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.
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.
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.