To put it simply, “Space Oddity” rocketed David Bowie’s career into stardom.
Right off the bat, the song was a sharp change in sound for the iconic singer/songwriter. Unlike the string of singles and records he put out at the beginning of his career, Bowie embraced psychedelic folk for this track. Another first for Bowie was introducing his famous Major Tom persona in the 1969 song.
Once released, “Space Oddity” went on to chart at the number one position in the U.K. and then number 15 in the U.S.
But where did “Space Oddity” come from?
In a 2003 interview, Bowie explained what first inspired the track.
“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,” Bowie said. “It was written because of going to see the film ‘2001 [A Space Odyssey]’, 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. 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.”
Like Bowie mentions, “Space Oddity” is not necessarily a pleasant song when you listen to the lyrics. In the back and forth between Major Tom and Ground Control, we discover that Major Tom is effectively stranded in space.
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?
Major Tom doesn’t seem to mind, though. In fact, he seems to be rather numb to it all.
Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
Many have theorized that Bowie identified with Major Tom, hypothesizing that Bowie felt alienated and stranded from others by his career. This theory carries weight, especially considering that Major Tom reappears in later songs “Ashes to Ashes,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “Blackstar” as more direct parallels to Bowie’s life.
Yet “Space Oddity” persists as one of Bowie’s most celebrated songs. Perhaps we all feel a little like Major Tom every now and then—far away from what and who we love.
Check out an actual astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield, onboard the International Space Station singing “Space Oddity” in honor of David Bowie, below.