Concepts and themes
‘Space Oddity’ established the themes of destabilisation, alienation and lack of control, which became preoccupations of so many of Bowie’s songs in the 1970s and beyond.
The song was also a meditation on the vagaries of stardom – “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear” – which would recur in songs such as ‘Life On Mars?’ and ‘Fame’. Bowie evidently liked the dual interpretation of ‘star’, to mean both celebrity and celestial body, which he would explore extensively on the Ziggy Stardust album.
There may also have been a drugs subtext, apparent in Major Tom’s sense of still serenity, and lines such as “I’m floating in the most peculiar way”. Although Bowie would later become a heavy user of cocaine and other stimulants, the year before he recorded ‘Space Oddity’ he had a brief dalliance with heroin.
What year is it now? ’76? I suppose I’ve been knocking on heaven’s door for about 11 years now, with one sort of high or another. The only kinds of drugs I use, though, are ones that keep me working for longer periods of time. I haven’t gotten involved in anything heavy since ’68. I had a silly flirtation with smack then, but it was only for the mystery and enigma of trying it. I never really enjoyed it at all.
It has been claimed that Bowie wrote ‘Space Oddity’ following an argument with Hermione Farthingale. She later denied this, however, telling Bowie biographer Paul Trynka that it emerged during a period of sadness and reflection following the end of their relationship.
It was, unfortunately, a very good song that possibly I wrote a bit too early, because I hadn’t anything else substantial at the time. What I was involved in to a lesser or greater extent at that point was what were known in England as the “Arts Labs”. The idea was to encourage people to locally congregate at this meeting house in Beckenham and become involved in all aspects of arts in society. To come and watch strange performances by longhaired, strange people. They started out with altruistic aims. We’d all contribute to the funding, but those things were always broke, owing money left, right and center. You’d hire Buñuel films like Un Chien Andalou for people to see and not be able to pay for rental. Then you’d have poets who’d come down from Cumberland in their transit vans to read, and so on.
In the midst of all this, I’d written this little thing about Major Tom and gotten it recorded, and I was told I had a concert tour if I wanted it! I thought haughtily, “I’ll go out and sing my songs!” not knowing what audiences were like in those days. Sure enough, it was the revival of the mod thing which had since turned into skinheads. They couldn’t abide me. (laughter) No! No way! The whole spitting, cigarette-flicking abuse thing by audiences started long before the punks of 1977 in my own frame of reference.
Musician magazine, May 1983
Musically, ‘Space Oddity’ begins with alternating Fmaj7 and E minor chords, before settling into its key of C major. The root notes are underscored by Bowie’s Stylophone notes, which later led to the song being used in advertisements for the instrument.
The song also contains two upwards glissandi: a musical depiction of the “lift off”, and in the swoops and swirls of the closing moments. These may have been intended to evoke the Beatles‘ similar effects in ‘A Day In The Life’, although whereas Sgt Pepper ends with a crashing E major piano chord, there is no such resolution for the hapless Major Tom – he is cut adrift, ungrounded, unable to return to base.