The Secret Literary History of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

An excerpt from “Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded” explores Major Tom’s predecessors

“GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM / Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong.” Those must have been startling words to hear in a song being broadcast during the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo moon landing. Pink Floyd’s “Moonhead” wasn’t exactly cheery and upbeat, but at least it was instrumental, leaving the song open to the interpretation of the listener. With David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” though, the lyrics spelled out everything, leaving no room for doubt: An astronaut named Major Tom has gone into space, only to become stranded due to an equipment malfunction. Trapped in that vacuum, he’s “sitting in a tin can,” drifting “far above the world,” imploring Ground Control to “tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.”

“Space Oddity” was released as a single on July 11, 1969, five days before the Apollo 11 launch, and nine days before Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon. Bowie hadn’t intended the release to coincide that way; he’d recorded a demo of the song in January of that year, and the song’s pun of a title couldn’t have made it more clear that his main inspiration was all those nights in the cinema spent rewatching 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Bowie’s record label rushed the release of “Space Oddity” so that it might capitalize on the Apollo craze.

The tactic only partially worked. “Space Oddity” was miraculously broadcast during the BBC’s Apollo coverage despite it’s chilling conclusion, which couldn’t have been further from the typical cheerleading of the astronauts that was being conducted by the media. No one was more surprised than Bowie. “It was picked up by the British television and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all,” he said. “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”

Even musically, “Space Oddity” was melancholy. It was an odd mix of folk rock and cutting-edge electronics — including the Stylophone, a stylus-operated keyboard, and a more complicated sampling keyboard called the Mellotron. The former was played by Bowie himself, while the latter was played by a promising twenty-year-old named Rick Wakeman, who had only been in a recording studio once before. On one hand, the narrative of Major Tom and his calamity in space read like a straightforward adventure story out of one of Bowie’s treasured pulp magazines. On the other hand, the song’s complex arrangement, epic effects, and orchestral impact hinted at the boundlessness of space as well as the murky depths of the human consciousness — two vast reservoirs of darkness.

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In a short film for “Space Oddity” made in 1969 for Love Me Till Tuesday — a promotional movie that wasn’t released until 1984 — Bowie’s face is cold, serene, composed. It might as well be made of plastic, the artificial flesh of some futuristic android. He’s wearing a silver spacesuit. Unlike the bulky spacesuits in the widely publicized photos of the ongoing Apollo space missions, however, this astronaut is clad in sleek, formfitting chrome, so as to enhance rather than obscure his lithe physique. With robotic precision, he dons a blue-visored helmet. There’s an air of extravagant vanity to this particular space explorer, as well as one of aloofness. His helmet secure, he steps outside his space capsule. He floats. The void beckons, threatening to swallow our hero. He is not humble. His name is no secret. It’s emblazoned on the front of his spacesuit in capital letters: MAJOR TOM.

There are no aliens in “Space Oddity” — those beings would factor greatly in some of Bowie’s best-known work to come — but a devastating metaphysical awe underpins the song. Faced with the vastness of the cosmos, Major Tom laments in newfound futility, “Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do.” That ennui, bordering on paralysis, humanized astronauts in a way that NASA’s promotional sloganeering failed to do. “At the end of the song, Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at,” Bowie said. “He’s fragmenting . . . At the end of the song his mind is completely blown — he’s everything then.” The influence of 2001 looms over “Space Oddity.” “I related to the sense of isolation,” Bowie said of the film, which had a “seismic impact” on him, “particularly the final, climactic images of the monolith doomed to float eternally in space.”

While Bowie never denied the obvious connection between his “Space Oddity” and Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey, other works may very well have exerted a gravitational pull on the song. The theme of astronauts lost in space was the premise behind 1953’s “The Quatermass Experiment,” the first serial in the Quatermass series that the young Bowie watched in a state of exhilarating fear from behind his parents’ sofa. A more immediate influence may have been “Beach Head,” an episode of the BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown, which aired on January 28, 1969, the same month Bowie worked on his early demo of “Space Oddity.” Based on the 1951 sci-fi short story “You’ll Never Go Home Again” by Clifford D. Simak, it’s a bleak rejoinder to the more heroic, optimistic portrayal of space exploration offered by Star Trek, which was fated to go off the air in June of 1969 due to low ratings. In “Beach Head,” an astronaut faced with the mortal terror of the unknown universe suffers a gradual breakdown — one not entirely unlike Major Tom’s slow descent into numb oblivion. There’s also Ray Bradbury’s famous short story “Kaleidoscope.” Published in 1951 as part of the collection The Illustrated Man — whose framing device, a modern-day fantasy involving a man whose full-body tattoos come alive, was clearly borrowed by Bowie for his 1967 song “Karma Man” — “Kaleidoscope” is the horrific account of the crew of a spaceship who are left adrift in their spacesuits after an accident in orbit. Major Tom would have felt right at home.

“Kaleidoscope” is the horrific account of the crew of a spaceship who are left adrift in their spacesuits after an accident in orbit. Major Tom would have felt right at home.

Many people, the producers of the BBC evidently included, assumed that since “Space Oddity” was about an astronaut, it must be a positive depiction. Bowie offered no such illusion. “The publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being,” he said, “and my Major Tom is nothing if not a human being. [‘Space Oddity’] came from a feeling of sadness about this aspect of the space thing. It has been dehumanized, so I wrote a song-farce about it, to try and relate science and human emotion. I suppose it’s an antidote to space fever, really.” Eventually, though, the BBC caught on. After “Space Oddity” was broadcast on July 20, the song wasn’t played on BBC radio until after the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew. With astronauts risking their lives on the most dangerous new frontier imaginable, “Space Oddity” was temporarily considered too controversial for airplay. The single didn’t hit the charts until six weeks after its release. It took until November to peak at number five in the UK, thanks largely to an appearance on the popular BBC program Top of the Pops that featured Bowie miming the song and playing the Stylophone, interspersed with NASA space footage. In the States, “Space Oddity” flopped. Ahead of its time, it wouldn’t find a permanent place in the American psyche until the ’70s.

“I want it to be the first anthem of the Moon,” Bowie said of “Space Oddity.” It wasn’t an easy process, but eventually “Space Oddity” proved to be Bowie’s pivot from pop hopeful to bona fide star, and it remains the most immediately identifiable sci-fi song in rock history. It also marked a bigger pivot for popular culture as a whole. The hippies promoted a bucolic, back-to-the-land, borderline technophobic way of life, often framed in images of the zodiac and cosmic mysticism; meanwhile, military men in crew cuts were planting American flags on alien soil. As noted by sociologist Philip Ennis, “It is probably not hyperbole to assert that the Age of Aquarius ended when man walked on the Moon. Not only was the counterculture’s infatuation with astrology given a strong, television-validated antidote of applied astronomy, but millions of kids who had not signed up for either belief system were totally convinced.” The social critic Camille Paglia said, “As [Bowie’s] psychedelic astronaut, Major Tom, floats helplessly into outer space, we sense that the ’60s counterculture has transmuted into a hopelessness about political reform,” citing the lyrics “Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do.”

Eventually “Space Oddity” proved to be Bowie’s pivot from pop hopeful to bona fide star, and it remains the most immediately identifiable sci-fi song in rock history.

An even less rosy assessment of “Space Oddity” came from The Observer in 1969, whose music critic Tony Palmer wrote that the song was a welcome breath of cynicism “at a time when we cling pathetically to every moonman’s dribbling joke, when we admire unquestioningly the so-called achievement of our helmeted heroes without wondering why they are there at all.” Ironically, Palmer would go on to produce 1979’s The Space Movie — a documentary celebrating the tenth anniversary of Apollo 11 — at the request of NASA.

Anthem or requiem? Celebration or deconstruction? “Space Oddity” was all these things. According to journalist Chris O’Leary, “Bowie once said he considered the fate of Major Tom to be the technocratic American mind coming face-to-face with the unknown and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy that we would lose our nerve and sink back into the old world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky is the limit.” At the same time, it was embraced as the defining song of the Space Age — one full of beauty, horror, awe, and imagination, and a rethinking of our position in the universe, all the feelings that the best of sci-fi meant to elicit.

It was embraced as the defining song of the Space Age — one full of beauty, horror, awe, and imagination, and a rethinking of our position in the universe, all the feelings that the best of sci-fi meant to elicit.

With “Space Oddity,” Bowie set himself up for even greater sci-fi statements to come. But he had one more to deliver before the ’60s were through. Recorded in August and September of 1969, right after the moon landing, and released in November, just as “Space Oddity” was peaking on the British charts, “Cygnet Committee” was his most ambitious song to date. Clocking in at almost ten minutes, it’s a melodramatic, melodically meandering song steeped in a profound sadness and disappointment in failed idealism. Years from now, a utopia has collapsed, betrayed by its own ostensibly compassionate ideology. “A love machine lumbers through desolation rows,” he sings, “Plowing down man, woman, listening to its command / But not hearing anymore.” If “Space Oddity” cryptically augured the demise of the hippie era, “Cygnet Committee” made that point more brutally, encasing it in the blunt messaging of dystopian fiction. The future was barreling down on Bowie — and like the heroes of Starman Jones and the other sci-fi novels of his youth, he was either going to conquer or be conquered by it.

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