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The odd story of ‘Space Oddity’: How a 'cheap shot' 'novelty record’ launched David Bowie into the stratosphere 50 years ago

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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As difficult as it may to believe that there was ever a time when David Bowie was considered a one-hit wonder or novelty act, that was actually, briefly the case 50 years ago, when he really made the grade with his first hit, “Space Oddity.” Even Bowie’s regular and longtime producer, Tony Visconti, had doubts about the track, which utilized a punny title and was rush-released on July 11, 1969 to capitalize on the excitement surrounding that month’s Apollo 11 moon mission. So, Visconti passed on “Space Oddity,” leaving its production duties to young engineer Gus Dudgeon instead.

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“In those days, a gimmick was a big deal, and people who had gimmicks were taken more seriously than those who hadn’t,” Dudgeon, who died in 2002, once told Classic Rock. “Bowie’s [gimmick] was that he’d written a song about being in space at a time when the first U.S. moonshot was about to take place. I listened to the demo and thought it was incredible. I couldn’t believe that Tony didn’t want to do it.”

“I thought it was a bad choice for a first single [from Bowie’s self-titled ‘69 album] because I saw it as a novelty record,” Visconti explained to Yahoo Entertainment in 2016. “There was a man who had just been in orbit a few weeks earlier. And it sounded to me a little like the Beatles. And the ‘here am I sitting in a tin can’ part sounded like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends. I thought the double-harmonies were derivative, and in my own words I said it was ‘a cheap shot.’”

The 1969 artwork for David Bowie's "Space Oddity" single. (Photo: Mercury Records)
The 1969 artwork for David Bowie's "Space Oddity" single. (Photo: Mercury Records)

Visconti elaborated in the book accompanying the boxed set Five Years (1969-1973), “I was an idealistic American hippie, I used to take a lot of acid, and this song just rubbed me the wrong way. David was not all that defensive about it. He was willing to drop the song, except his manager played it to the label bosses and they loved it. He told me it was mandated that we should record that song, or the album was not going to be financed. It was still a singles world and I admitted that it would probably be a hit, but I argued that it wasn’t his style and he’d never write a follow-up.”

Visconti also told Yahoo Entertainment in 2016, “Years later, [Bowie] and I joked about it so much. But the one thing I predicted was that he would not have a hit after that. ‘What are you going to follow that up with?’ I said to him. ‘What are you going to write about — flying to Jupiter, flying to Mars?’ Space was a subject in later songs, for sure. But it really took about two years before he had another hit record.”

It should be noted that famed Beatles producer George Martin also turned down “Space Oddity,” so Visconti wasn’t in bad company. And Visconti wasn’t entirely wrong. While “Space Oddity” was the breakout song for Bowie — who’d been trying to launch, so to speak, his career for several years — and it remains his biggest-selling single in the U.K., he would not score a chart hit again until 1972, with another space song, “Starman.” (In The Complete David Bowie, Bowie stated that “Space Oddity was “a very good song that possibly I wrote a bit too early, because I hadn't anything else substantial [to follow it] at the time.”) And “Space Oddity” initially flopped in America, stalling at No. 124 on the Billboard Hot 100 — despite Mercury Records’ Rob Oberman, according to The Complete David Bowie, declaring it “one of the greatest recordings [he’d] ever heard” and predicting, “If this already controversial single gets the airplay, it’s going to be a huge hit.”

U.S. radio stations may have been reluctant to play “Space Oddity” because a bleak, existential alienation anthem about a space mission gone horribly awry was indeed a controversial way, and certainly not the most optimistic or appropriate way, to celebrate NASA’s lunar landing. (“[‘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,” Bowie said in the book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.) Britain’s BBC Radio did play “Space Oddity” at first, but then, upon closer scrutiny of the lyrics, pulled it from rotation until after the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew. As a result, “Space Oddity” didn’t chart in the U.K. until September 1969; it peaked at No. 5 in November ’69, after Bowie performed it on Top of the Pops accompanied by NASA space footage.

“I’m sure [the BBC] really weren’t listening to the lyric at all. 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!” Bowie is amusingly quoted in Strange Stars.

The Dudgeon-produced “Space Oddity,” which featured then-unknown future Yes member Rick Wakeman on mellotron and cost less than $1,000 to record, wasn’t the first version. An earlier studio recording, from February 1969, was made for Bowie's promotional film Love You Till Tuesday, seen below; four different demo version have also since been commercially released. But it is Dudgeon’s classic version that has truly endured, and the song’s iconic character, isolated astronaut Major Tom, has reappeared in Bowie’s songs “Ashes to Ashes” and “Hallo Spaceboy” and in his “Blackstar” music video, as well as in an actual one-hit wonder song, German new-waver Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home).”

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And “Space Oddity” is also a go-to Bowie cover for many artists, including Elton John, who actually recorded many hits produced by Dudgeon: John paid tribute in the days following Bowie’s death with a concert mash-up of “Space Oddity” with his own similarly themed “Rocket Man.” Bowie disciples Duran Duran, who are headlining a concert at Kennedy Space Center on July 16 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, have started working lines of “Space Oddity” into live versions of their “Planet Earth.” The classic has also been covered by the Flaming Lips, Def Leppard, Peter Murphy, Cat Power, Tangerine Dream, William Shatner, and most notably Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who magnificently recorded it in 2013 aboard the International Space Station for the very first music video filmed in outer space. That one has more than 43 million YouTube views.

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However, Bowie himself once said one of his favorite covers of “Space Oddity” was by the children of the Langley Schools Music Project, marveling, "The backing arrangement is astounding. Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance, you have a piece of art that I couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Columbia's finest export products in me."

And now, to commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing’s 50th anniversary, “Space Oddity” is being re-released as special double 7-inch single featuring new mixes by, ironically, Tony Visconti. A new Bowie video for the song, combining footage directed by choreographer Eduaord Lock for Bowie’s Sound & Vision tour in 1990 with footage shot by Tim Pope at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997, will premiere at a NASA event at the Kennedy Center on July 20.

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“The rest is history, of course,” Visconti said in Five Years (1969-1973), reflecting on the song’s legacy. “When I heard Gus’s brilliant production, I took it all back. It was stunning. I got it. I was still certain it would be a one-off hit, but what the hell, if it puts David on the map, it is worth it.”

Additional reporting by Jon Wiederhorn.

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