Saturday, May 17, 2014

Song Spot: Space Oddity

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Space Oddity was released as a single in July 1969, coinciding with the proposed first moon landing which took place on 20 July 1969. The song concerns the launch into space of Major Tom, a fictional astronaut, with the name of the song being a reference to the 1968 sci fi flick 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This was originally released in 1969 on Bowie's self-titled album, which was available only in the UK and timed to coincide with the moon landing. Released as a single, the song made #5 in the UK, becoming his first chart hit. In 1972, the album was re-titled Space Oddity and released in the US for the first time.

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See Bowie performing Space Oddity by clicking on:

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Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills 
and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, 
engines on
Check ignition 
and may God's love be with you

Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Liftoff

This is Ground Control 
to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it's time to leave the capsule 
if you dare

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

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do

Though I'm past 
one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much 
she knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit's dead,
there's something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you....

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

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There are a number of possible interpretations of the lyrics, including that the whole song is symbolic of a drug trip.

The lyrics record a successful launch of the spaceship containing Major Tom and his subsequent communications with Ground Control. Major Tom leaves his capsule as part of his mission but communications cease. Ground Control is unable to further speak with Major Tom, who expresses the wish that his wife be told that he loves her as he drifts off into space, helpless.

Was there a mechanical failure that caused the loss of contact or did Major Tom switch off communications, as many believe? 

A common interpretation is that Major Tom is a hippie astronaut who casually slips the bonds of a crass and material world to journey beyond the stars.

Bowie revisited Major Tom in his 1980 song Ashes to Ashes:

Do you remember a guy that's been
In such an early song
I've heard a rumour from Ground Control
Oh no, don't say it's true

They got a message
from the Action Man
"I'm happy, hope you're happy too
I've loved
all I've needed to love
Sordid details following"

The shrieking of nothing is killing 
Just pictures of Jap girls 
in synthesis and I
Ain't got no money and I ain't got no hair
But I'm hoping to kick but the planet it's glowing

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie
Strung out in heaven's high
Hitting an all-time low

Time and again I tell myself
I'll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh no, not again
I'm stuck with a valuable friend
"I'm happy, hope you're happy too"
One flash of light 
but no smoking pistol

I never done good things
I never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue, 
Want an axe to break the ice
Wanna come down right now


My mother said
to get things done
You'd better not mess 
with Major Tom

In Ashes to Ashes Major Tom has regained communications with Ground Control and tells them that he is happy. GC considers him to be nothing but a "junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low." Major Tom says that he will “stay clean tonight.” It is considered by many that the lyrics are autobiographical, that they refer to Bowie’s fight against drug abuse and battling other demons.

Major Tom also reappeared in Bowie’s 1995 song Hallo Spaceboy:

Hallo) Spaceboy, 
you're sleepy now 
Your silhouette is so stationary
You're released but your custody calls
And I want to be free
Don't you want to be free
Do you like girls or boys
It's confusing these days
But Moondust will cover you
Cover you

This chaos is killing me

So bye bye love
Yeah bye bye love
Bye bye love
Yeah bye bye love
This chaos is killing me

And the chaos is calling me
Yeah bye bye love


This chaos is killing me [x2]

Yeah bye bye love
Bye bye love
Good time love
Be sweet sweet dove
Bye bye spaceboy
Bye bye love

Moondust will cover you [repeat ad. inf]

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In a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine, Bowie explained: 

"In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn't. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself. I'm sure they really weren't listening to the lyric at all (laughs). It wasn't a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that'll be great.' 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

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From Wikipedia:

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; the ending was replaced with Major Tom getting his orders to land and doing so safely. 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". The video has had over 21,000,000 views on YouTube. The performance was the subject of a piece by Flenn Fleischman in The Economist on 22 May 2013 analyzing the legal implications of publicly performing a copyrighted work of music while in earth orbit.

See the video by clicking on:

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'By the way' item #1:

Tne synthesised sound heard on Space Oddity is an instrument known as a stylophone, invented in 1967. It enjoyed a period of relative popularity and then was overtaken by more advanced electronics.  The stylophone played on Space Oddity is played by David Bowie, whose use on Space Oddity gave it a popularity boost, even though it only plays one note and a glissando.  Bowie featured in a sales promo for the instrument:

The main promo muso for Stylopohone, however, was a man who used it in live performances and on a number of recording hits, Rolf Harris:

'By the way' item #2:

David Bowie's real name is David Jones.  He changed it so as not to be confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees, naming himself after Jim Bowie and his famlous knife.  There is a lot of psychological stuff in naming yourself after a big knife.

Bowie's son Zowie, that's right, Zowie Bowie, reversed the process.  Named Duncan Heywood Zowie Bowie but raised as Zowie, he hated the name from childhood.  

Zowie with mum and dad

As Duncan Jones, he picked up a BAFTA in 2010 for his directorial debut on the film Moon, a sci fi flick about a miner heading bcak to Earth after 3 years as a solitary astronaut mining on the moon.

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