After a few albums that were more of less flops, a 21-year-old David Bowie was yearning his big breakthrough. The star that fell to earth had his divine awakening when watching the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey positively stoned and out of his ‘gourd.’
As a result the singer cast his heterochromic gaze across the planet and was no longer satisfied with what he saw. The masterpiece in question is of course, Space Oddity. Released 50 years ago to the day, it was Bowie’s first Top 10 hit, characterised by his lonely, interstellar manifestation.
Half a century on, we reflect on how heartbreak, Stanley Kubrick and a distinctly lonely mind gave life to the seminal 1969 self titled album, David Bowie.
On Nov 14, 1969 the inter-dimensional traveller known as David Bowie released his seminal sophomore self-titled album, with the iconic hit Space Oddity.
In early 1968 David Bowie met actress and dancer Hermoine Farthingale. Falling deeply in love with each other they moved into a room in a Victorian house on Clareville Grove in South Kensington, London. They formed a song and mime trio with guitarist Tony Hill, which was later renamed Feathers.
Farthingale broke up with Bowie in 1969 shortly after the dissolution of Feathers. Hermoine was unimpressed with Bowie’s lack of fidelity and wished to resume her acting career.
The breakup deeply affected the ‘Starman’ inspiring him to write songs for his second long-player like Letter To Hermione, An Occasional Dream, and Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed.
The most inspired piece he wrote however, was born of both his love-torn heart and Kubrick enhanced mind. Space Oddity was a wistful sci-fi ballad about cosmic isolation.
Bowie and Hutch recorded 10 acoustic demos with embryonic version of five songs that would make it onto the album. Bowie’s label, Philips, marked Space Oddity as the single.
By the time it was due for release, however, the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon was front-page news. Initially, this was a problem, because Bowie’s new producer, Tony Visconti, thought the song was ‟a gimmick to cash in on the Moonshot”.
However, sound engineer Gus Dudgeon strongly disagreed and thus was installed as the single’s producer. He admittedly had limited experience as a producer, but Space Oddity would make his name, as it would for Bowie, transforming Dudgeon into one of the ’70s most respected producers, with his highlight reel including Elton John’s similarly intergalactic, Rocket Man.
Space Oddity was recorded in London’s Trident studios on June 20, 1969. It matched the Stylophone against the futuristic Mellotron, played by up-and-coming prog star Rick Wakeman. The single was released less than a month later on July 11, nine days before Apollo 11’s module Eagle ejected Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the lunar dust.
The loneliness and isolation of space was eerily captured by Bowie in lyrics like:
“Am I sitting in a tin can/ Far above the world/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do.”
While debate rages tirelessly over the fate of Major Tom, some critics like Mike Erricom, argued that Bowie “shows a slight sadistic side by never completing Tom’s fate: instead of giving us a final, resolving chord, the song fades into the void, leaving Major Tom to spin for eternity. His departure lasts for a full minute, and having empathised with him - the fragile, married man who was nearly a hero - we have no choice but to recognise that, ultimately, his fate is ours”.
Though Space Oddity cut Major Tom adrift in the void, that’s not where his life ended.
In 1980, Major Tom suddenly breaks radio silence on Ashes To Ashes, except now the space commander is addicted to drugs: “Ashes to ashes/ funk to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie/ Strung out in heaven’s high/ Hitting an all-time low.”
Here it seems that Major Tom is now a reflection of Bowie’s strung out self on heroin, desperately searching for ground control rather than the lift off he sought a decade earlier.
The idea of a spaceman with moral concerns about himself and the planet Bowie revisits again and again throughout his career: 1971’s Life On Mars, 1972’s Starman, and 1995’s Hallo Spaceboy.
However, the character was manifested most hauntingly so on Lazarus from Blackstar released only two days after he died on January 11, 2016; as Bowie sang from beyond, ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’.
Even more intriguingly, in the Blackstar movie, a woman finds a dead space man. Is this Major Tom? It seems more than likely.
As Francis Whately, who directed the Bowie: The Last Five Years documentary, most elegantly surmises: “Is that Major Tom? I have no way of knowing that, but he certainly wanted you to believe that it was. It’s the character that made him successful, so the idea of one of his last videos having Major Tom absolutely made sense.”
While we’ve got you, check out Why It Mattered:
- Pink Floyd – Ummagumma
- Pink Floyd – The Wall
- King Crimson – In The Court Of The Crimson King
- The Grateful Dead – Live/Dead
- The Allman Brothers Band – The Allman Brothers Band
- Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
- Michael Jackson – Thriller
- The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed