The UK edition of the David Bowie album featured a cover photograph of the singer taken by Vernon Dewhurst. The portrait was superimposed onto an artwork of blue spots on a green background by Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely.
The concept for the cover was by Bowie and one of his lovers, Mercury Records A&R man Calvin Mark Lee. Lee collected prints by Vasarely, one of which – titled CTA 25 Neg – was used for the cover.
In the US, Bowie’s label Mercury opted not to use Vasarely’s work. Instead they chose similar portrait of Bowie by Dewhurst, set on a plain blue background. Like the UK version, it included lyrics inside the gatefold sleeve.
The rear cover featured a pen and ink drawing by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, based on a concept drawing by Bowie. A similar illustration by Underwood had been used the previous year on the front cover of Tyrannosaurus Rex’s debut album My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair… But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows.
Underwood’s illustration for Bowie was titled The Depth Of The Circle on the record sleeve. This was in error, and should have been Bowie’s preferred title, The Width Of A Circle. The singer used the correct name for the lead song on his next album, The Man Who Sold The World.
The single ‘Space Oddity’ was rush-released on 11 July 1969, ahead of the first lunar landing nine days later. Although it received some limited airplay, it did not chart at first.
This was likely due in part to a BBC ban on space-themed records ahead of the lunar landing, and it wasn’t until 6 September – with the broadcasting ban lifted – that it entered the UK singles chart at number 48.
Momentum picked up in the weeks that followed. The song became a hit, and led to further media appearances including an edition of Top Of The Pops on 2 October, broadcast a week later. The single eventually peaked at number five in the UK on 1 November.
The success of ‘Space Oddity’ did not guarantee sales for the David Bowie album, and it was a commercial failure upon its UK release on 14 November 1969. The album was similarly unsuccessful in the US, where it was released in February 1970. Critics were divided, although Disc and Music Echo reporter Penny Valentine enthusiastically described Bowie as “a latter-day Dylan,” adding that “it is an album a lot of people are going to expect a lot from. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.”
The album was simply titled David Bowie, which caused some confusion with his 1967 debut of the same name. In the US the cover featured the phrase “Man Of Words/Man Of Music”, which was intended as a description of the music and not the album’s title (a fact confirmed by the labels on the vinyl and official documentation from that time). Despite this, the American release is often referred to by that name.
Bowie is the only musician credited on the UK edition. The other performers are merely described as “Friends”. The US edition, however, featured names of all the musicians.
Reissues, remixes, remasters
In 1972 the album was reissued by RCA with the title Space Oddity, and omitted the brief jam ‘Don’t Sit Down’. The new version sported a more recent photograph of Bowie with his Ziggy Stardust-era look, somewhat misleadingly given the predominantly acoustic music contained within. Despite this, the album sold well, peaking at number 16 in the US and 17 in the UK.
Finally, words cannot speak of music, they cannot elucidate nor illuminate. Both sounds enter through the ears, but only music travels throughout and animates the whole body. David Bowie has always known this.
‘Space Oddity’, which opens this album, and which in 1968 [sic] brought David Bowie into music’s world arena as one to be reckoned with, inhabits and charges the whole being. As with all of Bowie’s music it is both ecstatic and uncomfortable — discomforting. It dates early in the mutable yet paradoxically consistent Bowie odyssey and remains archetypal. Its achievement, and this is so of Bowie’s music in general, is that it was NOW then, and it still is now NOW: personal and universal, perhaps galactic, microcosmic and macrocosmic.
Everything we are is engaged here. We have only to let it in.
Early compact disc reissues retained the 1972 photo and title. These included a 1990 edition by Rykodisc/EMI, which contained three bonus tracks – ‘Conversation Piece’, and a two-part single version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ recorded in early 1970.
In 1999 a remastered CD edition used a variant of the Vasarely cover, with the title Space Oddity added. The original eponymous title and cover design were restored for the 2009 and subsequent reissues, including the Five Years (1969-1973) box set.
On 11 July 2019, 50 years to the day since the original UK release of the ‘Space Oddity’ single, a splattered vinyl version of the album was released from selected Paul Smith stores and online. This was limited to just 3,000 copies worldwide.
On 15 November 2019 a remixed version by Tony Visconti was released on compact disc, silver and gold vinyl, black vinyl, digital download, streaming services, and as part of the Conversation Piece box set.
The coloured vinyl was randomly distributed, with 1,969 numbered copies on silver vinyl, and just 50 copies, numbered 1,970 to 2,019, on gold. The davidbowie.com website created a map allowing people to submit their album number with a photo and location, in exchange for a tote bag.
It was so much fun to find hidden gems of musicianship with more time to mix the second time around, a guitar twiddle here, a trombone blast there, Marc Bolan’s voice in a group choir and more detail in general that we overlooked all those years ago when the label gave us a week at the most to mix this album. And in the details you will find 22 year old David Bowie, who would soon take the world by storm.
On 17 April 2020 yet another vinyl edition of the album was issued – a picture disc containing the 40th anniversary remaster. That edition came with a replica of the poster included with the original 1972 RCA reissue. The artwork showed Bowie’s then-new Ziggy Stardust style, with photography taken by Mick Rock at Bowie’s Haddon Hall home in the spring of 1972.