Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 2 February; 20 June 1969
Producer: Gus Dudgeon
Arrangers: David Bowie, Paul Buckmaster
Released: 11 July 1969
David Bowie (1969)
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- David Bowie: vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, Stylophone, handclaps
- Mick Wayne: guitar
- Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
- Rick Wakeman: Mellotron
- Terry Cox: drums
- Unknown session musicians
- David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
- Zaine Griff: bass guitar
- Hans Zimmer: piano
- Andy Duncan: drums
David Bowie’s breakout hit, ‘Space Oddity’, was released in 1969 to coincide with the first lunar landing. It remains Bowie’s biggest-selling single in the UK.
The song was Bowie’s only chart hit prior to 1972’s ‘Starman’. ‘Space Oddity’ introduced to listeners the character Major Tom, who recurred in ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, and the video for ‘Blackstar’.
The title was a double pun, on both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the notion of an ‘odd ditty’. Kubrick’s 1968 film made a deep impression on Bowie, and clear parallels can be seen with the sense of isolation and helplessness at the climax of the song.
In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, 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. It was picked up by the British television and used as the background music for the landing itself. 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).
Tony Visconti had been contracted to produce Bowie’s second album. However, the American disliked ‘Space Oddity’, seeing it as a novelty piece unworthy of Bowie’s talents.
Maybe it was a fortnight before we were to start the album when David played a demo to me of a new song he demoed at his manager’s house, ‘Space Oddity’! I thought, what’s this, this isn’t Folk Rock? Not only that, but to me, this very original songwriter was ‘channeling’ Simon and Garfunkel and John Lennon very strongly, it was not like him to be like anyone else, totally out of his character. I also thought with all the activity from NASA with astronauts orbiting the Earth and maybe going to the Moon, this was an attempt to cash in. Yes, I thought these things and I thought it was just a novelty song. I was an idealistic American hippy, I used to take a lot of acid and this song just rubbed me the wrong way. David was not all that defensive about it. He was willing to drop the song except his manager played it to the label bosses and they loved it. He told me it was mandated that we should record that song, or the album was not going to be financed. It was still a singles world and I admitted that it would probably be a hit, but I argued that it wasn’t his style and he’d never write a follow up.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
The song and its b-side, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, were instead produced by Gus Dudgeon, a Decca engineer who had worked on Bowie’s three Deram singles.
Gus heard the ‘Space Oddity’ demo and said I was mad to turn it down (Did I already say that I was an idealistic American hippy?). But the song had to be recorded and I happily let David and Gus get on with it. I offered the talents of Mick Wayne on guitar and a brilliant young keyboard player I was working with, Rick Wakeman. The rest is history, of course. When I heard Gus’s brilliant production I took it all back. It was stunning. I got it. I was still certain it would be a one-off hit, but what the hell, if it puts David on the map it is worth it. I also thought I was to be fired. Gus knew David longer than I did, they had a working relationship before (the Deram album) and I would just ‘get me coat’ and saunter out the side door. That’s what I told David, but the next thing he said floored me. ‘Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on with making the album.’ And so we did, at Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court, Soho, London.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
A live performance of ‘Space Oddity’, from the first Spiders From Mars show at Aylesbury on 25 September 1971, was released on the 2022 box set Divine Symmetry.
Hi Joe, did you left Peter Schilling’s song out on purpose?