David Bowie recorded his breakthrough single, ‘Space Oddity’, on Friday 20 June 1969.
Tony Visconti, the album’s producer, thought little of the song and decided not to record it. He instead recommended that Bowie work with Gus Dudgeon, who produced the session.
The song was arranged by Bowie and Paul Buckmaster. Dudgeon’s estimated budget for the recording was £493 and 17 shillings, based on session fees for guitarist Mick Wayne, bass guitarist Herbie Flowers, Mellotron player Rick Wakeman, and drummer Terry Cox, plus 8 violinists, two violists, two cellists, two arco bassists, two flautists, the hire of an organ and Mellotron, 12 hours of recording and mixing time, and one reel of tape.
Dudgeon was paid just £100 for his production, although he did later take legal action against Bowie to reclaim what he said were owed production royalty payments.
When they were recording ‘Space Oddity’, David wanted real strings and Mellotron together. But they couldn’t keep it in tune. Tony [Visconti] said, ‘I know somebody.’ David said, ‘Get him.’
I was only 19. So I drove up from Reading and then went in and it was a doddle to do, to be honest. I loved the song, and also credit has to go to David and Tony because I don’t think anyone else at that particular time would have heard Mellotron on that piece, where it came in. There would have been other things, much more obvious to do. It was clever. But that’s another thing I liked about David. He never stated the obvious.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Bass guitarist Herbie Flowers was another future stalwart of the London session musician scene. Flowers had previously played on a handful of BBC recordings, but ‘Space Oddity’ was his first session in a recording studio. He would later work with Bowie on Diamond Dogs and Lou Reed’s Transformer.
The first time I played with Bowie was on the session for ‘Space Oddity’. Dear Gus was quaking in his boots. It might have been the first thing he ever produced. ‘Space Oddity’ was this strange hybrid song. Rick Wakeman went out to buy a little Stylophone for seven shillings from a small shop on the corner where Trident Studios was. With that and all the string arrangements, it’s like a semi-orchestral piece.
Uncut, March 2008
Guitarist Mick Wayne was a founder member of Junior’s Eyes, who became Bowie’s backing band on his second album, and drummer Terry Cox normally played with Pentangle.
Gus used my current favourite guitarist Mick Wayne, and I also recommended Rick Wakeman for keyboards (Rick had to play a Mellotron, which he’d never seen before that day). Rather than using the rest of Junior’s Eyes, who backed David on the remainder of the album, Gus used two respected session men, Herbie Flowers on bass and Barry Morgan on drums. (David later told me that Gus had very little to do with the recording: it was all Bowie’s arrangement and his ideas, as his original demo will support.)
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
In addition to ‘Space Oddity’ the single’s b-side ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ was also recorded during this session, using the same musicians.
‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ featured Bowie on 12-string guitar and vocals, and Paul Buckmaster on bowed (arco) double bass. It was re-recorded during the sessions for Bowie’s second album with a full orchestral arrangement.
Gus Dudgeon recorded a quickie version of this with the short time left from the Space Oddity session as a b-side. Paul Buckmaster, the talented arranger of ‘Space Oddity’, played a kind of freakout avant garde cello part to David’s 12-string. I saw this as a disservice to such a great song, it needed to be done right. I don’t know how I convinced the label to lash out on a 50-piece orchestra but we got them, and three hours time at Trident Studios to record it. When Gus heard it he adamantly said we had just overdubbed the orchestra on his production. I don’t know how he thought that since his version and mine barely resemble each other in structure and tempo. This is why Paul Buckmaster was credited as cellist in the original liner notes, at Gus’s insistence. With hand over heart I vow that my version was recorded from scratch.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
A second session to complete both songs for the single release was rescheduled from 21 June due to Bowie becoming ill with conjunctivitis, although the precise date is not known. The single was released on 11 July 1969.
Also on this day...
- 1996: Live: Reykjavík Arts Festival
- 1990: Live: Richfield Coliseum, Richfield
- 1987: Live: Wembley Stadium, London
- 1983: Live: Waldbühne, Berlin
- 1978: Live: Apollo, Glasgow
- 1974: Live: Sports Arena, Toledo
- 1966: Live: David Bowie and the Buzz, California Ballroom, Dunstable
- 1955: David Bowie begins junior school
Want more? Visit the David Bowie history section.