380. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie

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

Space Oddity, by David Bowie (his 1st of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 2nd – 16th November 1975

Have there been stranger opening lyrics to a #1 single…? A fade-in, which hasn’t featured very often either, then a very familiar voice. We countdown, to lift-off. Check ignition, And may God’s love be with you… Enter a legend.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned any artist in this blog, without actually featuring one of their songs, more often than David Bowie. He loomed over all the glam hits, the Lord above, while never deigning to do anything as vulgar as top the pop charts. And then, when he finally does, we’ve missed out on Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, and it’s a re-release of his breakthrough hit that does it.

This is an awesome song, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word: awesome. A sweeping epic about a man heading into space, alone, inspired by Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, with at least three very separate styles contained in its five minute runtime. One moment it sounds like late-sixties Beatles, the next it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach, while the Mellotron sounds like a visitation from the ghost of Joe Meek.

‘Space Oddity’ was originally released in 1969, to coincide with the moon landing. It made #5, and meant that for a few years David Bowie – David Bowie – was remembered as a one-hit wonder, a novelty… Until he released ‘Starman’, and heavy-petted Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops. Then the rest was history.

Bowie being Bowie, I’m tempted to wonder if this record is simply about a bloke in space. Is it a commentary on fame: And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…? Or drugs: I’m floating in a most peculiar way…? (I love the way he pronounces a-pe-cu-li-ar, in his best Anthony Newley.) Or is it simply an epic tragedy: Ground control to Major Tom, Your circuit’s dead, There’s something wrong… as Tom orbits away to his doom?

It’s been great to really sit down and listen to this song. I knew it, of course, in that way everyone knows incredibly famous songs, but it’s not part of my regular rotation. In fact, I have to admit, not much Bowie is in my regular rotation. It is permanently item one on my musical to-do list: appreciate David Bowie more, you philistine! I like him, I love what he stood for and represented, but some of his music, like Major Tom himself, floats way above my head…

In the real world, while a re-release of his first hit made #1 – the second 1960s disc to hit the top in this weirdest of years – Bowie was leaving glam behind, and becoming a huge star in the US with soul numbers like ‘Fame’ and ‘Golden Years’. Then came the cocaine, before the mega-successful early ‘80s. We won’t meet him atop the charts again until then. Which means his only #1 from the entirety of the 1970s is this. David Bowie, along with Prince, is perhaps the biggest artist with the worst representation from his chart-topping hits. Anyway, all that is still to come. For now, let’s float off into the milky way, in our tin cans. Altogether now: Can you hear me Major Tom…? Can you hear me Major Tom…?

20 thoughts on “380. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie

      1. There are two versions of it…English & German. The German version was in the movie Atomic Blonde. I don’t know if the German words actually match the English ones. With 99 Luft Balloons & 99 Red Balloons, the subject of the song is completely different.

        It’s a really cool song. There is a long version, too.

  1. Fabulous record like so much 70’s Bowie (albeit 60’s in this case) – not only had he his own masterpieces like Life On Mars? Starman, John I’m Only Dancing, Jean Genie, Drive-In Saturday but he found time to create them for others (Mott The Hoople’s All The Young Dudes, Lulu’s Man Who Sold The World) while providing a leg-up to those who influenced him, like Lou Reed. Bowie was the biggest act overall in 1973 in the UK, in terms of singles and albums together – yet still denied a chart-topping single!

    I love all the Major Tom records, Part 1, Part 2 (up next), Part 3 (Hallo Spaceboy with Pet Shop Boys) and also the Peter Schilling track.

    1. Interesting that Bowie had to either sing about Major Tom, or duet with another big name, to get a #1 (Let’s Dance being a pretty brilliant exception, to be fair…) If you could allow him one seventies chart-topper, what would it be? I’m torn between Starman and Rebel Rebel…

      1. Life On Mars? for me, it’s the most-popular track amongst all ages of music fans from that period I think, followed by ‘Heroes’. I might also just go for John I’m Only Dancing as it’s not that well-known (not being on an album), is an absolute corker, and has my name in the title 🙂

      2. It’s a shame that ‘Heroes’ wasn’t much of a hit, at all, let alone a #1… I love ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, and would also like to add ‘Drive-In Saturday’ to my two. ‘Life on Mars’ I can take or leave, sadly.

      3. Heroes was probably a victim of bad-timing – it came out after The Stranglers No More Heroes which spit venom and attitude and in comparison at the time it just sounded a bit depressing and slow, especially after the funky Sound & Vision earlier in the year 🙂

  2. David Bowie is one of those big artists that while widely acclaimed isn’t hugely represented on the charts and on the Hot 100 his two #1s could almost be seen as footnotes compared to his bigger artistic legacy with “Fame,” which happened to hit #1 a couple months before “Space Oddity” hit #1 in the UK, and “Let’s Dance” which are both great jams but aren’t exactly going to be on people’s Top 10 Bowie songs. Unlike his home country, Bowie hadn’t made much of a dent in the American charts before and funny enough it was an earlier re-release of “Space Oddity” that gave him his chart breakthrough at #15 in 1973 and was his biggest hit before “Fame” took him all the way though his albums tended to sell more than the singles. Weird to think about considering songs like “Space Oddity” are well-remembered classics. I’ve played it a couple times in high school as a tribute after his death and it’s always weird when you have to end the song trying to create your own rocket sound effects. I also saw the Flaming Lips perform the song at a concert where the frontman crowd surfed while in a big plastic ball. Let’s just say it was an experience. It also had a good use at the end of a Mad Men episode going toward the finale in 1970

    1. Yes, he’s much more poorly-represented on the US charts. I think we discussed in a previous post why glam never really took off in the US. Is it possible Bowie was just a bit too ‘queer’? I know Freddie Mercury doing full drag killed their US chart career… In Britain Bowie had huge Top 10 hits spanning the 60s through to the 2010s, so it’s not that he was under-appreciated, just the best ones couldn’t make it to the top spot. He’s in the same boat as Elton and Queen in that regard, in the UK, though I’d argue Prince has the ultimate legacy to #1 hits disparity here. And I really like ‘Let’s Dance’ – it is 100x better than his final #1 in the UK, in 1985. Google that at your peril… (I’m not sure if it was a US hit.)

      1. I think ultimately the problem is with the music and the fact that hard rock music has usually never been a big pop chart force in America. As Tom Breihan keeps pointing out, much of these acts have been big live draws and sell lots of albums but never been big singles acts or connect with Top 40 radio that much to crossover. The only major points in Hot 100 history where rock (at least the non soft kind) has been able to easily crossover have been the ’60s British Invasion era, the hair metal of the late ’80s/early ’90s, and the post-grunge in the late ’90s/early ’00s. Even the biggest hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Deep Purple, Metallica, Black Sabbath never made a huge impact outside of some songs that got big like “Whole Lotta Love” managing to reach #4. Even bands as big as Van Halen and Aerosmith got their one #1 hit by toning down their sound where in Van Halen’s case they added synthesizers and with Aerosmith recording a soundtrack ballad for Armageddon decades after their creative peak. Queen are also another weird case with the charts where they had their two #1s in 1980 and never got that big again except for “Bohemian Rhapsody” re-charting even beating its original ’70s peak of #9 at #2 thanks to the popularity of Wayne’s World and Freddie Mercury’s death just before. From what I read, what may have killed Queen’s momentum in the States was releasing their Hot Space album in the midst of the Disco Sucks era that wasn’t receptive to its dance-influenced music even though “Under Pressure” made the Top 30. There’s also the fact that they didn’t tour America much after 1980 and possibly the gay prejudice amidst the AIDS Crisis with Freddie’s adoption of the mustache adding to the decline as well. Regarding the queer issue, it might have possibly turned off some though a decade after acts like Culture Club, the Eurythmics and others who proudly displayed their androgyny and queerness got big so I’m not sure what to make of it.

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