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Fifty Years of David Bowie’s Space Oddity

On Sunday 20 July 1969 at 10:56pm Eastern Time Zone NASA Commander Neil Armstrong climbed out of the Lunar Module Apollo 11 and took mankind’s first step onto the moon. As approximately 650 million people watched from the surface of the Earth thirty-eight year old Armstrong spoke one of the most infamous lines in human history: ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ After a little over two-and-a-half hours of exploring the baron world and a further seven hours of rest, the commander and his pilot Buzz Aldrin departed for their return journey home, fulfilling the promise made by President John F. Kennedy eight years earlier that America should ‘commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.’

Nine days earlier and thousands of miles away back on their homeward the latest single by a twenty-two year old singer-songwriter known as David Bowie was released. The song, which had been named Space Oddity by its composer, was based around radio communications between a command centre and an astronaut travelling into deep space ad echoed the voyage that would be undertaken less than two weeks later. The previous year acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had shown audiences the wonders of outer space with his science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey and following a decade of public interest in the so-called space race, Bowie’s five-minute ballad would reflect the obsession the western world was feeling in the months leading up to the shuttle launch.

The single would mark a significant moment in the young singer’s life as Bowie had spent the majority of the 1960s as a struggling artist before releasing his eponymous debut alum in the summer of 1967 to an ambivalent public. While Bowie had yet to find his creative voice, it would be through the writing of Space Oddity that many of the themes that populated his subsequent work would first materialise. Without Space Oddity the 1970s would not have seen such masterpieces as Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Space Oddity would also mark the beginning of a life-long obsession with space and science that would populate the artist’s work for years to come, from earlier classics like Starman and Life on Mars? to later offerings such as Ashes to Ashes and Hallo Spaceboy. ‘Nina Simone, whom he befriended in the early ’70s, admiringly deemed him ‘not human.’ ‘David ain’t from here,’ she said,’ claimed an article published by Billboard shortly after his death in 2016 at the age of sixty-nine. ‘But in Bowie’s work outer space plays the same role as the ­crossroads in Delta blues or the New Jersey Turnpike in Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue. It’s a place and it’s a muse; it’s an all-­purpose metaphor that takes in existential conundrums, utopian fantasies, dystopian nightmares, parables about ­technology and sex and fame and rock ‘n’ roll.’

Mankind had been obsessed with the wonders of outer space long before the Apollo 11 mission and had populated fiction and for centuries, from the eighteenth century literature of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the cinematic wonders of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. While Armstrong may have been the first man to walk on the moon he would not be the first to venture into space as on 21 April 1961, one month before Kennedy’s declaration, Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin would venture beyond the atmosphere of the planet and into space inside the capsule Vostok 1 before finally returning to the surface of the Earth almost an hour and three quarters after takeoff.

By the time that Bowie had commenced work on Space Oddity almost a decade later space travel had become one of the primarily goals of the 1960s and served as a welcome distraction from the horrors of the Vietnam War. ‘The title track was planned to be released to coincide with the American lunar landing but was slow to make a UK chart impression as the BBC refused to give it air play until the astronauts had safely returned from their mission,’ admitted the BBC many years later. ‘In September 1969 it finally had chart success and went on to win Bowie an Ivor Novello award.’

‘Most people presume that it was written because of, or anticipating, the space shuttle,’ explained Bowie in 1969 shortly after the single first became a hit in his native country. ‘But in fact it was started last November and the recording of it started last December. It was finally finished in June, after which it was released in three weeks.’ Over the years many have debated the meaning behind the song, with some speculating its connection to the Apollo 11 moon landing, yet he had long-maintained that inspiration for the lyrics came after a viewing of Kurbick’s seminal science fiction opus.

‘The lyrics describe the fictional Major Tom who blasts off into space, but then loses connection with ground control and gets lost. Bowie was a known drug user at the time, so many have speculated that the song could be metaphor for a drug overdose,’ claimed Business Insider. ‘Considering Bowie acknowledged that he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when he was stoned, it’s not really a stretch to think the song might also be related to drug use. And it’s fair to say the music video (and 2001: A Space Odyssey for that matter) has a pretty trippy vibe. What’s a more, a later Bowie song called Ashes To Ashes seems to confirm the idea. In that song, Major Tom reestablishes communication with ground control but they label him a junkie. Still, the accidental association with the moon landing may have been solidified when, according to Bowie, Space Oddity was used as background music for the historic event on British television.’

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