Single Stories: David Bowie, “Space Oddity”

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

49 years ago today, David Bowie released a single which – even with the size and breadth of his discography over the course of his life and times as a recording artist – remains one of the signature moments of his career...and, no, we’re not talking about “The Laughing Gnome.”

Produced by Gus Dudgeon and written, of course, by Bowie himself, “Space Oddity” was released five days before the launch of Apollo 11, making the tale of Major Tom a decidedly topical track at the time. The source of Bowie’s inspiration, however, was actually Stanley’s Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the last two words of which – just in case you never noticed this before – bear an in-no-way-coincidental similarity to the title of the song.

Although it was undoubtedly helped up the charts by the constant barrage of news about the moon landing, “Space Oddity” wouldn’t continue to get the airplay that it does if it wasn’t a classic tune, and it’s clear that it is, since it’s actually among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The character of Major Tom, meanwhile, is at least as iconic than the song in which he first appeared, given his subsequent appearance in other Bowie songs, including “Ashes to Ashes” and “Hallo Spaceboy.”

“Space Oddity” became Bowie’s first top-five single in the UK and earned him the 1970 Ivor Novello Special Award for Originality, but when it was reissued in 1975, it climbed all the way to the top of the UK Singles chart. While it wasn’t nearly as successful in the States, because that’s just how America is, the song did make its way into the top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100, which is still pretty darned impressive for a singer/songwriter with as limited as presence as Bowie had at the time.

Over the years, Bowie played “Space Oddity” in concert a number of times, resulting in a number of different interpretations of the song, but when it comes right down to it, it’s hard to beat the original.

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