Chances are if you turn on a television, tune in a radio, pick up a newspaper, or stand in any kind of queue today, you’ll be reminded that forty years ago to the day, mankind first set foot (or even two) on the Moon. Now on July 20th, 1969, I was but a babe in nappies, so my own recall of said events is sketchy at best, but it seems there were plenty of people recording the episode for posterity. I’ll raise my hand and confess to being prone to subscribing to the odd (or even) conspiracy theory, and where the exploits of Apollo 11 and crew are concerned, such theories are bountiful. But I’m also a romanticist at heart, and though a fan of the film ‘Capricorn One’, I prefer to believe that Commander Armstrong and crew weren’t skylarking on a soundstage, but rather that the Eagle really did land, and Armstrong actually did make that giant leap for mankind. It wasn’t so much about sticking a flag in the lunar surface, or picking up some gravel, it was about doing something positive, and amidst the chaotic events of the late 60s, that had to stand for something. What’s this got to do with a retro music blog you ask? Two words - ‘Space Oddity’ - and if the fact that three humans were propelled to the moon in a tin can with less computing power than a pocket calculator doesn’t qualify as odd, then I don’t know what does.
After initial recording stints with the Pye and Deram labels, David Bowie signed a new deal in 1969 with Mercury/Philips. The future Ziggy Stardust’s first album for Mercury, titled (originally) in the U.K. as ‘David Bowie’ and in the U.S. as ‘Man Of Words/Man Of Music’, eventually surfaced in November of ‘69. The album had been preceded by Bowie’s first hit single, ‘Space Oddity’. Bowie had originally penned the track in 1968, intended for a proposed German television special titled ‘Love You Till Tuesday’. The song had remained sitting in a tin can, until Bowie decided to re-record it for his new album, with Rick Wakeman (Yes) providing cosmic style keyboards. Producer Gus Dudgeon (who later helmed ‘Rocket Man’ for Elton John) oversaw work on the freshly recorded version of ‘Space Oddity’ during June of ‘69. After checking ignition, the single was rush released on 11th July, 1969, to coincide with the much anticipated ‘shot for the moon’ Apollo 11 mission. ‘Space Oddity’ featured heavily on BBC television’s coverage of the lunar events, and really made the grade at #5 on the U.K. charts. Clocking in at just over five minutes, the psychedelic folk-rock opus announced to all that here was a rare talent, and over the ensuing decade and more, Bowie continued to push popular music boundaries. But the tale of Major Tom wasn’t an altogether happy one, and during 1969 at least, the U.S. shied away from dead circuits and impending doom.
In 1972, Bowie’s 1969 album was re-released on the RCA label under the title ‘Space Oddity’. Bowie had popped a lot of protein pills and had re-emerged as Ziggy Stardust, and following the success of the single ‘Starman’ (UK#10/US#65), it seemed apt to relaunch ‘Space Oddity’ upon the U.S., and since the sixth (and final) lunar landing had just been completed (Apollo 17 in December ‘72), the song’s vibe seemed more palatable. Second orbit around, Major Tom’s spaceship knew which way to go, and ‘Space Oddity’ docked at #15 on the U.S. charts in early ‘73 (OZ#9), aided in part by a new promo clip shot by Mick Rock, during the recording sessions for Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ album’.
But Major Tom’s mission wasn’t over by a long shot. Just a few months after Bowie had landed his first U.S. #1 with ‘Fame’, he notched up his first chart topper at home with another relaunch of ‘Space Oddity’, six years after the song had initially sat upon the launch pad. It had been included as part of a RCA ‘retrospective’ collection, and stepped through the door to the British #1 spot during November of ‘75. And Major Tom’s adventures didn’t stop there. It seemed he was floating in a most peculiar way for reasons other than zero gravity, and he wasn’t just popping protein pills upon his eventual return to Planet Earth, as chronicled in David Bowie’s 1980 hit ‘Ashes To Ashes’. Major Tom may have hit an all-time low, but ‘Ashes To Ashes’ hit an all-time high on the British charts during August of 1980 (#1/OZ#3), though astoundingly the Major’s green card wasn’t renewed on the U.S. charts. David Bowie’s Major Tom achieved a unique feat, in becoming the only lyrical character to reach the zenith of the British charts via two separate songs, and there are arguably few characters in popular music history to have assumed such cultural resonance and longevity - though of course flight director David Bowie at ground control deserves all the credit. In 1996, Bowie completed the Major Tom trilogy in song, with the release of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (UK#12), lifted from the Eno produced album ‘Outside’.
To commemorate today’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, David Bowie is due to dare leaving the capsule once again, via the release of a digital EP, featuring four previously unreleased versions of ‘Space Oddity’. As I look to the futurama, I wonder if we shall ever see the likes of Major Tom, and the Apollo missions again.
Experience the first two chapters of the Major Tom odyssey via the following YouTube videos. For afters, I’ve included the video for a first class ‘Ticket To The Moon’ (UK#24), lifted from E.L.O.’s mercurial album ‘Time’ (not for any other reason other than I love the song…oh and one day I hope to emigrate to the moon, and open a little paddleboat hire business by the shores of the Sea of Tranquillity).