Space Oddity (Major Tom) (1969)
In 1969 David Bowie was a creature the likes of which had not been heard or seen in Rock music. There were freaky-deaky costumes and far-out performers but no one had projected the gender-bending image that Bowie began trading on early in his career. More important to “Space Oddity,” no one would embrace “The Future” the way Bowie did. On examination, no other Rock icon has really done so since, either.
To understand the song, the listener has to have a passing knowledge of the historical and cultural context of the late 1950s through the early 70s as it bears on humankind’s earliest forays into space.
The Space Race, although its official starting gun sounded in 1957 with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, had its roots in the end of World War II when it became crystal clear that dominance in rocketry and space technologies was the key to defense supremacy.
Although much of the East-West Cold War rivalry was played out peacefully, there was a sense of foreboding that hung over the developed world, a disquieting anxiety squatting behind a mushroom cloud.
Take your protein pills and put your earphones on
Yet there were thousands of expressions of youthful zeal and an immersion in a light-hearted hedonism that colored the period. As Don MacLean would have it in “American Pie,” marrying Woodstock and moon shots, “And there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space…”
Simultaneously, there was a concern about Mother Earth’s environmental degradation, a consciousness that was partially built on the fear of nuclear holocaust and industry run amok.
The Jetsons, a TV cartoon show about a family of the future first aired in the early 1960s. Aside from situation comedy, the central theme was technology’s ability to make life better. Ecology-minded, counter-culture-flecked, The Whole Earth Catalog debuted in 1968 with a now-famous cover photo of the home planet as seen from space.
Jane Fonda (right) starred in Barbarella, a space sex comedy about a luscious lass in the 41st century. While 7th Avenue was selling futuristic lamé clothing to the adult population, the Hippie youth movement was putting on faded blue jeans, cowboy boots and flannel shirts, granny glasses and peasant skirts. Everyone knows that Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek began its flight to renown in the mid-60s side by side with the revival of America’s rural music via Country Rock, Folk Rock and the rise of “roots” music.
Into this contradictory set of vibrations shot Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, also in 1968. One of its main themes concerns an astronaut, who, after fighting off a murderous computer named HAL, leaves the neighborhood of Earth and heads to Jupiter to hash out some sort of key to creation and existence, the explanation of which lies in a polished metal monolith. The astronaut is sucked into a vortex and eventually emerges reborn as a huge fetus in a fluid sac of light floating farther out to space.
America’s Apollo 11 lunar excursion module
In July of 1969, man landed on the moon.
Bowie has this to say about the landing and the movie:
“In England, it was always presumed that it [“Space Oddity’] was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. 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.
“It got the song flowing. It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all (laughs). It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”
From the opening of “Space Oddity,” an obvious send-up of the title Space Odyssey, the voice, the instruments, the engineering effects say, “Entering the future, keep to your right, please.” The verbal details are spot on right down to “Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.” The spoken countdown in the background is evocative of the countless, now mundane, launches everyone alive has heard. The vibrato stylophone (played by Bowie) gives a sense of a shuddering rocket leaving the launch pad. All very nicely done.
The body of the story launches a hero astronaut into our consciousness, one whose public acclaim has incited the population to speculate upon his positions on matters of good taste:
This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
The lines recall “Satisfaction,” when Mick Jagger sings:
And a man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts should be
It also recalls the line from The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”:
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
There may be a secondary meaning locked up in Bowie’s line. In Britain at the time the “shirt” you wore represented a football (soccer) team a fan might zealously follow. An enthralled public awaits Major Tom’s answer. Tom has other plans.
Riffing on a scene from Space Odyssey where the astronauts perform an extra-vehicular excursion, the lyrics say:
‘This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today’
Major Tom has not only stepped outside of his capsule (a “tin can” in the song, a description reminiscent of those found in Tom Wolfe’s astronautical classic The Right Stuff). He has stepped off on a personal journey 100,000 miles out in space. Tom is imitating the actions of Kubrick’s character David Bowman, played by Keir Dullea, who is irresistibly drawn by the monolith into a mystical experience.
A time signature change switches us out of the funereal procession of Tom’s celestial activities. It begins as a Beatlesque interlude, moving rapidly from a Skiffle rhythm guitar to a duet with mellotron and lively lead guitar. It ends with a space fart sound effect.
‘Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows’
He has become the spaceship, un-tethered, heading for points unknown. Whether he wants a message relayed to his wife because he knows he’s not coming back or because if he does return he will be transfigured forever is a matter open to speculation. We do know that for the nonce, Major Tom is out of radio contact with Earth.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
At this juncture, “Space Oddity” turns epic. The Beatlesque interlude returns and a beautiful, magical guitar solo, reminiscent of satellites emitting signals in code slowly ends the piece. Suicide? Union with the “One?” Or just a space cowboy with star fever? Major Tom is drifting further and further and Bowie has himself a song that streaks into the top 500 best Rock classics of all time.
Addendum: An International Space Station astronaut, Chris Hadfield, played his own rendition of “Space Oddity” while in orbit in May of 2013. Lyrics were changed to reflect the hopes of a safe touchdown. The fascination with space goes on. As of September, 2013, Hadfield’s video has been viewed almost 20 million times on YouTube.
- David Bowie has kept Major Tom as a recurring character in his works. “Ashes To Ashes” (1980) and “Hallo Spaceboy” (1995) tell the continuing story.
- Bowie’s track inspired German performer Peter Schilling to release a song called “Major Tom.” The Synthpop-Space Rock song was a major hit for him in 1983 and afterwards when it was translated into a dozen different languages.