How Stanley Kubrick inspired one of David Bowie’s greatest hits
David Bowie was, it’s fair to say, a unique individual. The artist, who sadly left this world in 2016, made a name for himself as an evolving composite of all mediums of art. From his work in mime and on the stage of theatres to his self-portraits and, of course, his music — Bowie could, and invariably did, do it all. However, that doesn’t mean he was a continuous fountain of artistic creativity or incapable of taking inspiration from elsewhere. In fact, he loved the opportunity to not only mix mediums but lean on the greatest minds of the artforms to do so.
Many of Bowie’s greatest songs have been lifted from the world around him both personally and professionally. One such inspiration to Bowie came in the form of Stanley Kubrick, arguably one of the most gifted filmmakers the world has ever seen. It was one of his films which ended up inspiring David Bowie to write a song that would not only be his breakthrough in the world of music back in 1969 but still land as a potent piece of pop over 50 years later. Of course, we’re talking about ‘Space Oddity’.
The track is still an absolutely vital piece of Bowie’s iconography and, when re-listening to the song, it is utterly remarkable just how well it holds up to this day. Though you’d be hard-pressed to get a song like that on the pop radio these days if it was released tomorrow, its conception, its power and its remarkable cadence would still see it heralded as one of the best releases of the year—such is its timeless nature.
The song, originally released as a 7-inch single on 11 July 1969, was the world’s first proper dose of Bowie as we know and love him and was the opening track of his second studio album, David Bowie. Considering the release date of the single, just nine days before the USA would land on the moon, many people assumed that it was through NASA that Bowie had been inspired. The moment would mark a collective turning head of the world, as the moon landing had gathered the imaginations of the earth and told them all to look skyward. Necks craned to the heavens there was only one man to soundtrack this event—the Starman. However, the truth is that Bowie was far more interested in the beauty of film than he was the science of achieving it.
“In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing,” revealed Bowie during an interview, “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.” Like so many other audience members he arrived at the cinema a little worse for wear: “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.” Like so many other audiences members, he left with the endless possibilities of space exploration running through his head.
It was a motif which would become an integral part of Bowie’s make-up for the next decade, the thematics rearing their head most prominently with the introduction of Ziggy Stardust, a flame-haired alien rocker from outer space. But the facts remain, that without this initial foray into the great unknown, Bowie would never have introduced us to Ziggy at all. While the idea of outer space excited Bowie, there was one sense that permeated his work and this song, loneliness.
Bowie’s longtime producer and friend, Tony Visconti, revealed of the song’s creation: “David said it was actually a song about isolation and he used the astronaut in space as the metaphor. The song was written in that spirit, being isolated in this little capsule, but seeing the Universe from your window.“
The song would launch Bowie’s career into the stratosphere and begin his long journey as one of the most artistically sound and creatively pure musical artists we are likely to see in our lifetimes. While the track is as iconic as the moon landing itself, for us, the real poetry is knowing that it was inspired by even more art. It was typically Bowie’s way, whether it was Buster Keaton, William S. Burroughs or Jean Michel Basquiat, the Starman was never afraid to pinch a few pointers from others.
While the figure of Major Tom is meant to act as a lightning rod protagonist, his ambiguity allowing for such character manipulation, he allows Bowie to pronounce a juxtaposing view. At times ‘Space Oddity’ is a rallying call to the inhabitants of earth to ensure they enjoy the beauty of life while they’re in it, not when they’re being dragged to the edges of death. On the other hand, it equally lauds in the beauty of listlessness and the aching allure of the unknown. It was a track so expertly crafted that it gained Bowie the Ivor Novello award and a serious amount of accolade.
The duality of the song is mirrored in our lives and while we must all choose to not wholly choose, Bowie’s presentation of the work is simply astounding. The knowledge that it wouldn’t have been possible without Stanley Kubrick just make sit all the sweeter.
David Bowie Space Oddity Lyrics:
Ground Control to Major Tom Ground Control to Major Tom Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground Control to Major Tom Commencing countdown, engines on Check ignition and may God’s love be with you