In the studio
David Bowie wrote ‘Space Oddity’ in late 1968 or early 1969. The earliest demo recording dates from January 1969, and was recorded at the bedsit in Clareville Grove, South Kensington, which he shared with Hermione Farthingale.
The first studio version was recorded on 2 February 1969 at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London. This was for the Love You Till Tuesday film, and was produced by Jonathan Weston. Joining Bowie and singer/guitarist John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson were bass guitarist Dave Clague, drummer Tat Meager, and Colin Wood on Hammond organ, Mellotron, and flute.
This faster version has Hutch taking lead vocals on the Ground Control parts, Bowie playing Major Tom, and an ocarina solo. It was later released on the film’s soundtrack album, and an edited version on The Deram Anthology 1966-1968.
Bowie and Hutch recorded at least two subsequent demos of ‘Space Oddity’. One was included on Rykodisc’s 1989 box set Sound + Vision, while another was a bonus track on 2009’s 40th anniversary reissue of Bowie’s second album.
The recording of ‘Space Oddity’ began on 20 June 1969 at Trident Studios in central London, and was completed a few days later, after Bowie had recovered from a bout of conjunctivitis.
Bowie had recorded at Trident once before, for the abandoned single ‘Ching-A-Ling’ – another Visconti production. The bulk of Bowie’s albums through to Aladdin Sane would be recorded at the studio.
There were other seeds planted during the first ‘Space Oddity’ session. Rick Wakeman, whose piano work in 1971 would provide the defining sound on Hunky Dory, played Mellotron on the song. This was only his second time in a recording studio, but his professionalism was already evident.
I asked Visconti if he knew a Mellotron player, and he said he knew a bloke who played in a Top Rank ballroom… We did one take and he made a mistake. Apologized. We did another one – and that was it. Pretty good really – the second session in his life and take two is the master.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
Wakeman and Visconti had worked together when the keyboard player had contributed to a Junior’s Eyes session a few months previously.
At the studios in north London, a Mellotron had arrived. During one of the breaks I said, ‘Can I have a go?’ They went, ‘Yeah, it’s a bloody nightmare, won’t stay in tune. It’s really hard to keep it in tune – the more notes you put down, the more it goes out of tune.’ I played around and found a way of holding the tuning. Tony Visconti came in and the engineer said, ‘How did you do that?’
When they were recording ‘Space Oddity’, David wanted real strings and Mellotron together. But they couldn’t keep it in tune. Tony 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.
There were also several more session musicians who appeared on ‘Space Oddity’, their names unknown. The song features eight violins, two violas, two cellos, two arco basses, and two flutes. Bowie and Paul Buckmaster were co-credited as arrangers on the song.
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
On 20 December 1969 Bowie recorded an Italian-language version of ‘Space Oddity’, at Morgan Studios in London. The new lyrics were written by Giulio Rapetti, who used the professional name Mogol.
Bowie received pronunciation coaching by Claudio Fabi for ‘Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola’ (‘Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl’), which was released as a single in Italy in February 1970.