Given its weird history, I’ve occasionally wondered if David Bowie ever regretted naming his first big hit “Space Oddity” instead of “Major Tom.” Probably not, but I’ve always thought that the title was slightly wrong for a song that essentially about a tragedy.
Of course, “Space Tragedy” would have been worse and The Byrds had already beaten him to “Space Odyssey,” but he coulda called it “Major Tom” like everybody else probably did.
While “Space Oddity” was originally written and released in 1969, it didn’t become a chart single here in the U.S. until 1973, where it reached #15. I remember hearing it on KYNO-AM all of the time, and thinking that it didn’t sound like anything else in the universe. Not only did it tell a story about Space — which I was all about, of course — it was a sad story.
More than anything else, “Space Oddity” sounded so lonely on the AM radio. It sounded like Space. Even more so on the shitty cassette tape I made of my favorite songs that I taped off of KYNO by putting a hand-held Panasonic tape recorder — with the built-in condensor mic! — next to the speaker of an AM radio, and hitting “Record” and “Play” at the same time whenever a song I loved came on.
Here’s a picture of that tape recorder, which was probably the first piece of transformative portable technology to come into my life.
Not only could I record songs — or me being a DJ practicing intros over the first 45s that I bought — I could play those songs anywhere in the house!!
ANYWAYS, I didn’t love “Space Oddity” nearly as much as the song it was clearly ripping off, Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Hey, I was 10, and had no idea that if anything, “Rocket Man” was ripping “Space Oddity” off. That said, I think that Space — which I was learning on a nightly basis from Channel 26 was the final frontier — is big enough for both songs.
Listening to “Space Oddity” now, it’s ironic that a song that’s so full of stereo effects — the countdown, the harmonies in each speaker, even Rick Wakeman’s mellotron — made an impression on shitty AM radio. But that’s the power of the story, as well as the gorgeous melody. And, of course, the power of Space, especially in the early 1970s.
And, of course, a shout-out to “Can you hearrrrrrrrr—eeerrreee am I floating ’round my tin can” as one of the greatest uses of homonyms in pop music history. And if you ask me, he’s still floating — regardless of what Peter Schilling or Bowie himself sang later — somewhere in Space!
Oh, hey, check out the “original video” from 1969 I found on YouTube: it’s a completely different version of the song. Not quite as great as the one we all know, but great enough.
“Space Oddity” official video (1972)
“Space Oddity” original video (1969)