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David Bowie - Space Oddity [Aka: David Bowie, Man Of Words/Man Of Music] CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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3.35 | 333 ratings

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The Anders
3 stars That's one small step for Major Tom - one giant leap for David Bowie.

Or is it the other way around? David Bowie had tried and tried and tried with different band constellations, artist names and style changes, releasing a handful of singles between 1964 and 1967 as well as his debut album in 1967. He had moved from rhythm and blues to cabaret and easy listening, but with little success. The releases have showed some signs that Bowie had some unusual ideas, but the quality was mixed, and overall the songs were not outstanding enough to make an impact on a scene where other artists had done similar things, just way better.

But then in 1969 came a single that didn't sound like anything else. "Space Oddity" was used for the BBC transmissions of the moon landing; it didn't make an impact at first, but later in the same year it suddenly climbed into the UK top 10, becoming David Bowie's first hit. And I think most fans will agree this is where the story really begins. Indeed, almost all Greatest Hits compilations with David Bowie begin with "Space Oddity", or just have it as the oldest track. It is also worth noticing, that the many CD re-releases of his albums begin with this, the 1969 album on which it appears (thus omitting his 1967 debut album which has only been re-releaed separately, along with his early singles). This album was originally released simply as David Bowie in the UK by the Philips label, and as Man of Words, Man of Music in the US (by Mercury if I am not mistaken). Most re-releases of the album have been entitled Space Oddity, probably to avoid confusion with the 1967 Deram album which was also titled David Bowie.

Let us begin with the title track and leave the other songs for later. For the first time, Bowie has written a truely original song. The melody is much more focused than anything he had written before, but a lot of praise should also be put on the creative arrangement. Clearly, there is an echo of psychedelic rock here (as can be heard for instance in the cacophonic fade out), but in some ways I also find it kind of proggy (laugh at me if you like); there is a mellotron after all, but more importantly, the song abandons classic song structure. The initial "verse" ("Ground control to Major Tom") never comes back for instance.

Then there are the lyrics where we meet the astronaut Major Tom for the first time as he is leaving earth with his spaceship, but then something goes wrong, and the ground control (a.k.a the earth) loses contact with him, leaving him to an uncertain destiny. Major Tom reappears in several later Bowie songs, and I suppose you could say he gradually became a sort of an alter ego for David Bowie - who likes to portray other characters (Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, Nathan Adler...). The tale of Major Tom who is lost in space could be interpreted in many ways, and consequently I have always found it kind of sad that the 1980 song "Ashes to Ashes" simply states that "We know Major Tom's a junkie". Surely there are other possibilities in understanding his space adventure than drugs, and I admire many Bowie songs for their ambiguity. Why kill that ambiguity? (apart from that, I really like "Ashes to Ashes", it's a very catchy song from a musical perspective).

"Space Oddity" also shows a clear connection between music and lyrics. You can sense the nervousness about the spaceship taking off during the initial "verse": just listen to the uneasy harmonic structure. In the "bridge" after the second "chorus" where ground control says "There's something wrong, can you hear me Major Tom?", the panic is underlined by some more dramatic chords where we change towards the minor parallel key and then try to get back again, but without succeeding. And I could go on, but it requires more time and space to deliver a full song analysis.

The rest of the album differs a lot from the opening track, being mostly in the area of hippy'ish folk rock, and if you listen to these songs first, and then "Space Oddity" afterwards, the latter doesn't sound like it's from the same album. The main reason probably being that the song "Space Oddity" was produced by Gus Dudgeon, whereas the rest of the album was produced by Tony Visconti - the first of many Bowie albums to be produced by him (he dismissed "Space Oddity" as a "novelty song").

For most part, the other songs are not nearly as strong. "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" is more than a little Dylan-influenced, and it has a loooong fade-out; I'm just waiting for it to end. Indeed, long hypnotic fade-outs can be very effective, but it requires a stronger musical base. "Memory of a Free Festival" also contains a long fade-out, repeating the line "The song machine is coming down, and we're gonna have a party" over and over again, a bit like that of "Hey Jude". It is quite catchy, but nowhere near the Beatles masterpiece in terms of musical intensity. Lyrically, the song is interesting though; it seems to question the earnestness of hippie culture: "We claimed the very source of joy ran throug / It didn't but it seemed that way" - or later: "To paint that love upon a white balloon" - that line really says it all: as we know, a balloon is filled with air, and it can easily burst.

"Don't Sit Down" is a an amusing filler that doesn't do any harm nor anything good. It was unlisted on the original album release, but appeared as a hidden track between "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" and "Letter to Hermione". It was removed completely on the 1972 re-release, but re-inserted on later CD versions of the album. "God Knows I'm Good" is an attempt at social comment. It has an OK melody, but overall the music of the song is a bit anonymous. The story itself is touching enough, and we really feel sympathy for the old woman who steels the canned food, probably because she couldn't afford it.

In any case, Bowie clearly sounds more comfortable here than in the easy listening universe of his first album. The best of the songs include "Letter to Hermione" which is a moody farewell to a woman. It has a haunting melody and some beautiful melancholic chord changes. "Janine" has quite a catchy chorus, and it is foreshadowing Bowie's play with different personalities in the 70's ("If you take an axe to me, you kill another man, not me at all"). "The Wild-eyed Boy from Freecloud" is another fine song with a melancholic feel. It contains a rather pompous orchestral arrangement which I am unsure of what to think of. One part of me thinks it is too much, another part praises the symphonic elements in it.

The most famous song apart from "Space Oddity" is probably "Cygnet Committee" which seems to be dealing with the flipside of the late 60's counterculture. Centered around a spiritual leader (or "thinker" as he is called in the song) who is rejected by his followers, it touches a theme that was later touched in Ziggy Stardust, but one might also think of The Who's Tommy in this context (the album came out in the same year after all). The song also criticizes the more radical elements of the counterculture with lines such as "And we can force you to be free / And we can force you to belive" or "I will fight for the right to be right / I will kill for the God of the fight for the right to be right". Quite stunning lyrics. However, I don't think the music in this song can really live up to its its words.

Production-wise, there is a clear difference in quality between "Space Oddity" and the rest of the songs. The title song is great sounding with a creative use of the stereo spectre (epecially the vocals, but also the handclaps), but the rest of the album sounds a bit muddy. Clearly, Tony Visconti would improve as a producer later on, but of couse one also has to take the more limited studio technology of the time into consideration.

In general, I think the real milestone of the album is "Space Oddity", deservingly a big classic, and one of Bowie's most famous songs. This is where the "chameleom" truely came into his own. It is easy to hear why it became a single hit whereas the actual album didn't make much impact at the time.

The Anders | 3/5 |


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