David Bowie – Space Oddity

David Bowie wrote this after seeing the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Space Oddity is a play on the phrase “Space Odyssey.”

Space Oddity was released in 1969. It peaked at #5 in the UK but only #124 in the Billboard Charts. The song was released as a single but also on the UK David Bowie album.

In 1972, the album was re-titled Space Oddity and re-issued in the US after Bowie achieved modest success in America with the singles “Changes” (#66) and “The Jean Genie” (#71). The newly released “Space Oddity” single made #15, becoming Bowie’s first US Top 40.

In 1980, Bowie released a follow-up to this called “Ashes To Ashes,” where Major Tom once again makes contact with Earth. He says he is happy in space, but Ground Control comes to the conclusion that he is a junkie.

As it says in the Bowie quote below…British TV picked up on the song during the moon landing. There was a fear that if the missions in space didn’t go well, this song would suddenly become inappropriate.

David Bowie: “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.”

From Songfacts

This was originally released in 1969 on Bowie’s self-titled album and timed to coincide with the moon landing. Released as a single, the song made #5 in the UK, becoming his first chart hit in that territory. In America, the single found a very small audience and bubbled under at #124 in August 1969.

In 1975, back in the UK, the song was once again released, this time on a single which also contained the songs “Changes” and “Velvet Goldmine.” Promoted as “3 Tracks for the Price of 2,” the single leapt to the top of the charts, earning Bowie his first #1 in the UK.

In 1983, the German electro musician Peter Schilling released a sequel to “Space Oddity” called “Major Tom (I’m Coming Home).” Set to a techno beat, it tells the story of Major Tom in space. That song reached #14 in the US, outcharting Bowie’s original.

In 2003, K.I.A. released another sequel called “Mrs. Major Tom,” which is told from the point of view of Major Tom’s wife.

In the line, “And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear,” ‘whose shirt you wear’ is English slang for ‘what football team are you a fan of?’. The thinking here being that if you can make it into space then your opinions on football matter. (Note to Americans- in this case, by “football” we mean “soccer.”)

An early version of this song is performed by David Bowie in Love You Till Tuesday, a promotional film made in 1969 which was designed to showcase the talents of Bowie. You can watch it here.

Three different videos were made of this song by three different directors. The first, directed by Malcolm J. Thomson, shows Bowie as an astronaut and appears in his 1969 promotional film Love You Till Tuesday.

The next one came in 1972 when Mick Rock directed Bowie singing the song with an acoustic guitar surrounded by mission control imagery. Rock, who was primarily a still photographer, was doing a lot of Bowie’s videos around this time; he also shot “Life On Mars?” and “The Jean Genie.”

The third version Bowie filmed with David Mallet in 1979 for air on the New Year’s Eve show The Will Kenny Everett Ever Make It To 1980?, which Mallet directed. Bowie recorded a new version of the song for this version with Hans Zimmer on piano.

Nita Benn’s handclaps can be heard on this recording. She is the daughter-in-law of the British socialist politician Tony Benn and the mother of Emily Benn, who at the age of 17 became the youngest ever person chosen to fight an election when she was selected in 2007 as the Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham.

This was originally written by Bowie as a guitar song. It was the producer Gus Dudgeon who turned it into an epic.

Session musician Herbie Flowers (“Walk On The Wild Side,” “Diamond Dogs”) played bass on this track. He recalled his experience working on this to Uncut magazine June 2008: “The first time I played with Bowie was on the session for ‘Space Oddity.’ Dear Gus (Dudgeon) was quaking in his boots. It might have been the first thing he ever produced. ‘Space Oddity’ was this strange hybrid song. (Keyboardist) 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.”

Jimmy Page told Uncut magazine June 2008: “I played on his records, did you know that? His very early records when he was Davy Jones & The Lower Third. The Shel Talmy records. I can think of two individual sessions that I did with him. He said in some interview that on one of those sessions I showed him these chords, which he used in ‘Space Oddity’ – but he said, ‘Don’t tell Jim, he might sue me.’ Ha ha!”

In 2009, a sound-a-like version was used in commercials for Lincoln automobiles. This version was by the American singer-songwriter Cat Power, the stage name of Charlyn “Chan” Marshall.

The session players on the song were Rick Wakeman (mellotron), Mick Wayne (guitar), Herbie Flowers (bass) and Terry Cox (drums), plus string musicians. They were paid just over £9 each.

Bowie’s birth name was David Jones. He changed his name before the movie came out, but the name he picked is similar to the main character in the film: Dave Bowman. There was speculation that he got the name from the book The Sentinel, which the movie is based on, but Bowie has claimed that his moniker came from the Bowie knife.

In 1969, this song was awarded the coveted Ivor Novello Award alongside Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”

The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded this song during his stay at the International Space Station in 2013, using a guitar that stays on the station. The female singer/songwriter Emm Gryner, who was part of Bowie’s live band in 1999-2000, put the song together, adding additional tracks and incorporating space station sounds that Hadfield had posted to his Soundclound account. A video was compiled using footage of Hadfield performing the song in space, complete with shots of planet Earth, his floating acoustic guitar, and a weightless Hadfield. The sublime compilation was posted on May 12, 2013; it quickly racked up millions of views on YouTube and got the attention of Bowie, who posted about it on his social media accounts, calling it “quite possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”

Hadfield changed a few of the lyrics – he left out the part where Major Tom loses contact and drifts away.

Releasing a cover song recorded in space poses myriad legal challenges, since jurisdiction is unclear. The original agreement was for one year, so the video was removed on May 13, 2014. By this time, Hadfield was back on Earth and worked to negotiate a new deal with the song’s publishers. In November 2014, an agreement was reached and the video went back up.

When Bowie was recording the song, he decided that he wanted real strings and Mellotron together. However, the musicians struggled to play the electronic keyboard instrument. It was Tony Visconti who suggested Rick Wakeman as somebody who could keep the Mellotron in tune. Wakeman recalled to Uncut:

“David said, ‘Get him.’ I was rehearsing with a 17-piece band in Reading, so I drove up. It was a doddle to do, to be honest. I loved the song, and I’m also credit has to go to David and Tony as 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 more obvious to do. It was clever.”

Space Oddity

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom (ten, nine, eight, seven, six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three, two)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (one, liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows”

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear

Here am I floating ’round a tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

23 thoughts on “David Bowie – Space Oddity”

  1. Bowie’s first great song. Looking back, I still find it surprising it wasn’t a big hit in ’69 in the States given the timing and the enthusiasm for the moon landing. curious side note to the song’s story – Gus Dudgeon who did the great work producing it also did Elton John’s “Rocket Man” a couple of years later.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It was a great song and probably one of his most talked about songs. That shocked me on it not being released here… That is cool…Space Oddity and Rocket Man.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. After Bowie passed, a Canadian group called Choir! Choir! Choir! recorded a version with 500 voices. They filmed and recorded in the rotunda of Art Gallery Ontario, which hosted the David Bowie Is … exhibit for more than a year (and is where I happened to see it). I wept like a child when I saw that version.

    This really is an astonishingly beautiful ballad.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That was really funny to me…two Davy Jones…completely different.
      He came close to joining the Small Faces earlier on also…he would travel with them…Bowie that is.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This used to be my favorite Bowie song. While I still dig it, I think nowadays I have a slight preference for “Starman.”

    Bowie had a bit of an obsession with space and extraterrestrial life. You already mentioned “Ashes to Ashes”. Another one that comes to mind is “Life on Mars”. The entire “Ziggy Stardust” album, which is my favorite Bowie record, revolves around an ET rock star sent to earth.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh I like Starman a lot… I am with you on that one.
      Yea people a lot of people said when he died..he didn’t die he went back to his planet.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes it’s pretty grim….really good but grim and depressing…it’s understandable.
        I get it totally…sometimes movies affect me that way

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sheryl Crow did an cover of the song Mrs. Major Tom in 2011. (Her version is an acoustic take on the original ambient song). Her vocals are beautiful. It’s on the William Shatner album Seeking Major Tom, which is themed around the Major Tom mythology. (And the original version is on the album DXLR8)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s one of the songs that I play often, I love it so much. It’s got just the right balance of lyrics, music, sound effects. Very spacey sounding, which he achieved so well.

    Liked by 1 person

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