It is July 1969. In the US, Nasa is counting down the days until the launch of Apollo 11, the mission intended to land the first humans to set foot on the Moon.
Five days before the planned launch date, Florida’s Kennedy Space Center is a hive of activity; the rest of the world waits with anticipation.
Far away from the launch pads and the looming shape of the Saturn V rocket, London is in the grip of the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties. The Beatles are in a certain St John’s Wood studio, recording the album Abbey Road. The Rolling Stones have, only days before, played to a quarter of a million people at Hyde Park. And a fledgling singer-songwriter –with only one mildly successful album behind him, and almost unknown outside the UK – releases a song that taps in to the space-race fever that has been bubbling away to boiling point.
David Bowie’s Space Oddity took its inspiration from both fact and fiction. The race to the Moon had dominated news headlines since President John F Kennedy unveiled it in 1961. As the Apollo programme stepped up through the gears, Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, the thought-provoking science fiction epic based on Arthur C Clarke’s novel.
Bowie loved the film, and it was clearly a huge influence on the song he had written, and not just for its punning title. “I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me,” said Bowie in a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter. “It got the song flowing.”
Space Oddity was a dark and downbeat tale amid the industrial triumphalism of the Apollo programme. The consensus was that America’s technological might and will to succeed would prevail. But Space Oddity was not an ode to success. The song is a bleak tale of an astronaut – Major Tom – getting into difficulties on his mysterious mission to the stars. Ground Control can do nothing to save him as he spins into the inky darkness.
“Bowie was trying to say… amid all this fantastic stuff there are dark sides,” says Jason Heller, the author of the book Strange Stars, a book which explores pop music’s fascination with science fiction. “And that’s what a lot of science fiction writers were also doing at the same time.”
Apollo 11 was impossible to ignore – some commentators regard it as the first rolling news story, audiences tuning in again and again for the latest update.
Sensing a hit in the making, Bowie’s record company, Philips, launched the song just days ahead of Apollo 11’s own blast-off. But the BBC, instrumental in turning pop singles into hit singles, were uncomfortable. With Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins contemplating the enormity of the mission before them, Bowie’s psychedelic downer might have been in poor taste. The BBC duly banned it. Well, almost. No-one gave the memo to the team handling the Apollo coverage for BBC TV, who played the song as background music.
The BBC had a long history of banning songs it thought inappropriate – in the Sixties the Beeb had whisked songs as diverse as The Kinks’ Lola (product naming) and the Monster Mash (too morbid) from the airwaves. But the decision to ban Space Oddity was more nuanced. Would it be in bad taste to imagine the long, lonely death of an astronaut when the Apollo 11 crew might have been contemplating the same?
“It was a song that tried to talk about the downsides, of the despair and loneliness that might come from [Major Tom] being so far from home,” says Heller. He says the song was banned “because it was kind of a killjoy”.
The ban, however, did not last long. Once the Apollo 11 trio triumphantly returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, “it made the point moot”, says Heller. “The mission had been successful and humans had returned from the Moon. It wasn’t just about setting foot on the Moon, it was about getting home safely.” Space Oddity returned to the airwaves.
The ban could have proved disastrous for the song, but it ended up being a mere blip in Space Oddity’s decades-long journey. After the ban lifted in the UK, the song became a top five hit, though only achieved a chart placing of 124 in the US.
However, even as the public fervour for the Apollo programme began to wane, the song only seemed to endure. “It was pretty much the perfect FM radio anthem,” says Heller. “Slightly longer, and psychedelic in a different way to a lot of psychedelic songs of the time. It sounded like ‘future psychedelic music’.”
Space Oddity would become a number one in the UK on re-release in 1975, but by then Bowie had morphed from the relatively unknown songwriter into the shape-shifting performer who gave birth to – and killed – his most famous alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, as well as reinterpreting Philadelphia soul in his Young Americans phase. “I think there was certainly a part of him showing off that he was not going to be a one-hit wonder, and at the time of Space Oddity he very definitely could have been,” says Heller.
Bowie would – figuratively at least – bury Major Tom in his 1980 song Ashes To Ashes, but the doomed astronaut, in many ways, refused to die.
In 2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield covered the song in orbit above the Earth in the International Space Station, recording and broadcasting the first music video shot in space. “How perfect could that possibility be?” says Heller. “You have someone who knows what it’s like to be estranged and untethered from the Earth, and singing it and broadcasting it gives it a poignancy you can’t imagine anyone else giving it. I’m pretty sure it’s something Bowie could never have imagined.”
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