For my track of the week I’m offering a song you all know. You’ve heard it on the radio, on the TV, in films, and in pubs, restaurants and shops. It’s ingrained in our collective consciousness like our national anthems or your favourite hymn. Most people like it, some adore it, few hate it. It’s David Bowie’s Space Oddity and it is, of course, a pop/rock classic.
Space Oddity is a song about man’s venture into space. It was first released just nine days before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in July 1969. Was this a deliberate attempt to cash in on the fevered interest in the moon shot or just a song that reflects the times? I’m prepared to give Bowie and his record company the benefit of the doubt (for now).
The track’s title obviously alludes to 2001 – A Space Odyssey, a book by Arthur C Clarke and a groundbreaking film by Stanley Kubrick. Like the film, David Bowie’s lyrics both celebrate the conquest of space and warn of its dangers, as if to make sure the record would be relevant whether the Apollo 11 mission succeeded or failed.
The instrumentation is a little unusual. Bowie himself plays a Stylophone to give a slightly buzzy electronic texture early on and Rick Wakeman provides some ethereal Mellotron that suggests the vast emptiness of space. But these are relatively subtle additions to the guitar, bass, drums and strings typical of pop/rock records. Admittedly, there are some weird effects on the lengthy fade-out, but Space Oddity is basically just a conventional track aimed squarely at the charts.
For a track that is so well-known it’s surprising that it didn’t have a greater impact on the charts. The original version reached number 5 in the UK, but only peaked at 124 in the US. Nevertheless, there have been several later releases and numerous covers. The 1973 release got to number 15 in the US and the 1975 version took the top spot in the UK. The link I gave above is to the 2009 remaster marking 40 years of oddness in space.
Then, of course, there was the cover version recorded as a music video by Chris Hadfield, a real live astronaut, while on the International Space Station in 2013. That video has been viewed on YouTube over 25 million times. It’s a pretty good video but some of the words have been changed, taking away some of the ambiguity and mystery of the original lyrics, and it doesn’t capture the imagination the way the 1969 music-only track does.
I don’t doubt that Chris Hadfield was a fine commander of the ISS but when it comes to playing music he is totally eclipsed by the amazing talent of David Bowie and the session musicians on that 1969 recording. Space Oddity is a truly great track which fully justifies its place in the Crotchety Man blog.