The event of the Moon Landing’s remains one of the most crucial turning points in popular culture, a moment which seemingly signified that the world as we know it would never be the same again. From this moment on, nothing was now out of human reach. This landmark development was an instant that the entire world was supposed to unite behind the incredible sight of a mere man landing on the Moon. However, David Bowie had other ideas and found himself banned by the BBC as a result.
In July 1969, talk of the Moon Landings dominated the public conversation. It was unavoidable; everybody was eager to see if NASA would achieve the relentlessly ambitious task or if it would be a total disaster. Meanwhile, David Bowie, more than just a masterful musician, knew precisely how to manipulate situations to make himself the victor and, as the world looked on, he was working on something which would prove to be equally significant in the world of popular culture.
Just five days before The United States’ Apollo 11 mission would launch, Bowie, unleashed a missile of his own in the form of ‘Space Oddity’ which could not have been better timed, a project that would help create the increased mystery around him that still lingers today, even after his sad passing in 2016. The Starman was still mainly an unknown quantity back in 1969, he’d released one album which received little to no fanfare, and he was still yet to find his feet as an artist. In truth, he had all the tools but couldn’t work out how to use them.
‘Space Oddity’ was the first real brick that Bowie put down that created this enigma and larger-than-life persona beyond enticing. Through the Major Tom character that Bowie made for the track, and one he would later revisit throughout his career, he had the perfect vehicle to tackle a new subject in a way that nobody else has done before. It was somewhat incomprehensible for pop musicians to be as forward-thinking as Bowie was in 1969, and the dark message of ‘Space Oddity’ infuriated the BBC.
Instead of being a celebration of human advancement and how far we had come that a man could now step foot on the Moon, Bowie decided to explore the darker side of this achievement. Talk of the Moon Landings had been unavoidable ever since President John F Kennedy unveiled it in 1961. Weighing up his options, Bowie waited for the perfect moment to unleash his masterpiece.
Bowie’s former manager Kenneth Pitt, who died in February 2019 at the age of 96, recalled in his book, Bowie: The Pitt Report, that he knew they were on to something special from the first time he heard it: “That this was an unusually clever song was apparent from the first hearing, but it was only during the course of the day’s shooting that its wide appeal became evident,” Pitt recalled.
He added: “During the break for lunch, freed from the silence imposed on them on the set, people were laughing, chattering and singing about the unconventional hero Major Tom. When David came through a doorway someone said, ‘Well, if it isn’t Major Tom.'”
There was no place more integral to a song succeeding in Britain in 1969 than the BBC. The institution had the ability to make or break careers, and what they decided to play directly influenced the charts. Without the BBC onside, it was almost impossible to have chart success. However, ‘Space Oddity’ was deemed too controversial to play by the institution as it would stoke up a degree of angst towards the Moon Landings that was the antithesis of the nation’s mood.
Thankfully, the banning order would be shortlived and the track would make it may to the airwaves almost instantly following the successful returning to Earth of the Apollo 11 mission. The brief ban didn’t stop ‘Space Oddity’ from becoming one of the essential tracks in the entire career of David Bowie and even landed him his first chart hit when it entered the hit parade at number-five.
If the BBC had upheld its ban, who knows what could have happened to Bowie? None of his previous singles had been a commercial success, and ‘Space Oddity’ could have been the final nail in The Starman’s coffin. In actuality, it would give his career a much-needed kickstart which would see him become an unstoppable force of nature.