Recreating a Song as if the Original Never Existed: The Plight of David Bowie and his “Space Oddity”

Posted: December 25, 2012 in Editorials
Bowie has captured the attention of journalists and the press throughout his entire career

Bowie has captured the attention of journalists and the press throughout his entire career

Recently, I took a course entitled “We Are The Champions: The Impact of Glam Rock on Culture,” which required me to write several papers on various topics regarding Glam musicians.  Below is the first of three “editorials,” per se.

Sit down for a moment and think about the word “glamour.”  What ideas, words, pictures and concepts come to mind?  Most people would conjure images of fame, fancy, popularity, beauty, luxury and other similar visions of grandeur.  Andy Warhol, an eccentric New York based artist usually credited with coining the genre of “pop-art,” brought hope of achievable fame to the masses.  Warhol preached that as long as you went about your life feeling famous, feeling fantastic, feeling fancy, then you were all that you dreamed of being.  This concept of self-proclaimed fame, however, seems to jive with the cliché, “Easier said than done,” which is where the Glam lifestyle, one of rejecting widely accepted social conduct, comes into play.  Glams prided themselves on experimenting with exuberance, abnormality, and the unknown in their theatricality, sexuality and overall behavior.   Though their performances often had deeper meaning, the main purpose of their art was to attract attention and elicit a reaction.  Most importantly, everything a Glam released had to be new.  That was how they gained the most attention: by glorifying the bizarre and the unprecedented.

In 1969, just as he was gaining some popularity, the British singer-songwriter David Bowie released a music video of his song, “Space Oddity,” which touches on science fiction and abandoning society.  In 1972, after achieving superstardom, Bowie released a new interpretation of “Space Oddity.”  The dynamic differences between David Bowie’s 1969 and 1972 versions of his “Space Oddity” music video display Bowie’s embodiment of the Glam way of life, one that glorifies personal evolution in order to consistently remain in the spotlight.

The videos, though released only three years apart, differ in two major categories, the first being the audio component, and the second being the visual aspects.  The fact that Bowie rearranged not only the “Space Oddity” music video but also the song itself exemplifies Bowie’s complete destruction and creation of his former and new personas respectively, as he, in the practice of the glam community, would continue to do over and over again throughout his career.  Interestingly enough, the original 1969 combination of the song and video was a major hit for Bowie, one that actually gained him significant popularity and began his career.  Taking apart that chart-topping song and completely turning it on his side only further proves his obsession with drastic, attention-attracting change.

Musical differences are already noticeable from the very first second of both versions of “Space Oddity.”  The two songs virtually completely contrast with respect to instrumentation and musical organization, save for the “E-minor” and “C-major” chord progression, which Bowie in fact maintains throughout both versions.   The 1969 version, which is clearly a poppy, campier and overall less gloomily morose tune, begins with a moderately paced bass-line.  Rumbling drum fills that resemble percussion sounds used heavily by psychedelic bands of the 1960s quickly accompany the steady progression.   The first line of vocals establish the melody, but the second vocal line includes melody and harmony tracks that already give the song a happy-go-lucky feel that recalls the Beach Boys, the Beatles and other early stadium rock groups.  When working in the music business, one must recall that consumers are familiar with a specific sound, a specific musical feel, and regardless of quality, are more comfortable listening and thus purchasing recognizable music.  Bowie’s strategy is to hone in on that concept of the “familiar sound,” while simultaneously incorporating his more eccentric lyrical content.

The 1969 Space Oddity video focuses on a narrative more so than its 1972 sucessor

The 1969 Space Oddity video focuses on a narrative more so than its 1972 sucessor

Once Ground Control establishes that they are “commencing liftoff,” in the first version, the song changes direction: it becomes faster and more dramatic, accompanied by a constant drum beat as opposed to the spacey drum fills of the earlier section of the song.  Now the tune really gets moving and maintains that uplifting mood for the remainder of its duration, despite the rather depressing lyrical content.  The background rock organs, just loud enough to be audible over the guitar and vocal tracks, only heighten this exaggerated theatrical style, though nothing tops the flute solo that stomps over those happy keyboards in a major key that just makes listeners want to skip through the park throwing daisies as they go.  Sarcasm aside, however, the most important point to take away from the 1969 version of “Space Oddity” is that the song tries to attract attention to the heavily produced plethora of instrumental and vocal tracks organized in composition that is easily accessible to the entire music-listening world, rather than circulate the music around the less conventional lyrical themes and moods.

In one broad, overarching statement, one can say that the 1972 version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” makes more sense: the music matches the sad tale of Major Tom, a space explorer who seemingly commits suicide in an attempt to leave society, or so music interpreters say.  As if to completely oppose what he previously released, Bowie’s 1972 musical model of “Space Oddity” is in fact written to more closely reflect upon and represent the struggle between Major Tom and Ground Control as he finds himself “stepping from the door” and “floating in the most peculiar way.”  From the first second of the newer version of “Space Oddity,” listeners know that David Bowie is no longer trying to breach the pop-charts.  By 1972, Bowie had been well established into the rock world as a performer of tremendous and shameless stage presence; he could now release creative, outlandish music without worrying about successful record sales.  People would buy “Space Oddity” because it was a David Bowie song.

1972’s “Space Oddity” opens with soft, sad, almost gloomy and depressing acoustic guitar strumming, on top of a militaristic drumbeat accompanied by a consistent, alarm-like tone.   Like the 1969 version, the new “Space Oddity” does indeed have vocal harmonies, however, these harmonies are much grimmer thanks to Bowie’s brilliant technique of recording extremely high and local vocal tracks, unlike the two, similar, happy vocal tracks of the earlier recording.  This vocal style as well as the frequent robotic-sounding twangs, give the newer version a less human and more science-fiction-y feel, which works well with both the story of Major Tom as well as the Glam idea of always moving forward artistically.  “Space Oddity” was one of the first (if not the first) song to discuss something not completely of this Earth—Pink Floyd started experimenting with this concept on Dark Side of The Moon in 1972, three years after Bowie first released “Space Oddity,” and the Flaming Lips would not release their album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots for several decades, so this concept of incorporating science, machinery and outer space into a pop song was truly fresh.

The visual components of both videos show, even more clearly, the complete turn-around Bowie to which subjects himself between 1969 and 1972.  The earlier video, like it’s aural component, tries to grab the attention of viewers through an easily accessible, familiar visual concept.  Pulling sceneries and set designs from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Stanley Kubrick released in 1968. This movie was widely popular, thus Bowie, aiming for the spotlight, utilized the film’s concepts in order to appeal to a mass audience.

In the music video, which follows the actual storyline of “Space Oddity,” Bowie actually portrays both Major Tom and Ground Control himself.  Staging Tom, decked out in a full spacesuit, in the control-chair of elaborate spacecraft decorated with mirrors and silver paper and futuristic white, shining walls and transparent tables, Bowie played off the “shock-and-awe” techniques Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that captivated the world over.  On the other hand, Ground Control, portrayed by one person wearing a T-Shirt and baseball cap, stands in a completely white, featureless room.  The major contrast between the Major Tom and Ground Control characters displays Bowie’s attempts at mimicking the metaphorical staging and designs of cinematic masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Bowie seems to be forcing the contrasts and images much more than Kubrick.  The video is almost melodramatic, as exemplified by the images of Ground Control throwing his hands into the air exclaiming that Major time has “really made the grade” in the beginning of the song and screaming with a panic stricken look on his face that Major Tom’s  “circuit said there’s something wrong” towards the end of the video.  Obviously, Bowie was trying to make the entire release of the song extremely easy for his audience to grasp and digest while also creating an impact, two goals Bowie achieved, receiving great fame and recognition for “Space Oddity.”

Nonetheless, as is the case with the audio, the 1972 video is much more suited to tell the tale of an estranged space explorer.  By 1972, campy, story-telling videos were the norm and the glam in Bowie needed to stray from that which was common.  Overall, the 1972 video is much less complex and packed as its 1969 predecessor, only referencing the song’s extra-terrestrial theme in dark, red-tinted images of a space ship that are frequently interrupted by computer screens displaying wavelengths.   These images, however, are not what shock the viewers.  Bowie sits in this gloom spacecraft that emits an almost evil aura, strumming an acoustic guitar.  Bowie’s face, unlike in the 1969 video, is a ghostly white, and his hair a bright mane, making the male singer greatly resemble a woman.  It was this sexual shock that allowed Bowie to make the step from star to superstar.  Three years earlier, Bowie grabbed fame by mixing the known with the unknown but in 1972, with the release of the second “Space Oddity” video, Bowie’s abandonment of anything remotely recognizable or accessible brought him a massive wave of new fans.  Teenage girls, socially awkward boys and even much older women were attracted to Bowie’s rather sexual performances.  This man did something unprecedented: in a perfect embodiment of glam culture, Bowie rewrote his mediocre pop hit into a stunning art rocker and then dressed in drag, sat on a spaceship and performed the new version.  No one had ever done that before this performer, and few would be able to pull off such a feat again.

The second visual incarnation of Space Oddity draws on more abstract artistic influences

The second visual incarnation of Space Oddity draws on more abstract artistic influences

The two versions of “Space Oddity” display a musical transformation but also a cultural and social transformation.  Bowie changed everything about himself: he changed his musicianship, his sexuality, his dress and his persona in order to, in the words of 1980s glam singer Billy Idol, bring a “shock to the system.”  With “Space Oddity,” David Bowie exemplifies that glams maintain the attention of the entertainment world by constantly changing with culture.  Bowie was often called a chameleon, and in some ways, this is not an unjust statement, though it would be unjust to say that Bowie’s frequent metamorphoses were bad for business.  Bowie adapted to the society of the late-sixties with his first “Space Oddity” and landed a hit, and then rearranged the song to appeal to the society of the early-seventies and landed an even bigger hit.  Thus, it is safe to say that Bowie is the perfect example of a glam who achieved greatness by doing nothing more than embodying the glam way of life to the absolute fullest.

  1. davidkaminsky says:

    I never even knew there were two versions. Wow. You
    learn something new every day.

    • eak1994 says:

      Yeah, neither did I. I’ve included both videos as links in the article. Look for the underlined, clickable words early on in the essay.

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