The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

Though in 1969 I was beginning to hear some pop music, here and there, I doubt I heard David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a number 5 hit in October, Bowie’s first hit, and his last until 1972. Of course I heard it as a Golden Oldie in the Seventies, and as a number 1 on reissue in 1975. A brilliant song, an absorbing, strange, affecting song, and a classic.
But it was more than thirty years later, in the 2000s and on Sounds of the Sixties, that I found out that the record I’d heard so many times was NOT the hit single of 1969.
Brian Matthew was running a weekly feature on One Hit Wonders of the Sixties (later changed to a much more unwieldy title to take account of some of these Wonders having had additional hits in the Fifties or the Seventies, to whit, David Bowie). When he got to ‘Space Oddity’, he played the original.
I had never heard it before in my life and I could not believe what I was hearing.
The difference between the two is extraordinary. It’s the same song, with the same structure and virtually all the same words, although the familiar version is nearly ninety seconds longer. But the original is crude and rough and weak: play the two together to someone unfamiliar with the song’s history and they would immediately identify the original as a bad cover version. In every respect, and not merely the familiarity of nearly fifty years, the re-recorded version is a massive improvement.
Bowie’s singing in 1969 is subdued and undistinguished. He’s mostly singing in a monotone, still transitioning from his Anthony Newley-influenced early style (think ‘Laughing Gnome’ if you can bear it), and making no attempt to dramatise the song in any way.
And what a song! It was a total departure from Bowie’s career to date, a space fantasy inspired by a combination of the Moon Landings and Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The original version starts with bongos, the familiar fades in on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar offering no particular rhythm.
The song is a story, a story in multiple parts, told in isolated lines. The build-up to lift-off, introduced by the iconic line, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, the deep bass organ note as the Bird lifts off, the sudden euphoria of the world’s absorption of the man in space, far above the world.
And Major Tom responds to Ground Control, stepping through the door into an experience no-one else has ever had. he’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different to him from here, free of the atmosphere of Earth.
Different, and helpless. Major Tom is more than one hundred thousand miles, the furthest man from his kind, in an atmosphere in which he could survive for only seconds. The experience is more mystic than frightening, he’s feeling very still, he has put his full trust in his spaceship, which knows where to go, but his voice drops to a calm and level tone as he almost pleads for someone to tell his wife he loves her very much. And responds to himself resoundingly, ‘She knows!’
There’s a sudden urgency from Ground Control, signalling Major Tom, his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me Major Tom, they plead desperately, over and again, their anxious words seguing into Major Tom’s placid tones. He’s extra-vehicular, floating round his tin can, far above the moon.
The first man in space is in nothing but space. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing he can do… He will become his own satellite, he will never return to Earth.
The original version has virtually none of this emotionalism attaching to any of the song’s phases, and it blurs off at this point into a rapid fade over the acoustic guitar and some bongos. The familiar version bleeds off over vigorously strummed guitar, and organ and studio effects miming radio signals, the incomprehensible audible debris of empty space, as Major Tom drifts further and further away from everything we and he recognise of Earth…
An extraordinary record. I don’t know when Bowie produced the version we all know now, just that this was the only version I knew from long before its 1975 reissue. It took almost three years from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Starman’ to the true beginning of Bowie’s career as a master of music and an explorer of where we were going to be. I sometimes think that if he’d been capable of producing the familiar recording in 1969, that gap would have been greatly diminished.

4 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

  1. I didn’t get “David Bowie” (1967, with songs like Love You ‘Till Tuesday) until later because it wasn’t released in the US. I did get “David Bowie” (1969, aka Man of Words/Man of Music, with the original Space Oddity) when Mercury released it in the US, and I quite like the original version of Space Oddity. It’s certainly the strongest song on the album. I think its tenuousness adds to its charm, and I actually prefer it, although I also enjoy live versions, such as the one on Live Santa Monica ’72 (originally a bootleg from a radio broadcast, then released legit in 2008, and essentially the same set that I saw at Carnegie Hall in ’72) and on the 1980 Floor Show (1973 Midnight Special TV show, which we recorded off air on a Sony U-Matic 3/4 inch VCR and watched continuously).

    BTW, I’ve always liked Anthony Newley, and I quite enjoyed the music from that earlier period of David’s when London (Deram in the UK) released the double album Images 1966 – 1967 which included “David Bowie” (1967) plus singles, B-sides and outtakes. The concluding song In the Heat of the Morning stands with the best of his later work, but that may be because it was the only song on the album produced by Tony Visconti and may be a transitional effort. Regardless, it has a very haunting melody.

    1. The second version was the familiar one as an oldie in the early Seventies and was the reissue version that went to no. 1 here in 1975. i didn’t hear the original until the 21st century, and I prefer the remake by a country mile. I did have a Tony Newkley vocal era CD but didn’t keep it.

  2. As far as I can make out the more familiar version of Space Oddity is from Bowie’s second LP (called David Bowie or Space Oddity, depending on which release you have) while the bongos version is the single version which is an edited version of the LP cut (according to Wikipedia) or a different recording (according to my ears).

    Just to confuse matters there’s a 1979 version, several demo versions, and who knows how many live versions.

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