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David Bowie - Space Oddity

2008-12-10 16:02
Space Oddity
Space Oddity is what critics often regard as the first 'true' Bowie album. It's where he found his own sound, and started mapping out his trajectory of the decades to follow. No wonder the album sounds like it straddles two eras. First released in 1969, reissued in 1972, but making its biggest impact in 1975 when the title single reached number 1 on the UK charts, the record sounds like it doesn't really belong in any of those years.

Some of the songs already sound outdated in 1969: the hippie paean of "Memory of a Free Festival" belongs to an era before the Summer of Love turned to autumn. And the title track itself – well, it's the single that launched his career into space, and gave us a preview of the extraterrestrial experimentation that was to take place in his Ziggy Stardust persona.

Teetering on the brink of the Space Race and the Cold War, released at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landings, and foreshadowing electronic sounds in pop music, "Space Oddity" was a song ahead of its time, and floated above the music of the day. Suitably future-y sounds were supplied by a Stylophone, a miniature synthesizer, to accompany Bowie’s automaton intonation. Bookended by these two songs out of time, the rest of the album pulls together a collection of heartfelt, folksy pieces that show just why Bowie became a household name.
I was pretty much unaware of Bowie’s musical stature when I first picked up this album. I must have been 12 at the time, and my local CNA was having a clearance sale. Along with a couple of flavour-of-the-moment-past-their-prime records (Fine Young Cannibals, Men Without Hats – both of which I wish I still had) I found a white cassette tape with an androgynous David Bowie on the cover, marked down to R12,95. And so my education in serious music began.

They say you never forget your first time. Well, I can certainly remember every note of the first album to blow my mind. I wore that magnetic tape through, patched it with sticky tape, and started all over again – and there’s not a bad song in the batch. There's the dirty harmonica-strewn "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" – evoking Muddy Waters and Dylan – that first dipped my ears into the deep and troubled rivers of blues.

There's a plain and simple love song, "Letter to Hermione", from which I cribbed lyrics for my early romantic missives ("I'm not quite sure what I’m supposed to do/So I'll just write some love to you…") There's the almost 10-minute epic of "Cygnet Committee", which taught me that songs in no way have to make sense and, in the spirit of the Beat poets, can even benefit from a derangement of imagery. And then there's the naked emotion of "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud", a narrative story about being punished for yearning for freedom. Every time I hear Bowie’s voice tremble and crack in the final line, my heart breaks a little for that boy from Freecloud.

But it's when we finish up the album with the two-part opus of "Memory of a Free Festival" that Bowie solidifies his status as one of the greatest songwriters of his day. While it is a celebration of the Flower Power era, it is already fading in memory – as if realizing that the Revolution did not, in fact, change the world, and the children of the Love Generation would finally come of age amidst the sleazy glam-rock of the 70s. As the final line puts it, in a "Hey Jude"-like chorus: "The Sun Machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party...."

Transformation, loss of innocence. Connection and disconnection. The themes explored by an artist reaching maturity, in an era of music changing, to a boy whose horizons were expanding, made for a musical experience that changed my perspective for good. Major Tom would have understood:

"I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today...."

- Finn Gregory

"Ground Control to Major Tom...."
With these words, a robotic voice hailing a far-off astronaut in his tin can, David Bowie captured the loneliness and fear of the dawn of the Space Age. A song about a man drifting out of contact with Earth, it also signaled a musician cutting himself loose from a derivative past and finding his voice – an often strange, somewhat unearthly voice – far away from his peers.

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Penny Marais 2008/11/17 8:51 AM
David Bowie - Space Oddity ABSOLUTELY AWESOME!!! I still have all the original LP's of David Bowie!!!!! Was just listening to some of them yesterday. He always was ahead of his time. Great review of Space Oddity!!!
Jan 2008/11/17 10:22 AM
Bowie Undoubtedly one of the greatest rock stars ever. Unique and refreshing. Always one step ahead of the rest.
Wayne 2008/11/17 11:33 AM
Space Oddity One thing about music in those days is that all the songs on the LP were great and not just the first half of the first song as is the norm today.
Jean 2008/11/17 2:27 PM
Bowie Discovered Bowie through my local library - I was that much of a nerd. They had Diamond Dogs, probably because it was a concept album loosely based on a book (1984, as far as I could tell). Loved it though. And then it was Alladin Sane...
chris 2008/11/17 2:42 PM
Great review Nice one, Richard, does the album justice. I'm off to buy another copy right now.
Alli 2008/11/17 8:05 PM
Bowie I am one of the fortunates who was born in the right time and place to have seen the man himself 9 times. Have everything he ever recorded on vinyl, but will definitely get this disk. Great review of both the album and the man - we used to call him THE MASTER
Steve 2008/11/17 10:47 PM
Bowie I definitely think that David Bowie's greatest album ever was Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It is just so powerful.
M.A.D. 2008/11/18 2:24 PM
Bowie It was 1975/6, before we had tv in RSA, I faced the same dilemma at about 10:30pm every night, a six year old with a vivid imagination facing a long dark passage populated with scary monsters as the only route from my 'lights-off' bedroom to the bathroom where I could relieve my bursting bladder! The atmosphere of fear and tension was accentuated by the chords and absolutely alien sounds of the eerie music permeating through the walls, it would take me what felt like eons of deliberation to sum up the courage to make that final dash for the sanctity of the bathroom with it's dimmed night light. The absolute relief of emtying my bladder was soon overcome by the realization that I would now have to return to my room, where there was no light to guide and protect me! Not too many years later I started to explore my Fathers extensive record collection and amongst the many gems that I found, of which many have influenced me to this day, I discovered the scource of my earlier terror, MR D
choc 2008/11/18 6:35 PM
sorrow LM radio first introduced me to this song and i was smitten, even cutting my hair to suit, at that time it gave the whole town the shudders as it was unheard of in a Natal small factory town for anyone to be emulating a wannabe rock star. This was early 70's, then we started hearing more,ziggy stardust etc. Still my favourite, ageless music, at the time he was ahead of himself and the rest of the pack, setting trends that others would later follow. Dylan was the same but in another time frame. To this day I find it amusing to hear adulation for the new bands, and remind these people of how one track is based on a 30 yr old tune from Bowie, or the same person who worked with Bowie {and others} is responsible for the backing, or production etc and these are all guys who were around that long ago laying down the roots of so many of todays stars. It gives you the quality of his influence, powerful stuff! I heard recently" hey thats a Kurt Cobain song!!" didnt know Bowie covered it!!l
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