Much of the commentary I’ve read about this song focuses on the first part, which, as the name implies, is about a “free festival” and is usually interpreted to be Bowie’s disillusioned goodbye to the 60s. My great recent revelation is that the second part of the song, about the Venusian spaceship coming to Earth (“the sun machine is coming down, and we’re going to have a party”) says more about the function this song plays to tie together the whole Space Oddity album.
What now seems all too obvious is that the album begins, fades in, really, with “Space Oddity,” which is about a human who leaves Earth and drifts off into space, and fades out with aliens coming down from space to Earth. “Space Oddity” is cold, silent and lonely, whereas the “sun machine” seems warm, desirable (“Peter tried to climb aboard”) and cause for a celebration. In that much of the rest of the album is in a 60s folk style (or thereabouts), the idea of the first part of this song being a closing of that book works.
More interesting is that taken together, “Space Oddity” and “Memory” telegraph a series of themes Bowie would explore for the rest of his career: space and isolation as a place of retreat and comfort; aliens having something to give the rest of us, even to the point of being messianic. We find out what happens to Major Tom years later in, “Ashes to Ashes,” in which he is revealed to be a junkie “string out on Heaven’s high.” A persistent interpretation of “Space Oddity” is that it’s really about heroin, and that the sensation of floating off into space is really about floating off into a narcotic bliss. “Ashes to Ashes” reveals the hollowness of that form of escapism.
“Space Oddity”-as-drug-song works, but whether literal space or drug stupor, what Bowie is really illustrating is isolation as escape from a too-busy, too noisy world where “the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.” Bowie would later name two of his late-70s tours, “Isolar,” which he also named a company he formed to manage publishing his music. “Isolar” can be translated both as “isolate” and “insulate,” and I get the sense that there’s a firm link between the two meanings for Bowie. Everything is still in space, where you are alone. As he’d later sing, “in space, it’s always 1982” (from “Slip Away”).
Going back to the “shirts” line, the thing Bowie seems to want to escape, time and time again, is the corrupting influence of the crowd and the idea of conformity. He gets explicit in, “Jump They Say”: “My friend, don’t listen to the crowd; they say jump.” But Bowie touches on this idea in many other songs— keep in mind, “the kids had killed the man” in “Ziggy Stardust;” in “All the Madmen,” the narrator would, “rather stay here with all the madmen, then perish with the sad men roaming free.”
But the alien— the alienated, the stranger from elsewhere, has much to offer those otherwise corrupting masses. That concept first appears here, but is more famously articulated in “Starman” and keeps coming back in various forms. Bowie plays with the meaning of the word, “alien,” in “Loving the Alien,” in which the word really means, “different” or “other,” as in, “loving the other.” But even in 1969 Bowie seemed to realize that his message could have a receptive audience of “others” who feel alienated and inclined to retreat into solitary oblivion. Instead, he’s saying that they have something to offer. Or, as he sings in, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” “you’re not alone.”
This is what I originally posted on 11/9/16:
This is the closing song on the Space Oddity album and Bowie’s closing of the book on his hippie phase. It is one of the earliest examples of happy sounding music that masks darker lyrics, though Bowie didn’t quite find the formula because the bitterness of what he’s actually saying is somewhat subtle. His description of a 60’s Woodstock-style festival, based on an actual experience breaks down into a chant about a space alien invasion. In that respect it is also one of his first songs that is actually two songs. The “sun machine is coming down” chant is really different from the rest of the song. The real-life incident that inspired the song also inspired the scene in the movie, Velvet Goldmine, in which the Bowie-like character gets booed at a festival and realized that his hippie-shtick wasn’t where it was at. Album: Space Oddity
I post “updates” when the original links to videos for older posts go down. I replace the videos and add new commentary. Often, as in this case, what I have to do is replace a video that has a visual component with one that’s audio only.