Thursday, February 21, 2013

David Bowie: Space Oddity

In 1969, David Bowie’s first single for Mercury Records, “Space Oddity” was released to coincide with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in July 1969. While the song issued on Philips in the UK was used by the BBC coverage of the launch and the subsequent moon landing, the song was panned in the US. No doubt the failed Apollo 1 mission that occurred two years earlier killing all three NASA astronauts was still fresh in the minds of Americans.

US Radio programmers probably would not have felt comfortable playing a song about Major Tom who was lost in space in connection with the impending mission. I know as a programmer, I opted not to play certain songs due to timing and what I considered poor taste. In Britain, the single made it to number five; however, the first US release of “Space Oddity” only peaked at #124.

When Bowie switched labels to RCA in 1972, his two Mercury albums came with him as part of the package and RCA began plans to reintroduce “Space Oddity” to the American public. The first effort came with a promotional EP released to radio stations in 1972. “Space Oddity” was the lead track.

In an effort to promote newer releases, RCA issued the singles “Changes,” peaking at #66; “Starman,” charting at 65; and “The Jean Genie,” which did worst of the three at #71. With Bowie now at least known to the American public, RCA dipped into the vault for the title cut from the “Space Oddity” LP.

Even though the disaster of Apollo 13 occurred nearly three years earlier, the successful return of the three astronauts probably failed to negatively affect the second commercial release of “Space Oddity” in 1973. As it was Bowie’s first hit in the UK in 1969, “Space Oddity” was the first US hit proper for Bowie as it charted at #15. I remember hearing the song and buying it immediately at the nearest National Record Mart.

Bowie plays acoustic guitar and a little known instrument (of which I also own) named the “Stylophone.” Still being used by artists today (such as Little Boots), the Stylophone was a small stylus operated organ/synthesizer that had an onboard tremolo. You can hear it in the glissando effects as well as the single notes that begin at the end of the song’s intro at about :30.

The ethereal keyboard parts, strings, and flute sounds are courtesy of Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron. Wakeman also plays the piano on the cut. The tasteful electric guitar parts were contributed by Mick Wayne. The rhythm section was Terry Cox on drums and Herbie Flowers on bass. Gus Dudgeon did an excellent job with the production. Although it became an American hit 3 and ½ years after its initial release, it was worth the anticipation.

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