‘And There’s Nothing I Can Do’: Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’ a Half-Century Later

‘And There’s Nothing I Can Do’: Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’ a Half-Century Later

When David Bowie released his second album in November 1969, he’d been scrabbling toward fame for five years already. Flitting between styles in hopes of hitting upon a sound and image that would connect with the public, Bowie’s only consistent conviction was belief in his own manifest destiny of stardom.

His 1967 debut, David Bowie, had been ludicrously out of step with the psychedelic adventurousness of British pop in that year of Sgt. Pepper’s and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Today it sounds rather charming, but at the time its whimsical character-sketch songs must have mystified the few people who heard it. Still, this comedy-pop debut authentically reflected how Bowie saw himself: not a rock and roller but an all-around entertainer who would make records in addition to performing in and writing musicals for London’s West End theatres, working in cabaret and acting in movies.

After the debut’s utter failure, Bowie scrambled to keep abreast of the new developments in rock. He grew his hair long and curly, took up an acoustic guitar and embraced the spiritual and sonic principles of the hippie counterculture.

In his suburban hometown of Beckenham, Bowie formed an organization called Growth (slogan: “Growth is people, Growth is revolution”) and launched a local version of the “arts lab”: a trendy late-’60s phenomenon in which spaces hosted happenings and all manner of freeform, mixed-media creativity. Along with the Beckenham Arts Lab, Growth also organized their own free festival — that other fixture of the hippie underground — for August 16, 1969, synchronized with the much larger countercultural gathering in Woodstock, some 3,000 miles away.

Bowie’s involvement in the counterculture was passionate, if ultimately passing. He had a genuine longstanding interest in Tibetan Buddhism and for a while toyed with becoming a monk rather than a pop star. His interests in mysticism and magic would endure far longer than the sound adopted on Space Oddity, which is dominated by fast-strummed acoustic guitars and folky vocals alternately declamatory and yearning. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is  somewhat slightly Dylan-indebted. “Letter to Hermione” is a delicate audio missive addressed to a former romantic and musical partner who bore the improbably “English psychedelic dreamgirl” name Hermione Farthingale. The flute-adorned “An Occasional Dream” resembles Donovan at his most dulcet and winsome.

The majority of Space Oddity is trapped in its time, then. Still, as period pieces, several songs do fascinatingly capture the period’s preoccupations. The cryptically titled “Cygnet Committee” is an epic nine-minute allegory of the corruption of the hippie dream, revealing Bowie’s gradual disillusionment with the counterculture, his dawning sense that the hordes of unwashed slackers at the festivals had created a new kind of alternative conformity. “Memory of a Free Festival” is a wistful reverie of the mini-Woodstock he’d convened that summer. It takes a detour into Hendrix-like sci-fi with the arrival of Venusians, who hang out with the hippies before returning to their home planet.

Part of belonging to the long-hair underground was a disdain for commercial pop. Being a true chameleon — someone who sincerely embraced ideas, then quickly moved on — Bowie adopted this snobbery about mainstream chartpop, and as a result was genuinely mortified when “Space Oddity” became a U.K. hit in the fall of 1969. (The song would also become his first American hit single a few years later, when he was in Ziggy Stardust glam-rock mode.) In the immediate aftermath of its first success, Bowie would sniff that the single was “only a pop song after all.” A strange reaction, given that “Space Oddity” would seem rather obviously to be his first major artistic achievement: a masterpiece for the ages and still one of the two or three songs that define him in the public imagination.

Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” after seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in the spring of 1968 amidst a flurry of NASA missions that clearly pointed to an imminent Moon landing. Songs about space, aliens and the cosmic beyond were staples of psychedelia. What was so original — and prescient — about Bowie’s take was that it wasn’t naively gung-ho about the bold new frontier. Rather, its subdued sadness seemed to anticipate the “and now what?” comedown after the euphoria.

In “Space Oddity,” the mission has misfired and Bowie’s astronaut drifts helplessly away from Earth in his “tin can.” The musical framing for this scenario — conceived by Bowie in tandem with producer Gus Dudgeon, arranger Paul Buckmaster and a squad of superb session musicians — finds an extraordinarily evocative and cinematic place somewhere between psychedelia and easy listening. The folky dirge of Bowie’s original demo is embellished with strings, touches of synth and ominous detonations of bass. Unable to write music, Dudgeon invented his own color-coded pictorial score, dotted with symbols and zigzag patterns, to convey his ideas to Buckmaster.

But the reason the song works ultimately comes down to Bowie’s performance, a triumph of singing-as-acting that completely sells the story: the spaceman, sad about never seeing his wife again, yet serene in his fatalism (“Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”) and, in a most peculiar way, finally free of the crushing mundanity of earthly existence. It was a sentiment of “anywhere but here” ennui that Bowie would return to with his next masterpiece, “Life on Mars?,” the highlight of 1971’s Hunky Dory.

Simon Reynolds is the author of Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century.

Image: David Bowie in 1970. Credit: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty.

Mobile users who subscribe to TIDAL HiFi can hear the new 360 Reality Audio version of Space Oddity, mixed by original album co-producer Tony Visconti, by clicking the linked cover below.   

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