47 years ago, David Bowie released his first commercially successful single, ‘Space Oddity’—It was a song that launched both a spaceship and a career.
Here are 10 other things you might not know about ‘Space Oddity’.
1. ‘Space Oddity’ was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1968 sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The main character in Bowie’s track, Major Tom, is based on Kubrick’s Dr. David Bowman, and reflects his attempts at space travel. In an interview with Bill DeMain in 2003 for Performing Songwriter Magazine, Bowie explained the film’s inspiration:
“It was written because of going to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing”
2. The track was first released on February 2, 1969, on a promotional half-hour film titled Love You Till Tuesday, when Bowie was just 22.
Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt, and Pitt’s close friend Malcolm J Thomson, directed the film in an attempt to showcase Bowie’s talents to labels. Not publically released until 1984, at the peak of Bowie’s career, the VHS recording includes the first version of ‘Space Oddity’, accompanied by a music video in which Bowie plays the roles of both Major Tom and Ground Control.
3. In an attempt to find a producer, demos were sent out and the song was eventually rerecorded and produced by Gus Dudgeon in June 1969.
Most thought it was a dig at the impending Moon launch, and refused to work with Bowie. ‘Space Oddity’ was then ironically chosen to play during the British broadcast of the Apollo 11, during its launch on July 16, 1969.
“I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all (laughs). It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously some BBC official said, “Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.” “Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.” Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that (laughs).”
4. Bowie had doubts about whether he should allow the song to be played during the shuttle launch due to the possible backlash of a failed mission.
It was decided that it was too good of an opportunity to pass. The BBC refused to play the single until the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew, which gave the song a slow start in its initial public release.
5. After the success of later singles ‘Changes’ (1971) and ‘The Jean Genie’ (1973), Bowie re-released his self-titled second record, changing the name to the album’s opening track, ‘Space Oddity’.
The single reached No. 15 in the Billboard Chart in the US, and spent two weeks at No. 1 in the UK. Though the single achieved great success, the rest of the album, holding little resemblance to the title track, was considered a commercial failure.
6. Major Tom reappears in two other Bowie songs, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’.
‘Ashes to Ashes’, released in 1980, directly mentions both Ground Control and Major Tom. The track takes a darker and more introspective look at Major Tom, as the trance-like chorus rings out: “We know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out in heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low”.
The song gave people more of a reason to believe that ‘Space Oddity’ had really been about Bowie’s heroin use, describing both the highs and lows of the drug (the ten to one countdown being the moments before feeling its effects, and the failed contact from Ground Control representing the disconnect of the high). Another theory is that ‘Ashes to Ashes’ describes the current state of the once young and innocent Major Tom, a very possible reflection of the way Bowie felt he had changed since the release of his first hit single.
In 1996, Major Tom is again mentioned in the Pet Shop Boys remix of the track ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, where Neil Tennant and Bowie sing “Moondust will cover me / Ground to Major, bye bye Tom.”
An obvious theme in both ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, is the decline and death of the young hero Major Tom.
7. ‘Space Oddity’ was Bowie’s first expression of his lifelong fascination with space.
This theme is carried through in later tracks such as ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Starman’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, ‘Dancing out in Space,’ ‘Born in a UFO’, and ‘Lazarus’. Bowie was able to tie in extraterrestrial concepts to help connect him to those who felt disconnected. Even in his most prominent acting roles, Bowie was still draped in otherworldly themes. His two most prominent films, The Man Who Fell From Earth and Labyrinth, both explore genres of sci-fi and fantasy.
The space obsession doesn’t stop there. Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, became a sci-fi director most famous for his film Moon. The film explores the personal crisis of an astronaut about to leave his solitary post on the Moon to return home to Earth.
8. There is a possible connection between ‘Space Oddity’ and Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’.
When performing the song live, Bowie would sometimes call out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”, possibly making a reference to his once good friend John. ‘Rocket Man’, was also produced by Gus Dudgeon (who produced ‘Space Oddity’ in ’69) in 1972. The lyrical similarities between the two songs are easy to spot, both focus on a main character hopelessly lost in space.
9. In 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield published a recording himself singing ‘Space Oddity’ while in the International Space Station.
It was, and still is, the first music video ever created in space. Hadfield worked closely with Emm Gryne, who played in Bowie’s live band between 1999 and 2000, to adjust the lyrics of the song (And before too long I know it’s time to go / A commender comes down back to Earth and rolls). Though Bowie had no input into the recording, Hadfield had his seal of approval:
“Bowie loved the song and that was the best reaction for me. For him to have it performed in a place he’d always dreamed of, and in a way that was sensitive to the ideas of the song, gave him great joy.”
10. David Bowie rarely played the 1969 hit after the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974.
Being his first single and written when he was just 22, I can only imagine how mind-numbing it was for Bowie to perform ‘Space Oddity’. On his final round of shows in 2004, he would strum the first few lines of the song, to the absolute delight of the crowd, and taunt them by saying “you remember this one … we’re not playing it.” Bowie never performed the entirety of the song during the 112 gig tour.
I can openly admit that there is so much more to Bowie than ‘Space Oddity’, but at the same time, if you were—for whatever torture related reason—only allowed to listen to one David Bowie song, you should make it this one.