First of all, I was a daydreamy type of boy, and this song should really get a mark or so docked in petty revenge for the several teachers who used “Ground control to Major Tom!” type gags to get my classroom attention. If this seems unfair, just be glad the Dallas theme tune didn’t get to #1.
At the time, I don’t think I’d ever even heard “Space Oddity”. My first memory of it was on a school trip to Wales, where I initially thought “Oh so THIS is what all that was about”, and then I thought, “How mean that Major Tom dies!”. I became a huge Bowie fan a couple of years later but still skipped “Space Oddity” more often than not. So my appreciation of it has always been tinted a little – well, yes, obviously this is an excellent record but…. but…. and the buts never resolve into anything you could defend, but they don’t help you love the song either.
It was his first hit, and his first number one, but of course with a six-year gap between them, filled half with culty failure, half with pop-changing success, which shifts the emphases in “Space Oddity”. Imagine if he’d given up pop in 1970 or 1971, gone back to acting or art: “Space Oddity” would be a novelty hit, crap pun and all; a darker, trippier counterpoint to Zager and Evans, a useful earner for an earthbound David Jones, whenever moonshot anniversaries came round.
Instead it’s the start of something – pointing at themes of identity disconnect, science fiction, insanity and ambiguity that Bowie would built a career aroumd. It owes more than a winking title to Kubrick – a space mission goes disasterously wrong, and you feel Major Tom’s experiencing some kind of cosmic revelation. (Bowie’s mid-70s records are more firmly aligned to the SF New Wave – persona shifts, cracked futures, the alien in the head).
And it’s also the end of something – the reissue’s video (recorded in 1973) sees a worn, drawn Bowie at the fag-end of his Ziggy period singing the song. In 1975 he’d taken the leap out of SF and into “plastic soul” – more identity play, but less attractive to singles buyers: from a marketing perspective, “Space Oddity” is a farewell to the space-glam superstar Bowie.
None of which explains why the song’s endured so well. For that you have to look at the idea-laden arrangement (stylophones, countdowns), the originality of the concept (is this pop’s only existentialist sci-fi death ballad?), the hooks of course, and the record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” – the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence. Thought-provoking stuff: if only he’d been called Major Bob.