This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #42: Space Oddity by David Bowie.
Once upon a time, there was a young man from England named David Jones. David liked music and enjoyed performing for others so, he and his girlfriend and another friend formed a small coffee-house style trio named “Feathers”. Feathers played mostly acoustic sets and came off as a combination of folksy and artsy. Feathers didn’t sell many records of any sort. So, David Jones thought that if he was to make it in the music business that he should get a formal manager who could handle the business end of things. So, a man named Mr. Pitt was hired. One of the first things that Mr. Pitt suggested that Mr. Jones do in order to get his name and face “out there”, as it were, was to make a short promotional film and, while doing so, score the music for this film. Jones agreed.
This was all happening around the time that the US had decided to make it a mission to land a man on the moon. As is so often the case during times such as those, a lot of business-minded companies saw the enthusiasm for the moon landing as being a money-making opportunity for them so, there were lots of Space-related ventures going on in Hollywood, Wall Street and beyond. One of the biggest was a movie called, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. That movie was transcendental for its era and posed a great many philosophical questions for its audience. Among those who purchased a ticket was young David Jones. At the time that Jones was watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” in London theatres, he was, also, regularly getting high on drugs. In fact, Jones watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” almost half a dozen times, all while drug impaired. In retrospect, David Jones said that watching that movie while high on drugs blew his mind wide open and helped him gain insight into the alien atmosphere present in space and how lonely it must be and how silent. As a result of the drug-fuelled imagery that was washing over him, David Jones went to work writing songs for his promotional film; one of those songs was the rough skeleton of a song called, “Space Oddity”.
As you know by now, one of the other changes that David Jones went through was to change his name. David Jones became David Bowie and the music for his promotional film was shopped around to record companies. Initially, most viewed “Space Oddity” as a novelty song and passed on recording and releasing it. However, with the Apollo 11 Moon Landing about to happen, it was felt by the BBC that “Space Oddity” would be a good track to accompany their coverage of the mission, even though the song is about an astronaut who becomes lost in space. The exposure gained from the BBC using his song helped Bowie secure a recording contract. “Space Oddity” was a moderate hit but, the album as a whole sold poorly. It seems funny to think that there was a time when David Bowie was not highly regarded and was, instead, very close to being a one-hit wonder with, “Space Oddity” being that one, minor hit.
But, Bowie kept at it and two albums later, released “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars”, quickly followed by “Hunky Dory”, and he was away to the races. The performance of “Starman” on “Top of the Pops” was what really brought Bowie into the public eye. *(You can read about that here). With Bowie becoming well known, people worked back through his existing catalogue of music and realized that “Space Oddity” was his song. With renewed interest in it, “Space Oddity” re-entered the charts in the UK and the US and became a Top Ten hit in both places. No longer viewed as simply a novelty song, “Space Oddity” began to be accorded the respect it deserved from being such a forward-thinking, technically-advanced song.
As for the song, itself, Bowie claims that he was trying to inject a sense of humanity into the character of Major Tom, as opposed to the public perception, at the time, of astronauts being automatronic in nature. He says he added lyrics such as “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear.” because, in the UK, that sort of question meant which football team you supported and, because of how popular football (soccer) is there, the addition of that simple element made the character seem more relatable and human. However, there is a larger school of thought that dismisses Bowie’s own story and, instead, claims that he is, in fact, Major Tom and that his decision to leave the world behind parallels nicely with Bowie’s own, personal decision at the time to straighten out his life and get off of drugs. If you view the song from an addiction perspective, the plot lines seems to line up well. Bowie has never given this version of the song’s story his seal of approval but, it does make for a convincing theory. If you recall at the time, in the late 1960s, there was a big push across the UK music scene to explore Eastern mysticism. So, the idea of leaving your worldly troubles behind and seeking to become one with the universe, as it were, was quite popular then. In the song, Major Tom stops listening to Ground Control and allows himself to float away into outer space. Whatever your take on the song is, the truth is that ‘Space Oddity” was a very unique song; in sound and in lyrical content and, as such, it is a song that has stood the test of time and one that remains as popular today as it did when it was released all those many years ago by a young struggling singer named David Jones.
“Space Oddity” has spawned many covers but two, in particular, stand out for me. The first was a mid-80s synthesizer-driven tune by German-born, Pete Schilling called, “Major Tom (Coming Home)”. In this song, the story line is faithful to the original song except for a flip at the end. The song was a big hit when I was attending university in Toronto. I can even remember spending a couple of my nickels and dimes and buying this as a 45 single from the famous store, Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. This cover has an excellent “80s sound” to it. I still enjoy listening to it, even today.
And speaking of Toronto and of Canada, the second noteworthy cover of “Space Oddity” comes from Canada’s own astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield. Commander Hadfield was in charge of the International Space Station for awhile and while on board, he made a series of YouTube videos about what life was life in space. I shared many of these videos with my young students in class while I was still teaching. They are fabulous and talk about simple questions that kids may have had about how do astronauts brush their teeth? How do they sleep without floating around? How do they go to the bathroom without their waste floating around? In addition to these sort of educational videos, Commander Hadfield liked to play the guitar and sing. One of the songs he sang was a fundraiser centred around his cover of “Space Oddity”. He did a fantastic job of filming himself in various locations aboard the International Space Station as he sang. David Bowie said it was the truest rendition of his vision for the song that he had heard and seen. The funny thing about Hadfield’s decision to record the song was that, once he had finished, it could not be determined where in the world he had recorded it due to the fact that he was flying across all sorts of international boundaries as he sang. So, when he eventually returned to Earth, Hadfield and a team of lawyers, had to attempt determine which country’s copyright laws would apply and so on, before being able to re-release his version of “Space Oddity”.
In any case, I will give you video links for all three versions of this great and haunting song. So, without further delay, here are David Jones/Bowie, Pete Shelley and Commander Chris Hadfield, all with the best song set in Outer Space of all-time, “Space Oddity”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, can be found here. ***It is easy to tell that this video was a bare-bones budget affair and that Bowie was really and truly just another struggling singer starting out in his career. In this light, “Space Oddity” is an amazing accomplishment.
The link to the official website for David Bowie, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” by Pete Schilling, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Pete Shelley, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Space Oddity”, as covered by Commander Chris Hadfield, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Commander Chris Hadfield, can be found here.
The link to one of Commander Hadfield’s educational videos, can be found here. If you enjoy this one, there are dozens more that will, no doubt, be readily available for viewing on your screen.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting all manner of artists and bands from all over the planet. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.