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Apr 08

DAVID BOWIE – “Space Oddity”

FT + Popular113 comments • 6,419 views

#380, 8th November 1975

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.

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Comments

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  1. 101
    wichita lineman on 10 Nov 2011 #

    Another blatant plug for my thoughts on a pre-fame Bowie b-side, just as dark if not as cosmic as SO:

    http://besidethebside.blogspot.com

  2. 102
    lonepilgrim on 27 Nov 2011 #

    David Bowie says yes to futuristic musical based on his hits
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/nov/27/david-bowie-musical-heroes

    and here’s a sneak preview:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-ZtpYfNq74

  3. 103
    Tom on 28 Nov 2011 #

    Not so fast!

    http://www.nme.com/news/david-bowie/60647

    The musical as described in the Graun sounds right up there w/Glass Spider.

  4. 104
    lonepilgrim on 25 Aug 2012 #

    one last giant leap – Neil Armstrong R.I.P.

  5. 105
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Aug 2012 #

    Yes, Armstrong was clearly a great hero for those of us who remember the event, which still stands out for me as one of the great moments of my lifetime. RIP, Man on the Moon.

  6. 106
    hectorthebat on 14 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 48
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 60
    woxy.com (USA) – The 500 Best Modern Rock Songs of All Time (2008) 20
    BBC Radio2 (UK) – Sold on Song, a Celebration of Great Songs and Songwriting
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 39
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 67
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 41
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 50
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 75
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Rocks Musiczine (Spain) – The 100 Best Rock Songs in History (1995) 5
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Blow Up (Italy) – 100 Songs to Remember (2006) 43
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  7. 107
    lonepilgrim on 5 May 2015 #

    I thought this song might feature as it did – given its original release date – but I’ll say no more for a day or so

  8. 108
    lonepilgrim on 8 May 2015 #

    Now that the latest episode has been broadcast in the UK I’ll comment some more – as this features at the end of Mad Men (Season 7 Episode 12). It’s almost too on the nose as a choice of music as Don begins to drift further out of orbit from career and family – I’m glad they didn’t chose it as the LAST piece of music for the show but with only two more episodes to go it’ll be interesting to see what they do end with.

  9. 109
    swanstep on 9 May 2015 #

    @108, lonepilgrim. I didn’t think it was too ‘on the nose’. We’ve been in the (early) 1970s for a while now on Mad Men but this was the first piece of music that really says “’70s” (at least to me). It felt genuinely transitional to me…so I suspect we may be coming back in the penultimate episode six months in the future say, all of which may be prep-ing us for further jumps and/or changes in tone in the final ep. We’ll see!

  10. 110
    lonepilgrim on 12 May 2015 #

    I think what initially troubled me about its use was that it seemed so specific to Don whereas other music used in the series has linked to wider themes. My immediate choice of example for that would be Telstar which captured the thrill of a modern technological society achieving maximum velocity and Don riding that wave into the future. Thinking about that made me appreciate the choice of ‘Space Oddity’ more. Faith in an unlimited future is beginning to fall apart. The moon landings become commonplace. America’s myth of military supremacy is exposed in Vietnam. Bowie’s use of alter egos mirrors Dick Whitman’s assumed identities. Perhaps Don’s attempt to go back to a ‘simpler’ version of America is echoed by the use of Buddy Holly at the end of the latest episode (although as events turn out that old America is no easier than the new).

  11. 111
    swanstep on 13 May 2015 #

    @110, Lone. I think you’re right about the force of the Buddy Holly track this week: Don’s at least momentarily managed to simplify and unburden his life and a bit of pop whimsy from the ’50s captures that. Unfortunately for him, reality’s about to come crashing in, which will be the last ep.

    White some sort of soothing, tieing-bows-on-things, ‘where everyone ends up 5 years or a decade hence’ ending is still most likely I believe, I may as well share with this forum my own long-shot ‘wild’ ending for the show.

    Here’s a frame-grab of a guy whose face we never see from the remarkable coda/final scene of Les Bonnes Femmes (1960):
    http://tinyurl.com/nc2owc5
    Look familiar? Here’s MM’s creator Matt Weiner discussing LBF for a recent museum exhibit and retrospective on MM. There he draws particular attention to the LBF’s coda and this kind of 4th-wall breaking image from it: http://tinyurl.com/okbsb4k. My first side-bet, then, is that Weiner is going to steal this final shot from LBF.

    My second side-bet is that Weiner steals much more extensively from LBF’s ending – or more precisely its double-ending – because it’s one of the greatest endings in movie history, yet very few people know it, so it really is super-stealable! Without spoiling anything much, in LBF’s first ending something very nasty and shocking (but also inevitable in retrospect) happens to a beloved figure. Then we get a second ending: a very oblique, dream-like, ultimately fourth-wall-breaking scene with a man whose face we never see and a woman who stares straight at us who’s completely new but who’s clearly the same *type* as someone we know. So, here’s my ultra-fanciful long-shot prediction for the end of MM’s finale. A super-shocking first ending for Joan or Sally or Peggy followed by an oblique coda that drifts through a club alighting on a guy whose face we never see in Don’s couch pose from the credits as per my first link above and that ends with that guy dancing with a new woman (another in Don’s line/type of dark-haired, troubled beauties) who stares straight at us (my third link above)

    It’s not *likely* that Weiner will do anything this radical. Just the first ‘shocking’ ending would probably cause outrage among most fans of the show (and, with Betty falling to lung cancer this week, would undoubtedly cause some online communities to cry misogynist foul). I don’t know that Weiner’s got the stomach for that. Then a very artsy second ending? People semi-rioted in Paris in 1960 when Chabrol dropped this whole ending on people. Again, I don’t know that Weiner has the stomach to go quite so far out. Still, Weiner has cited Blue Velvet as an influence, and there have been a few horror notes sounded but not paid off in recent eps, and the whole second half season was dedicated to Mike Nichols, whose period appropriate Carnal Knowledge (1971) has a brutal ending (In general, 1971 and 1972 film was full of very artistically powerful hard R-rated brutality – Frenzy, Straw Dogs, Deliverance, Clockwork Orange, Cries and Whispers, Ulzana’s Raid, Get Carter and so on.). All of that could still pay off. It’s not likely – and I seem to be the only one thinking along these lines – but if Mad Men were to be true to the film era it’s ended up in, it *should* end with a bang.

  12. 112
    Lazarus on 25 Oct 2015 #

    It’s number one again folks! On the official Vinyl Singles Chart, no less. I wonder how many it sold to get there? And who’s selling it, and why? (my guess would be Bowie’s own site, as a sort of 40th anniversary thing – I note that ‘Fame’ is lower down the listings and has been around for a while).

    http://www.officialcharts.com/charts/vinyl-singles-chart/

  13. 113
    Auntie Beryl on 30 Oct 2015 #

    Just checked – Space Oddity sold 132 copies to reach the summit. Bowie’s been working his way through his singles catalogue, issuing 7″ picture discs, with the order determined by anniversaries.

    23 sales were enough to get a Top 10 position that chart week.

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