*10.35-SPACE ODDITY (David Bowie)

David Bowie


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

Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on.
Check ignition and may God's love be with you.

     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.

          Here am I floating on my tin can
          Far above the world.
          Planet Earth is blue
          And there's nothing I can do.


     Though I’ve passed 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? (3x)

          Here I am sitting in a tin can
          Far above the moon.
          Planet Earth is blue
          And there’s nothing that I can do.


David Bowie is reported to have written Space Oddity after being impressed with the new movie release 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Coincidentally, the song was released the same month as the first successful manned moon landing on July 20, 1969. It was further popularized in England when the BBC used the song as a soundtrack to their report of the event, and as Bowie’s first hit single ascended into the Top 10. However, Space Oddity initially did poorly in the United States, possibly because the story of the song ends in a failed mission. Then again, its poor showing in the U.S. may have been due to the production work. When re-released in 1973, the production work was much fuller than the initial recording; a cheap, thin-sounding Stylophone and a recorder break had been replaced by a lush mellotron. In this state, it rose into the U.S. Top Twenty, and would reach the top position on the English charts. Another supposition concerning the later success of Space Oddity in America is that it may have been at least partially due to the fact that Bowie was better known in 1973 than in 1969. In the interim, he had released two singles in the U.S.: Changes (#66) and The Jean Genie (#72). Neither, however, enjoyed the success of Space Oddity.

As far as I can tell, the two versions of Space Oddity were both produced by Gus Dudgeon. He is known best for his work on the early Elton John albums of the 1970s, but he had also produced She’s Not There by the Zombies in 1964 and the album John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton in 1966. The differences between the two versions, however, are as dramatic as those between the initial recording of Across the Universe in 1968 and the Phil Spector version in 1970. The lyrics remain the same but the 1969 version of Space Oddity sounds more like a comical novelty record, while the 1973 version has cinematic sweep more worthy of the epic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

By 1973, space travel was a hot topic on the pop charts. It had frequently been a metaphor embraced by the psychedelic period, with such songs as Astronomy Domine by Pink Floyd, Third Stone from the Sun by Jimi Hendrix Experience, 2000 Light Years from Home by the Rolling Stones, and Dark Star by the Grateful Dead. But the theme wasn’t ready for radio for some reason—the most successful showing of a single on the subject that I can recall in the 1960s was the country & western inflected Mr. Spaceman by the Byrds, which barely broke into the Top 40. Things changed with the 1972 release of Rocket Man by Elton John (also produced by Gus Dudgeon), which made it the #2 spot in the U.S. and Harry Nilsson’s Spaceman, released also in 1972, that reached #23. Neither of these 1972 songs were psychedelic, but may have paved the way for further acceptance of Bowie’s Space Oddity when it was re-released. Both the Nilsson and Elton John singles seemed to tell of an astronaut similar to Space Oddity’s Major Tom, suffering loneliness so far from their families back on Earth.

Bowie gives a good dramatic rendering of his story in Space Oddity, with ironies in the lyric that make for some inherent criticism of the space program. He describes the space capsule as a “tin can”; the astronaut is such a celebrity that the press wants to know what shirts he wears. (I was informed by one blogger that, in British argot, the press is inquiring what soccer team he supports rather than his brand of shirt.) I find his line Tell my wife I love her very much—she knows! to be heart wrenching, especially as Bowie delivers it on the 1973 version. Reflecting back on how the Earth looked from the Moon on TV, Bowie adds a different dimension to the “blue planet” by suggesting that the world is in a “blue” funk, and there’s nothing the astronaut can do about it from so great a distance.