Throughout his career, David Bowie proved himself to be the master of creating characters and using them to expertly explore unconventional stories through a carefully curated creative lens.
His first hit, ‘Space Oddity’, was the first sign of Bowie putting his special skill to use; creating his Major Tom character, who he used as the protagonist for the track. The timing of the release couldn’t have been more perfect, and it was an early indication that the singer had an innate sense to smell out the zeitgeist in a way that made him stand out from the pack.
It was a progressive approach to creating, one that proved to be lightyears ahead of its time, and it was evident from the off-set that Bowie had that special ingredient that would shoot him into superstardom.
The single’s release consciously coincided with The United States’ Apollo 11 mission and provided a different slant on the story while the world was gripped with space fever. Although the imagery used by Bowie would distract many from understanding his unique, human perspective of ‘Space Oddity’, which he described as a “song-farce”.
“The publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing if not a human being,” Bowie explained in 1969. “It came from a feeling of sadness about this aspect of the space thing, it has been dehumanised, so I wrote a song-farce about it, to try and relate science and human emotion. I suppose it’s an antidote to space fever, really”.
At the time, the general public had become desensitised to the human truth behind the mission. Real people were putting their lives on the line for entertainment, and the dark facet of the story was largely ignored, but not by Bowie.
While the track was influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than the moon landings, the global obsession with Apollo 11 encouraged Bowie to rush the release of the single and insert himself into the discussion. “It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself,” he remembered to Performing Songwriter in 2003. “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.”
Bowie added: “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”.
The track slowly climbed the charts in the months after the moon landing and peaked at five in September. ‘Space Oddity’ was the first time Bowie caught the public’s attention, marking the first chapter of his electric reign of dominance, and he never shifted out of sight from that crucial moment.