Listening to this song always brings back memories of being a teenager in San Jose.
Originally released in 1969 in the UK, it wasn’t released until 1972 in the US. Later, in 1975, it was re-released along with Changes and Velvet Goldmine as a three song singles release. It was that latter release when the song reached #1 on the UK charts–David Bowie’s first #1 song.
Here is the official video for the song:
This came out originally in 1969, right? If you make your historical connections, that is the same year as the moon landing. So many people have incorrectly assumed the moon landing and NASA were the inspiration for the song. But that’s not true. According to Bowie himself, it was inspired by watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The title, Space Oddity is a play on Space Odyssey.
He watched the movie several times and not, apparently, in a completely non-sober, non-drug-induced state.
Here is a version from a self-promotion video that was made before he released the song officially. It’s a little different.
If you listen to the words, it’s really about an astronaut just heading off and leaving the real world to float away.
There is a line in the song “and the papers all want to know whose shirt you wear.” I always thought that was referring to dress shirts because back in the day Arrow shirts ran an ad campaign with the man in the eyepatch. So I figured, since other ads took advantage of astronauts as product promoters, maybe he was referring to the whole commercialism of space thing. But I was wrong. Apparently, in the English spoken across the Atlantic from us, it refers specifically to which football (read soccer) team you support–whose jersey you wear.
In 1980, Major Tom makes a reprise in a song called Ashes to Ashes, where he tries to make contact again with earth. Ashes to Ashes is also the name of the BBC series that follows on Life on Mars–a police procedural BBC series that starts off with a Bowie track playing at the very moment things change dramatically.
Rick Wakeman, famously the keyboardist with Yes and with an eclectic solo career, played the mellotron on Space Oddity. Apparently, he bought the one used
An interesting aside is that originally Bowie planned on making this a song with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. He told people that he got the original chord progression inspired by something Jimmy Page had played for him in his pre-David Bowie days. Back when he was with Davy Jones and the Lower Third (his real name was Davy Jones–Bowie was inspired by the famous Jim Bowie and his knife), Jimmy played with the group on several recording sessions. It was during this time he played the chord progressions that eventually led to the Space Oddity cool sound.
This is one of those songs for me that takes me back to my teenage years. No particular incident or place, but for some reason it reminds me of the station wagon and hearing it while driving or a passenger. Not sure. But I do remember at the time liking that there was a real story behind the song, and the very cool transitions that ran through the song. They seemed a little awkward at first, but then felt almost genius and very different from a lot of what was going on then. One song that felt similar was Wings’ Band on the Run–it had that same transitional sound.
Recently, Steven Wilson did a remake of the song live to honor Bowie after his death. This is a great version of the song, not only because it is done well, but it retains the feel that made the song great to begin with.