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…?