A look at one of David Bowie’s definitive works.
THE STORY BEHIND THE SONG DAVID BOWIE SPACE ODDITY 1969
Despite a singing and acting career running to four decades, it is one of Bowie’s earliest recordings that is regarded as his definitive single, Space Oddity.
Despite a title punning the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, Space Oddity is quite a serious and tragic tale. An astronaut, Major Tom blasts off into space and the song relays communications between him and ground control.
Ground control talks him through the launch, echoed by the countdown voice-over, and Tom goes into space. His exact mission is unclear. We are not told if he will just orbit the Earth or go to the Moon or off to the stars.
Tom is told that he has become an instant celebrity on Earth; with the media asking which shirts (fashion lines) he wears.
Tom does a space walk, and finds the sensation of zero gravity strange. He notes that the World looks blue and seems depressed and helpless about this. Already the song is associating Tom’s flight with a drug induced high and low. His space-trip is like a bad acid trip. His protein pills may be an analogy for getting stoned. The blue unhappy Earth and his sense of floating alienation is another drug-like reference as his strange reaction to the zero gravity.
Tom seems to come to a conclusion that his space capsule knows its own course and lets it just take him. Ground control tell him that his radio circuits are not responding but it seems to be just Tom ignoring them. He is simply going off into space, lost forever, suicidally detached from his planet of origin.
The song’s haunting sense of space tragedy gives it a special air of poignancy after many genuine deaths in space.
Major Tom became a slang expression for drugs. The song itself initially didn’t chart well, but shot to Number One in the UK on a 1975 re-issue. It was also the name of the album on which Bowie first presented it.
There have been various cover versions, most bizarrely by William Shatner.
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