Words: Chelsea Haith
In July 1969, Major Tom, an astronaut, husband and generally well-dressed gent was born. Tom is a fictional character conceived and immortalised by David Bowie in the song ‘Space Oddity’ on the album of the same name. Bowie created the character, set him on a positive path and then casually killed him off at the end of the song with, “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong… Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” Was the song simply over or did Bowie have ulterior motives?
As with many facts, theories and anecdotes about David Bowie, the truth will probably never be known. What is clear is a particular attachment to space and transcendence in his lyrics and conceptualisation of most of his albums. In the song ‘Space Oddity’ Major Tom is urged to “leave the capsule if you can” after reference is made to his branded shirts, suggesting a stab at commercialism and materialism by Bowie, who was going through his own rebranding at the time. Major Tom reappeared in Bowie’s 1980 hit ‘Ashes to Ashes’ in which Tom takes on Bowie’s own identity as a “junkie”. It seems as though Bowie was writing for catharsis and understanding; 1980 was also the year in which he divorced his first wife Angie Bowie. The ‘80s were very financially successful for Bowie as he followed up the success of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with his collaboration with Queen on ‘Under Pressure’ in ‘81.
In the early 1970s Bowie declared himself homosexual, around the time of the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a singularly ground-breaking album with a title that is really far
too long, typically shortened to Ziggy Stardust. The album is in the top 50 of almost all lists that curate the ‘Best Albums Ever’, sitting at 35th in the Rolling Stone’s list and at 24th in Q. Bowie’s interest in space soaks through the album; the main character Ziggy is presented as a messenger from the aliens, bringing a message of peace and love. Much of the album is social commentary; Bowie seems to want to shake up the listener rather than provide a neatly packaged experience.
This may go some way to explain the main character’s dismal end as the victim of fame and all the drug and alcohol related trappings that go along with it. Ziggy Stardust dies but despite the mythologised alleged substance abuse over the course of his career, Bowie lives on, now married to the model Iman, starring in films and still releasing music every now and then, most recently the album The Next Day featuring the single ‘Where Are We Now?’ released on Bowie’s 66th birthday 8 January 2013.
All pervasive, Bowie’s work has entered the West’s common consciousness and popular culture to the extent that his work has featured in Friends and faux-indie films like It’s kind of a funny story. ‘Space Oddity’ is also referred to in the film The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller released in 2013. 2013 was a good year for Bowie, though he refused media during the release of his album The Next Day.
Another significant event of 2013 was that ‘Space Oddity’ featured in the first music video made in space.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed the song and Bowie gave permission for it to remain online for a year. The video was taken down in May this year. The song’s release on the BBC was postponed until after the Apollo 11 mission returned safely. Once re-released ‘Space Oddity’ spent two weeks at the top of UK Charts in 1975.