Man took his first step onto the surface of the moon 40 years ago, and David Bowie made his first giant leap towards stardom.
“Space Oddity” became one of the biggest and most distinctive hits of the summer of 1969, and although it would be another three years before Bowie ever scaled such heights again, still it remains one of the best loved songs of his entire career.
The album that accompanied it, too, remains a career high for the artist, no matter how many other peaks he has scaled since then.
Early failure and the need for a hit
Originally released in the U.K. as David Bowie and in America as Man Of Words, Man Of Music, but better-known now under its reissued title of Space Oddity, Bowie’s second LP is set for the full 40th-anniversary reissue works in November, a double pack that will match the original 1969 LP with a second disc stuffed with rarities, alternate versions and eight unreleased cuts.
There was a time, however, when nobody gave a fig for the record, and Bowie himself was seriously considering kicking his whole career in the head, and that despite — again — having scored the first, and one of the biggest ever, hit of his entire career.
The young David Bowie “was not the tough, smart cookie he is today,” journalist Julie Burchill wrote in The Face in 1983. “His … ambitions at the time were ‘to act in a musical and dance in a film.’” He was a self-obsessed, unsuccessful youngster, and the succession of failed record deals that lay behind him did not hold out any promise that that dour scenario might change any time soon.”
By late 1968, Bowie had entered, and then departed, almost every major record label in the United Kingdom. He started his career in 1964 with Vocalion, a subsidiary of the giant Decca. He moved to EMI’s Parlophone, becoming a label mate of The Beatles, where producer Shel Talmy tried hard to form him into something concrete, and then Pye, where he came under the guidance of Tony Hatch. Then it was back to Decca, via their newly launched Deram subsidiary, and the last chapter in a half decade-long discography that amounted to nine singles, one LP and not even the hint of a hit record.
Decca dropped him in 1968, and even his friends wondered whether anybody would ever pick him up again.
Manager Kenneth Pitt was not among them. To him, Bowie remained as vibrant and brilliant an artist as he was the first time they met; an artist whose potential simply couldn’t be gauged by the traditional standards of the music industry. It was his imagination that marked Bowie out for greatness, his ability to turn his hand to so many different disciplines and become a master of most of them.
Acting in musicals and dancing in films was only the tip of the iceberg, and when it became obvious that nobody was going to give Bowie the opportunity to do either, then it was clear what had to be done. They would create that opportunity themselves, creating and filming a television spectacular which, when complete, could be sold to one or the other of the television networks — either the national BBC, or one of the smaller regional concerns under the Independent Television umbrella.
Songs and mime, solo performances and band-fired fantasies — all would take their place in the spectacular they envisaged, and with one of Pitt’s former assistants, Malcolm Thomson, having assured them of the project’s (at least theoretical) viability, January 1969 saw the team set to work.
Bowie was working with a trio at that time. Feathers (the mime company Bowie formed in 1969, the Feathers didn’t last and later the same year, he formed the experimental art group, Beckenham Arts Lab) co-starred his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale and a close friend, John Hutchinson, and they would be his co-stars in the film as well — titled “Love You Till Tuesday,” in honor of one of the better-known cuts on his one and only LP.
Other songs from that now two-year-old record would also make their appearances in the film, together with a handful of new compositions: “When I’m Five,” for which Bowie dreamed up a stage set stuffed with outsized birthday cake and candles, and Bowie as a little boy listing all the things he intended doing when that particular milestone finally arrived; “Ching A Ling,” a piece of lyrical nonsense attached to a positively irresistible melody; and finally an inventive new piece that made its impact from its very first line: “Ground control to Major Tom.”
“As soon as he started playing through the number on the set, singing the lyrics, I knew we’d got a hit,” Pitt later said. “The technicians, the scene shifters and camera people … are a hard-bitten lot. They have seen it all before … they are used to hearing famous artists at work. But that day was different. As soon as David started playing that number, they all stopped reading, stopped talking and moving around, and stood to listen. And within minutes you could hear the tune being hummed in different corners of the studio as they busied about the set. It was that which convinced me.”
Now readily available on both the CD and DVD “Love You Till Tuesday,” the film version of the song “Space Oddity” was recorded at Morgan Studios, London, on Feb. 1, 1969, with a band comprising John Hutchinson (vocals, guitar), Dave Clegg (bass), Colin Wood (keyboards) and Tat Meager (drums), and producer Jonathan Weston.
An earlier demo version, taped the previous month, will see its maiden official release on the 40th-anniversary edition of Bowie’s Space Oddity LP; a later acoustic take, recorded with Hutch alone, was taped at his Clairville Grove apartment in April, as part of a longer, 10-song set that Bowie recorded for demo purposes, and which has since circulated, again, on a wealth of bootlegs.
With Bowie laughingly introducing every song for the microphone, and even apologizing for the sound of the old lady who lives upstairs moving around, it’s a rare glimpse into the young Bowie’s charm and sense of humor, and is rightly treasured by fans and collectors alike. (This version of “Space Oddity” can be found on the Sound And Vision box set.)
Bowie and Hermione had already split up by the time this tape was made. They parted in February, shortly before Bowie and the long-suffering Hutch set out on tour with Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was an awkward intermission.
More and more, Pitt noticed, Bowie seemed to be concentrating more on showmanship than his music, and allowing that to take a peculiar shift as well. “This is Hutch,” Bowie would simper as he introduced his band mate. “He’s my friend. I found him in the classified ads in Time Out, under ‘macrobiotics.’”
There was more. Bowie’s latest image, Pitt shuddered, was basically that of “a mincing queen.” This was then followed by a look so scruffy that when Pitt sent him along to a model agency, the only response was an angry phone call demanding to know why he had delivered “someone looking like that.”
A black-suited Bob Dylan clone also popped out of Bowie’s imagination at some point, but not one of these looks ever stuck around long enough to make an impression outside of Bowie’s immediate circle. The singer was grasping at stylistic straws, and the need for a hit — as they remained convinced “Space Oddity” would become — grew even greater.
‘Space Oddity’ and the moon landing
In May, Pitt’s attempts to land a deal had paid off, as the Phillips label agreed to take a chance on the boy, and on June 20, Bowie headed into Trident Studios with guitarist Mick Wayne, bassist Herbie Flowers, Strawbs keyboard player Rick Wakeman and Pentangle drummer Terry Cox.
Two songs were recorded, a five-plus minute version of “Space Oddity” and the almost equally epic “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” the projected single’s intended B-side. Paul Buckmaster was recruited to handle the string arrangements; producer Gus Dudgeon was brought in to replace the errant Tony Visconti — true to his word, the New Yorker, who had a falling out with Bowie about “Space Oddity,” was having nothing to do with the new record.
Early July saw Bowie gearing up for the record’s release by appearing, backstage at least, at The Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park. Nico, the German beauty who had briefly co-helmed Bowie’s beloved Velvet Underground, met him there and recalled the encounter 20 years later.
“He looked,” she told writer Richard Witts, “like a pretty fairy, but he was a bit too effeminate and skinny to be truly androgyny [sic].” Bowie interested her, though, not only with his beauty, but also his tenacity. “He was trying to sell his new record … ‘Ground control to Major Tom,’” she said, and while she had little interest in it, it seemed plenty of other people would.
“Space Oddity” was released July 11, 1969, nine days before the Apollo Nine moon landing, and with admirable forethought and imagination, advance copies were dispatched not only to the music press and radio stations, but also to the producers in charge of the various TV shows that would be covering the big event.
And, sure enough, as Neil Armstrong made that historic first contact with the lunar surface, the BBC accompanied the footage with “Space Oddity” — laughably unaware of the song’s sober subject matter. Major Tom was not celebrating humankind’s achievements. He was escaping them, cutting himself off from the Earth, to drift until death in his tin can.
A less celebratory soundtrack to that one small step could scarcely be imagined, but the song’s lyrics meant nothing to the PR department, nor to anybody else who would purchase the record on the strength of its awesome topicality. At last, friends who had long since tired of Bowie’s monotonously dashed dreams of stardom and success were admitting that this time he might actually have got it right.
Or not. Even with every ear in the country having caught the song, “Space Oddity” proved ridiculously slow to start selling. It would be Sept. 2, more than six weeks after the moon landing, before it crept into the U.K. chart at #48, and that was just for seven days. The following week it crept out again. One week on, however, it returned at #39 and, thereafter, its progress was fast.
On Nov. 5, “Space Oddity” reached its chart peak of #5 in the U.K., while interest in the song elsewhere was also bubbling over. Appearances on Dutch, German, Irish and Swiss television all boosted “Space Oddity” in those territories. And with the single selling through the roof, it was time to release the accompanying album. Unfortunately, it was not to prove a particularly well-starred event.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
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