I’m going to start by admitting that writing this review is going to be very difficult for me. The difficulty lies in the fact that I am a huge David Bowie fan (as you know if you’ve read the Truly Great articles) and it is difficult for me to be objective about any of his stuff. I’ve found myself defending Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down before if that’s any indication. So bear that in mind, and realize that this album was not voted by the Treble staff as one of the best of the sixties and that it is one of my personal choices for albums not to forget.
Space Oddity was originally released in 1969 as Man of Words / Man of Music. Thank goodness he changed it, because for that matter, why not Man of Steel / Man of Action or Man of the Hour / Man of the Year? Instead, named after the opening track, which was a spoof of the subtitle of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the album was re-released. The album is now considered Bowie’s true ‘first’ album despite recordings with the Deram label previously, mostly because it was a huge transition in style. He went from mod, with the bands the King Bees and The Manish Boys, to crooning like Anthony Newley, and then finally, with Space Oddity to folk rock. The odd thing about it, not there was just one odd thing, was that he only recorded the album to finance an arts lab he created.
Although the album is not considered one of Bowie’s best, the title track is definitely considered one of the finest of Bowie’s standards. Widely heard, easily recognizable, and commonly mimicked (I can remember at least twice on Friends), “Space Oddity” is the story of astronaut Major Tom who ends up getting stuck floating in outer space, never to return home. It was so popular over the ensuing years that Bowie himself wrote a sequel using the same character called “Ashes to Ashes.” That sequel references the fact that not only was “Space Oddity” influenced by Kubrick, but also his heroin addiction.
“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junky
Strung out in heaven’s high
Feeling an all-time low”
Then in 1984, Peter Schilling wrote a third part with Major Tom called simply “Major Tom (Coming Home).” Many seem to think that because the song was released at the same time as the U.S. moon landing that it must have been related, but that wasn’t the case. “Space Oddity” is a song full of emptiness, that of space, but also loneliness. Bowie goes back and forth between almost talking in the storytelling and singing the choruses. It marked the first album in which Bowie was not trying to ape another singer’s style and created his own. Seeing Bowie perform the song live on just an acoustic guitar is truly magical and allows Bowie to reclaim a song that was become so widespread that people can forget that it was his to begin with.
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is a Dylanesque folk track complete with heavy harmonica. It also is one of the best examples of Bowie’s ‘magnetic poetry’ style of songwriting. He writes down a bunch of words then mixes them up, reorders them, and makes lyrics out of them. “Don’t Sit Down” is a track that was missing from the album for several years, mostly because it is less than a minute long and ends abruptly with Bowie cracking up. “Letter to Hermione” is an often underrated and overlooked track. Written from the perspective of a man whose true love is with someone else, his pining and pain are real and heartfelt. He also captures the feeling of desperation found in the situation with the lines, But did you ever call my name just by mistake?
“Cygnet Committee,” an almost ten minute song, if not one of the better songs on the album, at least heralds a style of singing that Bowie would continue over the years, leading to the breakthrough of Hunky Dory and the majesty of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. With guitars that sound very `Allman Brothers-y,’ “Janine” is a standout track both musically and lyrically. Talk about a dark view of relationships, check this out:
“Janine, Janine, you’d like to know me well,
But I’ve got things inside my head
That even I can’t face.
Janine, Janine, you’d like to crash my walls,
But if you take an axe to me
You’ll kill another man
Not me at all.”
“An Occasional Dream” is a fairly straightforward love song, unlike some of the darker ones on the record, and is often thought to be about Hermione Farthingale, the subject of the previous song actually named after her. The last three songs on the album are three of its best. “Wild Eyes Boy From Freecloud” is another story song along the same lines of “Space Oddity,” except rather than being set in space, it is set in a pastoral fairy tale setting, somewhat akin to a fantasy. “God Knows I’m Good” tells the story of a woman who the narrator spies shoplifting and pleading with God to look the other way, but then after being led away by what is assumed to be store security, an old woman faints and pleads with God to not look the other way. It is a fairly simplistic tale of how people’s faith changes upon their situations, but an effective one.
“Memory of a Free Festival” is fairly ‘summer of love hippie-esque,’ but is still a solid song. It was later recorded as a single marking the first collaboration with longtime guitarist Mick Ronson and is also a bonus track on the Ryko version. Rick Wakeman plays organ during the first half of the album track until Bowie goes into the meat of the song, a building chorus of “The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party,” which can rival that of “Hey Jude.” Ronson’s guitar track on the single version makes it a slightly better one, but both shine.
Space Oddity was re-released umpteen times over the years, most recently with Virgin who didn’t include any bonus tracks. As the `30th Anniversary’ special discs, with entire discs of bonus songs, started with Ziggy Stardust, it won’t be in that series. But it must be said that with the songs “Janine,” “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud,” “God Knows I’m Good” and “Memory of a Free Festival” make Space Oddity worth acquiring, while the title track makes it almost mandatory in my opinion. As Bowie is my absolute favorite, all of his albums are required for me, but I would at least recommend Space Oddity to even the non-Bowie faithful. To be honest, its not even in my top ten of my favorite Bowie albums, but as the heralding of a true legend of rock and roll, and the debut of one his best songs, it deserves to be counted.