by Neil McCormick / Telegraph
8th October 2009
“Ground control to Major Tom…” With those words, David Bowie achieved lift off, sent soaring into orbit and beyond on a spaced out journey that would transform popular music. It is one of the most immediately identifiable opening lines in pop, conjuring up a near infinite sonic vista of acoustic guitars, ethereal orchestra, strange sound effects, almost schizophrenically split stereo harmony vocals and sudden swells of lush, jazzy bass and saxophone, as an oddly nuanced English voice relates the strange tale of an astronaut lost in space.
Forty years since it gave the 22-year-old Bowie his first hit, ‘Space Oddity’ remains a sensational pop record. Even the title seems extraordinarily bold, a play on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that doesn’t actually feature in the lyrics, rather it serves to convey the song’s epic oddness. Structurally it is ambitious and slightly sprawling, over five minutes in length, with a slow countdown opening, long, elegant verses, lateral, instrumental bridges and interludes, and a soaring, sort-of chorus (“Here am I sitting in a tin can”) that doesn’t appear until after the two minute mark and only repeats once. It concludes with a long, jazzy coda, as the titular character is left spinning off in our imaginations, released from earthly shackles, whether by accident or design it remains impossible to tell.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Gus Dudgeon’s production is that, despite the lavish instrumentation, it really has a free floating weightlessness that corresponds perfectly with the subject matter. Major Tom’s spacewalk is evoked in sound rather than words, leaving room for the kind of lyrical ambiguity that allows songs to bloom in the imagination.
Released as a single in July 1969 to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, ‘Space Oddity’ marks the first significant point in the young Bowie’s (til then rather fruitless) odyssey through popular music styles. After a succession of failed blues and mod groups and forays into music hall and novelty records (sinking to the desperate, gimmicky low of 1968’s ‘The Laughing Gnome’) Bowie was suddenly reconfigured. Major Tom may well have started out as a space age cash in, but his popular appeal gave the prodigiously talented Bowie the confidence to unleash his inner alien, giving birth to the Starman and all the alter-egos that followed.
The album he subsequently recorded (with a different producer, Tony Visconti) may not have proved a major success, but it freed Bowie to confidently embrace new musical ideas rather than chase trends, essaying many of the themes he would explore in his stellar Seventies incarnations, along with a kind of cynical bewilderment at the fading of Sixties ideals. Critics generally portray Bowie’s true career arc starting with 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, but re-released next week as an anniversary double CD edition with bonus tracks, demos and alternative versions, ‘Space Oddity’ (the album) is revealed not as a pallid foreshadowing of his genius, but an elegiac lost masterpiece.
It is easy to read into ‘Space Oddity’ (the song) a metaphor for alienation, as Major Tom opts to remain adrift rather than return to a planet where he (like so many of his generation) felt politically impotent (“Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do”). Or it might be interpreted as a song about the disorientation of drug use, an elegy for a lost generation. Bowie has admitted to a “silly flirtation with smack” in 1968, the year that he wrote ‘Space Oddity’. And when he revived the title character for his 1980 hit, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, Bowie wearily admitted “We know Major Tom’s a junkie.” His lost astronaut had become a Bowie’s own alter ego, bewildered and drug addled after a decade in celebrity space.
So whither Major Tom now? Bowie hasn’t released an album of original material since 2003’s ‘Reality’. He suffered a minor heart attack in 2004, and, despite occasionally popping up as a guest with other artists (including Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio) has shown no inclination to return to the recording studio in his own right. At 62, and apparently enjoying life with his supermodel wife Iman, it is possible we may not hear from Bowie again.
But his music remains a significant part of the modern pop lexicon, his chameleon-like image and sound manipulation over five decades setting a standard that most other solo artists can only aspire to. And Bowie’s first hit still retains the ability to transfix. U2 currently use it as the opening of their space themed show, Bowie’s countdown receiving roars of recognition throughout the stadiums of the world, as tens of thousands of voices join in with ground control every night to call to Major Tom, the original space rocker, who continues to exert a grip on our imaginations even if he should never return to Earth again. “Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you …”