Bowie wrote this after seeing the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Space Oddity" is a play on the phrase "Space Odyssey," although the title does not appear in the lyrics. The song tells the story of Major Tom, a fictional astronaut who cuts off communication with Earth and floats into space.
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."
This was originally released in 1969 on Bowie's self-titled album 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 that territory. In America, the single found a very small audience and bubbled under at #124 in August 1969.
In 1972, the album was re-titled Space Oddity
and re-issued in the US after Bowie achieved modest success in America with the singles "Changes
" (#66) and "The Jean Genie
" (#71). The newly released "Space Oddity" single made #15, becoming Bowie's first US Top 40.
In 1975, back in the UK, the song was once again released, this time on a single which also contained the songs "Changes" and "Velvet Goldmine." Promoted as "3 Tracks for the Price of 2," the single leapt to the top of the charts, earning Bowie his first #1 in the UK.
In 1980, Bowie released a follow-up to this called "Ashes To Ashes
," where Major Tom once again makes contact with Earth. He says he is happy in space, but Ground Control comes to the conclusion that he is a junkie.
In 1983, the German electro musician Peter Schilling released a sequel to "Space Oddity" called "Major Tom (I'm Coming Home)
." Set to a techno beat, it tells the story of Major Tom in space. That song reached #14 in the US, outcharting Bowie's original.
In 2003, K.I.A. released another sequel called "Mrs. Major Tom," which is told from the point of view of Major Tom's wife.
When the BBC used this during coverage of the moon landing, there was a great fear that if the missions in space didn't go well, this song would suddenly become inappropriate.
Daniel - The North West, England
In the line, "And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear," 'whose shirt you wear' is English slang for 'what football team are you a fan of?'. The thinking here being that if you can make it into space then your opinions on football matter. (Note to Americans- in this case, by "football" we mean "soccer.")
An early version of this song is performed by David Bowie in Love You Till Tuesday
, a promotional film made in 1969 which was designed to showcase the talents of Bowie. You can watch it here
Three different videos were made of this song by three different directors. The first, directed by Malcolm J. Thomson, shows Bowie as an astronaut and appears in his 1969 promotional film Love You Till Tuesday
The next one came in 1972 when Mick Rock
directed Bowie singing the song with an acoustic guitar surrounded by mission control imagery. Rock, who was primarily a still photographer, was doing a lot of Bowie's videos around this time; he also shot "Life On Mars?
" and "The Jean Genie
The third version Bowie filmed with David Mallet in 1979 for air on the New Year's Eve show The Will Kenny Everett Ever Make It To 1980?
, which Mallet directed. Bowie recorded a new version of the song for this version with Hans Zimmer on piano.
Nita Benn's handclaps can be heard on this recording. She is the daughter-in-law of the British socialist politician Tony Benn and the mother of Emily Benn, who at the age of 17 became the youngest ever person chosen to fight an election when she was selected in 2007 as the Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham.
This was originally written by Bowie as a guitar song. It was the producer Gus Dudgeon who turned it into an epic.
Session musician Herbie Flowers ("Walk On The Wild Side
," "Diamond Dogs
") played bass on this track. He recalled his experience working on this to Uncut
magazine June 2008: "The first time I played with Bowie was on the session for 'Space Oddity.' Dear Gus (Dudgeon) was quaking in his boots. It might have been the first thing he ever produced. 'Space Oddity' was this strange hybrid song. (Keyboardist) Rick Wakeman went out to buy a little Stylophone for seven shillings from a small shop on the corner where Trident Studios was. With that and all the string arrangements, it's like a semi-orchestral piece."
Jimmy Page told Uncut
magazine June 2008: "I played on his records, did you know that? His very early records when he was Davy Jones & The Lower Third. The Shel Talmy
records. I can think of two individual sessions that I did with him. He said in some interview that on one of those sessions I showed him these chords, which he used in 'Space Oddity' - but he said, 'Don't tell Jim, he might sue me.' Ha ha!"
In 2009, a sound-a-like version was used in commercials for Lincoln automobiles. This version was by the American singer-songwriter Cat Power, the stage name of Charlyn "Chan" Marshall.
The session players on the song were Rick Wakeman (mellotron), Mick Wayne (guitar), Herbie Flowers (bass) and Terry Cox (drums), plus string musicians. They were paid just over £9 each.
Bowie's birth name was David Jones. He changed his name before the movie came out, but the name he picked is similar to the main character in the film: Dave Bowman. There was speculation that he got the name from the book The Sentinel, which the movie is based on, but Bowie has claimed that his moniker came from the Bowie knife.
The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded this song during his stay at the International Space Station in 2013, using a guitar that stays on the station. The female singer/songwriter Emm Gryner, who was part of Bowie's live band in 1999-2000, put the song together, adding additional tracks and incorporating space station sounds that Hadfield had posted to his Soundclound account. A video was compiled using footage of Hadfield performing the song in space, complete with shots of planet Earth, his floating acoustic guitar, and a weightless Hadfield. The sublime compilation was posted
on May 12, 2013; it quickly racked up millions of views on YouTube and got the attention of Bowie, who posted about it on his social media accounts, calling it "quite possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created."
Hadfield changed a few of the lyrics - he left out the part where Major Tom loses contact and drifts away.
Releasing a cover song recorded in space poses myriad legal challenges, since jurisdiction is unclear. The original agreement was for one year, so the video was removed on May 13, 2014. By this time, Hadfield was back on Earth and worked to negotiate a new deal with the song's publishers. In November 2014, an agreement was reached and the video went back up.
When Bowie was recording the song, he decided that he wanted real strings and Mellotron together. However, the musicians struggled to play the electronic keyboard instrument. It was Tony Visconti who suggested Rick Wakeman as somebody who could keep the Mellotron in tune. Wakeman recalled to Uncut:
"David said, 'Get him.' I was rehearsing with a 17-piece band in Reading, so I drove up. It was a doddle to do, to be honest. I loved the song, and I'm also credit has to go to David and Tony as I don't think anyone else at that particular time would have heard Mellotron on that piece, where it came in. There would have been other things more obvious to do. It was clever."
On the Friends episode "The One After Vegas" (1999), Joey sings this to Phoebe after she gets mad at him for falling asleep on their road trip.
It was also used in these TV shows:
The Last Man On Earth ("Skidmark" – 2016)
Mad Men ("Lost Horizon" – 2015)
Supernatural ("Clap Your Hands If You Believe" – 2010)
Without A Trace ("John Michaels" – 2005)
Gilmore Girls ("Eight O'Clock At The Oasis" – 2002)
The Greatest American Hero ("The Greatest American Hero" – 1981)
And in these movies:
The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019)
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013)
Mr. Deeds (2002)