Countdown to Major Tom: Notes on a rocket launch

❉ Unravelling the genesis of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, released on this day in 1969.

“The stew of Space Oddity has a fair few ingredients. Never one to let the whole truth get in the way of a good story, Bowie has claimed over the years that the song was inspired by a stoned trip to the pictures to see Kubrick’s 2001, but is that the full story? Let’s pick through the stew, and try and find the recipe….”

Space Oddity wasn’t just David Bowie’s breakthrough single. It was also the first truly tough act to follow. As the sessions for his first album for Philips/Mercury would demonstrate, he was still looking for a single voice. For the first time, Bowie truly grasped the zeitgeist, having spent much of the ’60s trying to catch up with it.

A self-contained drama, a novelty hit, a setpiece, a touchstone and a millstone, its author had a mixed relationship with it, admitting boredom with the song as early as December 1969, but dutifully including it in live sets for the rest of his life, even at the height of Ziggymania, when he arguably had no more use for it. Space Oddity would spawn re-releases, a stark 1980 remake, and a belated sequel in the form of Ashes to Ashes.

It’s been covered, quoted, and spoofed. Space Oddity looms so large in Bowie’s career that the shadow of Major Tom never really left him, from his ongoing fascination with space and spacemen to any number of cheesy unauthorised t-shirts. Even as late as 2015, millions pondered the identity of the space-suited corpse glimpsed in Johan Renck’s powerful, evocative video for Blackstar. In January 2016 “Planet Earth is Blue” trended on Twitter.

As original as Space Oddity is, it’s still a melting pot of late ‘60s pop culture influences; it’s just that the song is opaque enough and the pot is mixed subtly enough to still retain some mystery and mystique, something Bowie, even at his least-interested in the song did nothing to debunk. The stew of Space Oddity has a fair few ingredients. It’s the melting pot that’s interesting. Never one to let the whole truth get in the way of a good story, Bowie has largely claimed over the years that the song was inspired by a stoned trip to the pictures to see Kubrick’s 2001, but is that the full story? Let’s pick through the stew, and try and find the recipe….

“Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?”

It might seem unlikely that The Bee Gees might have jump-started Bowie’s career, but just listen to the Brothers Gibb’s 1967 single New York Mining Disaster 1941. The debt to the Bee Gees acknowledged by Bowie’s 68-69 period guitarist John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson in interviews is explicit in its stark feel alone. It even shares a fragment of the same melody/harmony, the opening line of the Bee Gees song “In the event of something happening to me…” is a ringer for the “This is Ground Control to Major Tom..” line immediately after the full band kicks in on Space Oddity.

With its repeated entreaties to “Mr Jones”, Bowie, who’d spent much of the 60s parroting pop trends in search of his own sound can’t have failed to notice the song, and borrowed a bit of its mournful flavours

“I’m floating in the most peculiar way”

One element that persistently hangs like a plume of smoke over Space Oddity is the contribution of more exotic ingredients. Although earlier songs like The London Boys explicitly mention the use of pills, it’s Bowie’s first obviously drug-influenced song, even if it’s not actually about drugs. Numerous claims have been made over the years that Space Oddity was an allegory for an uncharacteristic (at this point) period of hard drug abuse for Bowie, and its author neither exactly confirmed or denied this, later claiming to have had a “silly flirtation with smack” during 1968.

Indeed, Bowie would only add weight to this in later years with his assertion in Ashes To Ashes that “We know Major Tom’s a junkie”, which could just be Bowie admitting something, or just messing with his audience. Some friends including Hutchinson have cast doubt on this dalliance with the hard stuff, knowing Bowie’s love of a good story, and writing it off as a bit of flannel due to his fairly subdued appetites of the time, but the song’s air of icy detachment adds fuel to the fire, and Mick Wayne’s juddering tremolo guitar at the “Lift Off” section has often been compared to the sensation of spiking a vein with heroin.

“Daisy, Daisy….”

What’s indisputable is the blatant influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cryptic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which hangs over Space Oddity from its paraphrased title to the enduring twin images of David Bowman’s psychedelic journey into the heart of the obelisk and Frank Poole’s helpless tumble into the inky void. The film’s long gestation and high profile led to huge anticipation within the rock community, who flocked to cinemas to watch it over and over during Summer 1968.

The Byrds even concluded their psychedelic opus The Notorious Byrd Brothers (recorded during 1967, and released in early ’68) with a clanging electronic sea-shanty called Space Odyssey in tribute (and as a likely cash-in) to Kubrick’s as-yet unreleased opus.

2001 definitely had an impact on Bowie, who did his Swinging London musician’s duty, and went to see it several times, by his own admission, very stoned on hashish, which the final single’s glacial, sensuous sound bears out. “I was out of my gourd”, he’d later admit. The parallels with 2001 are easy to tease out. Major ‘Tom’ is a possible riff on the computer HAL’s pointed first name terms with the astronauts ‘Dave’ and ‘Frank’. Also, the name David Bowman can’t have been lost on young David Bowie.

However, for a writer as intent on ‘instant’ art as Bowie, with such a short attention span, even at this point, the question must be asked – if Space Oddity was written as a reaction to 1968’s 2001 and a 1967 single by the Bee Gees, why did it take so long to emerge, even in draft form?

“Commencing Countdown”

There’s an air of vagueness around Space Oddity’s birth. Bowie would claim in a 1969 interview with Dave Lee Travis that the recording was started in November 1968 and finished the following June, shortly before release. In reality, Bowie, who was becoming increasingly adept at massaging his own history, conveniently glossed over several demo versions and the previous full version recorded for the Love You Till Tuesday film. Looking at the evidence, it would seem that the song started life in early 1969.

It’s nowhere to be heard in Bowie’s 1968 repertoire, or that of Feathers, suddenly appearing more-or-less fully formed with some not-quite-final lyrics in a January 1969 demo. Further doubt is thrown on the vague time frame of its conception by Hermione Farthingale’s recollection of Bowie and Hutch working out the song in the flat she and Bowie shared in Clareville Grove. However, memory’s a fickle mistress, and this could perhaps be a recollection of an early unfinished version.

Surely if Space Oddity had been finished by the Feathers era, why wait so long to commit it to tape? Considering Bowie’s sometimes unseemly haste to record his latest confections and his inability to even let the likes of his novelty children’s song Ching-A-Ling rest, it seems to have had an uncommonly long gestation if it indeed started life in mid to late 1968. Other accounts place Space Oddity’s genesis to during the filming of Love You Till Tuesday or just prior to the beginning of shooting. Ken Pitt recalls choosing the songs for the film with Bowie and director Malcolm Thomson in January 1969, and asking Bowie if he had something new for the project. According to Pitt, Bowie presented him with Space Oddity a few days later.

Thomson claims that the song evolved over several nights at Clareville Grove, with everybody present on these nights, including Hermione, Production Assistant Susie Mercer, and Thomson himself contributing lines to the song. Considering Bowie’s songwriting methods, the degree of control he maintained over his output, and the fact that nobody from the mini-scene surrounding Bowie at Beckenham of the time is laying claim to co-writing God Knows I’m Good or Janine, a suitably large pinch of salt should be taken at the involvement of anyone else but Hutch, or perhaps, at a push, a minor creative nudge from Ken Pitt.

“I’m floating in the most peculiar way..”

So, the timeline of Space Oddity is muddled, and depending on who you believe, it could have been written at any point between May 1968 and January 1969, with or without Feathers, before or after Love You Till Tuesday began shooting, and either right after seeing 2001 or some time afterwards. It could have been written by Bowie alone, or with help from Hutch, who claims a modest part in helping Bowie find the chords to match his monotone Stylophone melody, or by a small army of friends and visiting creatives who just happened to be involved with his most celebrated hit on a one-off basis.

“You’ll never go home again”

The key to Space Oddity may possibly come down to an evening off from filming Love You Till Tuesday, which may have provided a final catalyst for Bowie to put pen to paper and either write or finish the song. January 28th 1969 saw the broadcast on BBC2 of Beach Head, an episode from the third series of the acclaimed science-fiction anthology series Out Of The Unknown. Based on Clifford D. Simak’s short story You’ll Never Go Home Again, Beach Head is the tale of jaded, depressed veteran astronaut Tom Decker (UK-based American actor Ed Bishop, who also coincidentally played a shuttle pilot in 2001), whose behaviour becomes erratic on a mission, becoming increasingly withdrawn.

Decker’s gradual disintegration isn’t helped by an encounter with an alien native of the world he’s landed on, who tells the crew in a rather matter-of-fact way “You cannot leave. You will never leave. You will die here.” Before long, Decker and crew have succumbed to a kind of resigned torpor, as they remain on the planet, unable to leave. This ending strikingly echoes the end of Space Oddity, even more so when put in Bowie’s own words, as related to his landlady and sometime lover Mary Finnigan: “At the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at. He’s fragmenting… at the end of the song his mind is completely blown.”

It’s unknown whether sci-fi buff Bowie tuned in and watched Beach Head that night, but it’s plausible. He’s not on record as filming or in studio that evening, and Out Of The Unknown was popular viewing amongst the rock community; indeed George Harrison and Ringo Starr can be seen discussing an earlier episode in the Beatles documentary film Let It Be, filmed earlier that month.

Is it possible that the detached Tom Decker might have fed his way into Major Tom, later revealed by Bowie years later to have deliberately chosen to drift off into the void? On the original demo, the familiar murmured “Lift-off” is also replaced by an American-accented “Blast-off!”. Could this jaded American astronaut be the original Major Tom?

What’s certain is that mere days after the broadcast of Beach Head, Bowie, Hutch, and a collection of session musicians were in Morgan Studios recording the first studio version of Space Oddity.

“Engines on”

The February ‘69 version of Space Oddity is a quaint, anaemic-sounding rendition taken at a brisk pace, with prominent hammond organ and a feel reminiscent of Procol Harum’s 1967 anthem A Whiter Shade of Pale, albeit with a daft ocarina solo. Hedging its bets as to whether it was a band, duo, or solo recording, this version is also a two hander between Bowie and Hutch, with Hutch singing the Ground Control parts. This version, as seen in the eventual film, is a charmingly cheap bit of business featuring much inflatable furniture (similar to the chairs seen in Beach Head), and a moped-helmeted Bowie being debagged and caressed by a pair of alluring ‘space sirens’ in a scene that looks like the prelude to a futuristic bit of soft porn.

With Pitt’s film quickly relegated to the back burner, a further two demo versions of Space Oddity with Hutch were recorded just prior to the guitarist returning home to Scarborough to be with his wife and baby daughter. Hutch would ironically leave Bowie just as the song he helped shape secured his friend a new record deal with Mercury.

“It’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.”

 In anticipation of the final recording, Pitt made overtures to Beatles Producer George Martin to produce the session, but Martin turned him down flat, prompting Pitt to cattily note “George Martin is fallible.” Next in line to produce was Tony Visconti, but principled hippie Visconti considered the song a cash-in, especially with NASA’s Apollo mission but weeks away.

Production duties would eventually fall to Gus Dudgeon, who saw the song’s potential – calling in Junior’s Eyes guitarist Mick Wayne, bassist Herbie Flowers, Pentangle drummer Terry Cox, and young Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who provided icy washes of mellotron. Combined with Bowie’s layered, nuanced vocal performance and the flat, buzzing hum of his stylophone, the song’s lightning was finally bottled.

“The papers want to know whose shirts you wear”

With Space Oddity now out there, Bowie, after a lean couple of years was out in the world and soon pressing flesh with Radio One DJs and the music press. It was here that his elusive public persona would flourish, and where his charming, disarming one-liners were born. We know the impact of Space Oddity, its sounds, themes, and clues. But I’ve arguably given it a lot more though in this article alone than Bowie did ever again, at least until the song began to stir in his consciousness again around Scary Monsters. The last word should go to the man himself…

In a December 1969 interview, Music Now’s Kate Simpson posed the question: “Space Oddity – are you bored with it?” Bowie, already eyeing the future, responded as only he could. “Oh yes. It’s only a pop song after all.”


Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Shindig! Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

❉ Martin was a guest on Tim Worthington‘s podcast Looks Unfamiliar. You can find the episode here.

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