Space Oddity: beyond the meanings of David Bowie’s song

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This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you

On July 20th, 1969, the Apollo 11 space mission brought man to the surface of the moon for the first time, realising a dream that had endured for centuries and ending the space race between USSR and USA, with the United States declaring themselves the winners. The event received unprecedented media coverage and was followed by televisions around the world, with TV stations scheduling the event so as not to miss a moment of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’s mission.

Among those to provide coverage was the BBC, and during the long live broadcast, it chose a song to play that had been released few days earlier (July 11th), which seemed to fit perfectly the occasion: Space Oddity. David Bowie wrote the song after becoming fascinated by the vision of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which inspired him to tell the story of Major Tom (the first in a long line of The Chameleon Artist’s alter egos), an astronaut who lost touch with Earth and drifted off into the infinity of space.

Bowie was always surprised by the BBC’s decision: the song described a failed space mission, and Bowie joked that the station manager had probably just read the title and nothing else. In fact, when they noticed, the BBC actually blocked further broadcasts of Space Oddity until the US mission had been successfully completed.

At the same time, you might think there was a rational decision behind the release of the song in parallel with the landing on the moon, perhaps forecasting the media overexposure of one of the most important and significant moments in human history. In fact, Tony Visconti, who produced the album on which Space Oddity appears, was uncertain about the song’s recording and left it to Gus Dudgeon, saying that he didn’t like and thought it was too commercial. It was only when Space Oddity became the album’s only hit that the great producer’s mind was changed

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

In 1980, Bowie released Ashes to Ashes, where he revealed that Major Tom had managed to get back in touch with Earth and was happy, but Ground Control warned vilified him, dismissing him as a junkie. It was considered by many to be a reference to a younger Bowie and his addiction to drugs following the success he achieved with Space Oddity.

The influence of space and sci-fi on Bowie is also clear in other songs, such as Hallo SpaceboyStarmanZiggy StardustLife on MarsLazarusDancing Out in Space and Born in a UFO, as well as in his parallel career as an actor in films like Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell To Earth. And his son Duncan Jones, who evidently inherited his father’s passion for science fiction, found his first success as a director with Moon, the story of an astronaut ready to leave the moon after three years. Space Oddity was also chosen in 2013 to the first music video made in space, when astronaut Chris Hadfield wielded a guitar and sang the words, “Ground Control To Major Tom”.

Space Oddity brought a 22-year-old David Bowie to the public attention for the first time and he captured the imagination of a country thanks to the fragility of his alter ego: Major Tom, lost in his solitude and unable to overcome his alienation, surrendering but not desperate, and acutely aware that there are things bigger than the human race, because…

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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