"Space Oddity" is a song written and recorded by David Bowie. It was first released as a 7-inch single on 11 July 1969. It was also the opening track of his second studio album, David Bowie. It became one of Bowie's signature songs and one of four of his songs to be included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
The song is about the launch of Major Tom, a fictional astronaut, and was released during a period of great interest in space flight. The United States' Apollo 11 mission would launch five days later and would become the first manned moon landing another five days after that. The lyrics have also been seen to lampoon the British space programme, which was and still is an unmanned project. Bowie would later revisit his Major Tom character in the songs "Ashes to Ashes", "Hallo Spaceboy" and possibly the music video for "Blackstar".
"Space Oddity" was David Bowie's first single to chart in the UK. It reached the top five on its initial release and received the 1970 Ivor Novello Special Award for Originality. His second album, originally released as David Bowie in the UK, was renamed after the track for its 1972 re-release by RCA Records and became known by this name. In 1975, upon re-release as part of a maxi-single, the song became Bowie's first UK No. 1 single.
In 2013, the song gained renewed popularity after it was covered by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who performed the song while aboard the International Space Station, and therefore became the first music video shot in space. In January 2016, the song re-entered singles charts around the world following Bowie's death, which included becoming Bowie's first single to top the French Singles Chart. The song also ranked as third on iTunes on January 12, 2016.
Recording and release
Three primary studio versions of "Space Oddity" exist: an early version recorded in February 1969, the album version recorded that June (edited for release as a single), and a 1979 re-recording.
The early version of "Space Oddity" was recorded on 2 February 1969 for Bowie's promotional film Love You Till Tuesday. This recording became commercially available in 1984, on a belated VHS release of the film and accompanying soundtrack album. It also appeared on the compilation album The Deram Anthology 1966–1968.
In June 1969, after Bowie's split from record label Deram, his manager, Kenneth Pitt, negotiated a one-album deal (with options for a further one or two albums) with Mercury Records and its UK subsidiary, Philips. Mercury executives had heard an audition tape that included a demo of "Space Oddity", recorded by Bowie and his then musical partner John Hutchinson in spring 1969. Next Bowie tried to find a producer. George Martin turned the project down, while Tony Visconti liked the album demo-tracks, but considered the planned lead-off single, "Space Oddity", a 'cheap shot' at the impending Apollo 11 space mission. Visconti decided to delegate its production to Gus Dudgeon.
The album version of "Space Oddity" was recorded at Trident Studios on 20 June 1969 (with overdubs a few days later) and used the in-house session player Rick Wakeman (Mellotron), who was later to achieve fame with the progressive rock band Yes, as well as Mick Wayne (guitar), Herbie Flowers (bass), and Terry Cox (drums). Differing edits of the album version were released as singles in the UK and US.
The song was promoted in advertisements for the Stylophone, played by Bowie on the record and heard in the background during the opening verse. The single was not played by the BBC until after the Apollo 11 crew had safely returned; after this slow start, the song reached No. 5 in the UK Singles Chart. In the US, it stalled at 124.
Besides its title, which alludes to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the introduction to the song is a barely audible instrumental build-up that is analogous to the deep bass tone in Also sprach Zarathustra that is prominently used in the film.
On 2 October 1969, he performed the song for an episode of Top of the Pops. However, this was recorded separate from the main audience. The performance was shown on 9 October the following week, and repeated on 16 October. At present, the performance is 'missing' due to the BBC's late junking policy.
Upon its re-release as a single in 1973, "Space Oddity" reached No. 15 on the Billboard Chart and became Bowie's first hit single in the United States; in Canada, it reached No. 16. This was then used to support RCA's 1975 UK reissue, which gave Bowie his first No. 1 single in the UK Singles Chart in November that year. It spent two weeks at the top of that chart.
Bowie recorded a stripped-down, acoustic version of the song in late 1979, which was issued in February 1980 as the B-side of "Alabama Song". The 1979 recording was released, in a remixed form, in 1992 on the Rykodisc reissue of Bowie's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) album, and it was rereleased on Re:Call 3, part of the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) compilation, in 2017.
The B-side of the original single, "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud", first appeared on CD on 1989's Sound + Vision. This compilation also included, as its opening track, the spring 1969 demo of "Space Oddity" featuring Bowie and Hutchinson. (An earlier Bowie/Hutchinson demo appears on the 2009 two-CD special edition of the album David Bowie.)
On 20 July 2009, the single was reissued on a digital EP that featured four previously released versions of the song and stems that allow listeners to remix the song. This release coincided with the 40th anniversary of the song and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
|Rock and Roll Hall of Fame||United States||"The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll"||2004||*|
|NME||United Kingdom||"Greatest No1 Singles In History"||2012||26|
|Channel 4 and The Guardian||United Kingdom||"The Top 100 British Number 1 Singles"||1997||27|
(*) designates unordered lists.
- Bowie played the song for the BBC's Johnny Walker Lunchtime Show on 22 May 1972. This was broadcast in early June 1972 and eventually released on Bowie at the Beeb in 2000.
- A version recorded at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on 20 October 1972 was first released on Santa Monica '72, before becoming officially available in 2008 on Live Santa Monica '72.
- A live performance recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, London, on 3 July 1973 was released on Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture in 1983.
- A July 1974 live performance was released on the 2005 reissue of David Live. A September 1974 live performance (previously available on the unofficial album A Portrait in Flesh) was released in 2017 on Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles '74).
- A live performance filmed on 12 September 1983 is included in the concert film Serious Moonlight.
The February 1969 version of the song appeared in the film Love You till Tuesday.
In December 1972, Mick Rock shot a video of Bowie miming to the June 1969 recording of the song, during the sessions for Aladdin Sane. The resulting music video was used to promote the 1973 US reissue of the "Space Oddity" single on RCA.
A promotional video of the 1979 version debuted in the UK on Kenny Everett's New Year's Eve Show on 31 December 1979. A music video made the following year for "Ashes to Ashes" used many of the same sets, solidifying the connection between the two songs. (Both videos were directed by Bowie and David Mallet.)
All songs written by David Bowie.
Credits apply to the 1969 original release:
- David Bowie – vocals, acoustic guitar, Stylophone
- Mick Wayne – lead guitar
- Herbie Flowers – bass guitar
- Terry Cox – drums
- Paul Buckmaster – string arrangement
- Tony Visconti – flutes, woodwinds
- Rick Wakeman – Mellotron
- Gus Dudgeon – record production
Charts and certifications
Cover versions and samples
- In May 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, commander of Expedition 35 to the International Space Station, recorded a video of the song on the space station which went viral and generated a great deal of media exposure. The lyrics were somewhat altered; instead of losing communication with ground control and presumably being lost in space as a result, Major Tom successfully receives his orders to land and does so safely, reflecting Hadfield's imminent return from his final mission on the Station. Hadfield announced the video on his Twitter account, writing, "With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here's Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World." Bowie was also thanked in the ending credits. This was the first music video ever shot in space. Bowie responded to the video, tweeting back to Hadfield, "Hallo Spaceboy..." and would later call the cover "possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created". The video has had over 35,000,000 views on YouTube. The performance was the subject of a piece by Glenn Fleishman in The Economist on 22 May 2013 analyzing the legal implications of publicly performing a copyrighted work of music while in earth orbit. The song is the only one of Bowie's for which Bowie did not own the copyright. Bowie's publisher granted Hadfield a license to the song for only one year. Due to the expiry of the one year licence, the official video was taken offline on 13 May 2014, despite Bowie's explicit wishes that the publisher grant Hadfield a license at no charge to record the song and produce the video. Following a period of negotiations, the video was restored to YouTube on 2 November 2014 with a two-year licence agreement in place.
- In 2011, William Shatner published an album entitled "Seeking Major Tom", covering "Space Oddity" plus a few other songs with the Major Tom character.
- Elton John included some fragments of the song in an extended piano improvisation played, appropriately, as an intro to his own song "Rocket Man", during a show at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on 13 January 2016, three days after Bowie's death. Before launching into the improvisation, John dedicated it to Bowie.
- A version of the song was recorded with vocals from actress Kristen Wiig for the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There is a scene where Mitty, played by Ben Stiller, imagines Wiig's character is singing the song to him, inspiring him to take action. The song, with Bowie's and Wiig's vocals, is also included on the official soundtrack.
- Phish debut an a cappella cover of the song at Wrigley Field during their 2016 summer tour.
- Lana Del Rey's "Terrence Loves You" includes an interpolation of the lyrics of Space Oddity, sampling the phrase "ground control to Major Tom" in the third verse and referencing it throughout the song.
- The song was covered by alternative metal band Cold on their 1998 EP Oddity.
- After Bowie passed away Duran Duran paid tribute to him performing a snippet of the song during every live performance of Planet Earth as part of their ongoing Paper Gods on Tour.
- Def Leppard covered the song on the Wal-Mart bonus disc to their covers album, Yeah!
- Powerman 5000 covered the song on their album Copies, Cones, and Replicants, and also referenced Bowie in their song "David Fucking Bowie," on their album New Wave (Powerman 5000 Album).
- In an episode of the Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats, Tommy pretends he is on the moon with his friends. As he is about to blast off in an imaginative spaceship, he is heard saying, "This is Major Tom to Ground Control.".
- The song is featured in two episodes of the American TV series Friends. In the season 5 episode "The One Where Ross Can't Flirt" in which the character Chandler sings part of the song. In the season 6 episode "The One After Vegas" the character Joey sings part of the song.
- In American TV series Supernatural, there is a season 6 episode in which the character Dean fights off a fairy with the song playing in the background.
- The film The Mother (2003) also has the song in its soundtrack, as do the Spanish sci-fi film Eva (2011) and French drama film Bird People (2014).
- The song is used in Ben Stiller's 2013 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, featuring an older David Bowie. In an interview, director Ben Stiller talked about the importance of Space Oddity to the film's plotline, "I felt like the way it fits into the story, we got to this point and this scene which was sort of how the fantasy and reality come together for Walter, and that was what that came out of. That song, and what he mentioned in his head, and what he imagines and what he does, it all just seemed to come together over that song."
- The song is used in Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds. The characters Longfellow Deeds and Cecil Anderson sing the song A Capella in a helicopter along with the pilots.
- In the opening scene of the first-season episode of The Venture Bros. ("Ghosts of the Sargasso"), members of the original Team Venture, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle in 1969, watch the sky as test pilot Major Tom flies an experimental aircraft designed by Jonas Venture. The final radio dialog between Jonas and Major Tom, before communication is lost and the craft crashes in the water, contains lyrics from Space Oddity.
- German singer Peter Schilling's 1983 single "Major Tom (Coming Home)" was written as a retelling of the song.
- The folk parody band Flight of the Conchords have a song titled "Bowie," mimicking the style and lyrics of many Bowie songs including "Space Oddity." The song appeared in both the sixth episode of the first series of the HBO TV series as well as the band's 2008 debut album.
- The song was used as ending credit song for 2010 video game Alan Wake.
- The song was sang by Commander Mike Miller (Jason Sudeikis) in the 14th episode of the second season of television series The Last Man On Earth in 2016.
- In the episode "Interesting" of the BBC comedy TV series The Young Ones, Neil is shown floating into space after smoking dope. He flies past the Space Shuttle, and one of the astronauts remarks "This is just like that David Bowie song", before quoting a line from the song.
- The song is used in the prologue of Luc Besson's 2017 Film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
- The song was used as an intro for the U2's U2 360° Tour. Also the Zooropa astronaut was used to sing a verse of the song in his video message before the second encore.
- The song is featured as a prominent plot point in both the 2011 book Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick and its 2017 film adaption.