tom.

 

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