“Space Oddity” holds a special place in David Bowie’s career. True to its space-exploration theme, the song launched him to fame and gave his career a much-needed boost. It would go on to become one of the signature songs in the long career of the artist, who died on January 10, 2016, of liver cancer.
Released on July 11, 1969, “Space Oddity” became Bowie’s first Top 5 hit in the U.K. It also earned him a prestigious Ivor Novello Award in England, and in the video below you can watch him perform the song at the award ceremonies in autumn 1969. According to the Independent, the event would mark his television debut.
Bowie took inspiration for “Space Oddity” from the missions that by the late Sixties had become commonplace as the U.S. and Russia raced to be the first to reach the moon. He wrote the song about a fictional astronaut, Major Tom, whose mission goes awry during a spacewalk. The earliest known version is a February 2, 1969 recording made for Love You Till Tuesday, a 1969 promo film created to showcase Bowie’s talents. He recorded another demo in spring 1969 with John Hutchinson, a guitarist with whom he had worked in prior years.
That second demo was among the tracks presented to Mercury Records that year in a bid to earn Bowie a recording contract. In the end, Bowie secured a one-album deal with Mercury, and “Space Oddity” was chosen as the lead-off single.
Bowie’s search for a producer led him first to George Martin, by then one of the world’s most famous producers thanks to his work with the Beatles. When Martin passed, he approached Tony Visconti, an American producer who had begun to make a name for himself in London with productions for Badfinger (known at the time as the Iveys) and T.Rex (known then as Tyrannosaurus Rex). Though Bowie and Visconti would eventually work together for much of Bowie’s career, Visconti was reportedly not thrilled with “Space Oddity,” which he allegedly called “a ‘cheap shot’ at the impending Apollo 11 space mission.” Though Visconti left the song’s production to Gus Dudgeon, he assumed production of the remaining tracks that would make up the album, which was first released in 1969 as David Bowie. (It was issued in the U.S. as Man of Words/Man of Music, and in 1972 reissued in the U.S. as Space Oddity after Bowie’s star was on the rise.)
“Space Oddity”’s production is notable for its blend of Bowie’s acoustic 12-string—a signature part of his sound at this point in his career—and electronics, including a Mellotron (played by Rick Wakeman, who would eventually join British prog-rockers Yes) and a Stylophone, a miniature ribbon-style keyboard played with a stylus. Bowie was a fan of the Stylophone and played it on “Space Oddity,” as well as on some of his late-career albums, including 2002’s Heathen.
Though “Space Oddity” was released five days before the launch of Apollo 11, given the fatal outcome of the song’s protagonist the BBC would not play it until the crew had safely returned to Earth. The song reached the Top 5 in the U.K., but it stalled at 124 in the U.S. Upon its reissue in 1972, it became Bowie’s first single to reach the top of the charts in the U.K. and subsequently reached Number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In the video below, Bowie performs “Space Oddity” at the ceremony where he was awarded a 1969 Ivor Novello Award for the song. As one of the YouTube commenters suggests, watch Bowie’s humorous reaction after the guitar solo at 2:10.
Below that is the original video for “Space Oddity,” featuring the February 2, 1969 demo, that appeared in the 1969 promo film Love You Till Tuesday.