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Week 56 | Space Oddity (1969)

The casual fan would be forgiven for thinking, “Space Oddity” was Bowie’s first album.  In fact, Bowie had been recording for about five years already, including an entire album released in 1967 as “David Bowie.”  But most of what came before this album was not very good.  The original “David Bowie” album was so forgettable, that Bowie originally gave his second album— which would become “Space Oddity” two titles later (it was also briefly known as “Man of Words, Man of Music”)— the same name.  The title wasn’t the only aspect of the album that changed over the years— so did the cover, from an original headshot of Bowie the hippy, to a spaced-out looking Ziggy-era Bowie, and then back again to the original.  

All this early changing reflected Bowie’s quick evolution from 1969, the year of the album’s release, through 1972, when Bowie had emerged as a counterculture star as Ziggy.  But it also reflected a giant leap (get the moon reference?) in his musical development.  Most of Bowie’s recordings from the 1960s come across to me as juvenile, derivative and just not very entertaining.  That changed with “Space Oddity.”  While still not a truly great album, “Space Oddity” is certainly enjoyable.  Though his music would famously change many times afterward, he never reverted to being forgettable.  

The album, of course, begins with one of Bowie’s greatest and most recognizable songs, “Space Oddity.”  Though not immediately a hit, it got some play during the actual moon landing and became a permanent part of Bowie’s repertoire.  Undoubtably the best song on the album, Bowie didn’t just put it first to make an impression out of the gates.  It’s slow start complements the fading chant of the album’s closing song, “Memory of a Free Festival.”  So among the other firsts of the album, here Bowie latched on to the idea that song order made a difference to the listening experience.  It has occurred to me that Bowie may have meant the last song on his last studio album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” at the end of, “Blackstar,” to be the ending of a sequence that began with “Space Oddity.”  Even if that wasn’t the intent, it works.

The song also began a thread that continued through all of Bowie’s reinventions.  He never shook space as a recurring theme.  The song’s central character, “Major Tom,” would explicitly reappear in “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), as a drug addict, adding fuel to the interpretation of the original song that it isn’t really about space travel but rather about shooting up heroin.  But beyond that, space travelers named or not would populate several Bowie songs.  Tom crossed over into other artists’ work as well, most famously (but not at all exclusively) Peter Schilling’s song, “Major Tom (Coming Home).”  And while Tom does not appear in Elton John’s,’ “Rocket Man,” the themes of that song are so similar to “Space Oddity” as to render it a rip off, albeit a great song in its own right.

A side note about Elton John:  He, or his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, seemed all to willing to go to Bowie for inspiration but somehow managed to come back with work of their own that was both also terrific and even more commercially successful than their inspirations.  The “Space Oddity”/ “Rocket Man” similarities are the most obvious, but “The Bitch is Back” seems like it could be a sequel to Bowie’s, “Queen Bitch,” and if it isn’t obvious that “Bennie and the Jets” is about a band suspiciously like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, take a look at the art illustrating the song accompanying the album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”  And then, on top of that, Paul McCartney seemed to take inspiration from both when he wrote “Jet” (as in Bennie and the…” which references a “major” (Tom?) who was a “lady suffragette.”  

Anyway, the point is that “Space Oddity” has a long tail, and with good reason.  It is a great song.  The album’s closing song is also good and influential.  In both cases, Bowie radically changes the songs halfway through.  This happens in “Space Oddity” after the liftoff, and in “Memory,” once the “Sun Machine” (which appears to be a spacecraft from Venus) starts “coming down.”  As with Major Tom, that sun machine would make appearances in other artists’ (albeit less famous) works.  

In between the opening and closing songs are other good ones.  “Janine” has not invited a lot of commentary, but I think it is a very pretty song.  “Letter to Hermione” cemented Bowie’s ex-girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale as a near-mythical figure in Bowie-lore.  But is is also a very pretty song.  So too is, “Cygnet Committee.”  

But the album also contains some of what strike me as the kind of juvenile songs Bowie had previously created, although these ones are more melodic.  The best of this class form the album is, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” which sounds like Bowie trying to imitate Bob Dylan in that he combines strings of words in ways that don’t make obvious sense.  “An Occasional Dream,” “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” and “God Knows I’m Good,” all come off as overwrought and as telegraphing a 22-year old’s impression of what wisdom is supposed to sound like.

That said, these weaker links are not enough to sink the album.  “Space Oddity” is not one of those albums that contains a hit that inspired you to buy the album in the first place, but then disappoints with another 40 minutes of filler.  While not first either chronologically or on my list of favorites, it stands as Bowie’s first enduring work, and 50 years later it holds up.  

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