David Bowie wasn’t always The Starman we know him as today, and his road to success was a winding one. For a while, Bowie was just another aspiring artist filled with hopes and dreams but had little to show for his efforts. Then in 1969, everything changed after ‘Space Oddity’ arrived at the perfect time and sent him into the stratosphere.
Every single released on his 1967 eponymous debut album monumentally flopped, as did the full-length record. Rather than maintaining a belief in Bowie, who was still only 20, Decca Records decided to throw him to the wayside and ended their experiment. Getting dropped was a make or break moment for Bowie. He could have easily given up hope on becoming an artist and settled for a life in the real world, but that wasn’t Bowie.
Bowie was back at square one, and despite being hailed as a teenage starlet when he shared his debut single, his career never accelerated in the way he envisaged.
He needed to re-think everything and come back with a new identity. Bowie’s previous efforts didn’t connect with the masses, and he had no choice but to think outside the box to revive his career. Even though he didn’t have a record label, Bowie never stopped writing and searching for the perfect song.
His manager Kenneth Pitt encouraged Bowie to be brave and lean into his creative mind, a valuable asset that separated him from every other artist. After watching Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowie felt inspired and dreamt up this mystical tale surrounding a character he named Major Tom.
Bowie’s name was tarnished and associated with failure. There weren’t a queue of labels lining up to vie for his signature. However, the strength of ‘Space Oddity’ encouraged Phillips to gamble on him and offered Bowie a one-album deal. If this record failed, then it was lights out for his career.
Just five days before The United States’ Apollo 11 mission would launch, Bowie unleashed a rocket of his own, and the track could not have been better timed. Although he was only signed a month before the release of ‘Space Oddity’, they needed to strike while the iron was hot.
“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,” Bowie explained to Performing Songwriter in 2003. 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.”
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 he changed the game.
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. A message which the general public didn’t quite pick up on.
‘Space Oddity’ became Bowie’s first number one, and in a matter of months, he’d gone from an abject failure to hot property. He was born to be in the limelight, and once Bowie got a glimpse of superstardom, he was going nowhere.
If the track was released even a few months later, it might not have incensed the same reaction, and Bowie’s career could have plausibly reached the end of a cul-de-sac. Thankfully, the stars aligned, and ‘Space Oddity’ was the first brick that Bowie laid down rather than his last.