“I’m Floating in a Most Peculiar Way”: The Creation and Unexpected Success of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”
On May 12th, 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield brought the vivid imagery of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” lyrics full circle when he posted his performance of the song on YouTube. Uploaded nearly 45 years after Bowie recorded the original version at London’s iconic Trident Studios, the striking visuals from the International Space Station paired with Hadfield’s solid rendition were an instant hit, earning the video close to 40 million views in the five years since its release. Bowie himself loved the cover and called it “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created” in a May 2013 Facebook post.
Although Hadfield’s version may be one of the most well-known and unique covers of “Space Oddity”, the song also inspired countless other artists to try their hand at capturing the magic of the original, with everyone from Natalie Merchant to Tangerine Dream recreating Bowie’s journey to outer orbit. Between spawning 52 cover versions, sellling 7.2 million copies worldwide, and earning a spot on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock” since its initial release in 1969, Bowie’s ode to the fictional astronaut Major Tom long ago ingrained itself in our collective consciousness.
Despite the undeniable permanence of “Space Oddity” in our cultural fabric, not everyone was convinced of its artistic merit when they first heard it. This was especially true for musician, producer, frequent David Bowie collaborator, and Trident Studios mainstay Tony Visconti. When first presented with the record, Visconti expressed concern that the song was too derivative of other major acts at the time and didn’t reflect Bowie’s own distinct musical qualities. “I could hear so many commercial lifts from other people’s sounds like, ‘Here I am sitting in a tin can,’ where the harmonies sound exactly like Simon and Garfunkel,” Visconti said in a 1980s BBC documentary on Trident Studios. “The opening melody itself was in the style of John Lennon, and I said, ‘David, there’s hardly any of you in this song.’”
Visconti was also perturbed by the songs lyrical content, which he saw as an attempt to cash in on the world’s fascination with space exploration during the late 1960s. According to his interview with BBC, Visconti told Bowie, “This moon song, it’s a very cheap thing, I mean, this man is landing on the moon like you’re writing a song for it. I expect like a dozen people in tin pan alley to do that, not you.”
Although Visconti and others have pointed to Britain’s unmanned space program or the global fixation with Apollo 11’s launch as a source for the record’s meaning, a 2003 Bowie interview from Bill Demain’s book In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk About the Creative Process sheds a different light on the origins of the lyrics. “It was written because of going to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, 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,” Bowie told Demain.
Whatever the origins of Bowie’s inspiration, Visconti’s disdain for the song was heard loud and clear and production duties were handed over to Gus Dudgeon, who later went on to become widely recognised as the producer of Elton John’s early records. Dudgeon was thrilled to have an opportunity to help craft “Space Oddity”, a record he felt had incredible potential. “I couldn’t believe that Tony didn’t like the song, so I rang him up and I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to do this song?’” Dudgeon told BBC in their Trident Studios documentary. After a bit of back and forth, it was decided that Dudgeon would produce “Space Oddity” and the subsequent b-side, with Visconti overseeing production on the rest of David Bowie (Man of Words/Man of Music in the US).
With Visconti taking on production for the rest of the David Bowie album, recording duties were handled by Trident Studios co-owner Barry Sheffield, Malcolm Toft—who worked on the early Tyrannosurus Rex albums and later built the famed Trident A-Range desk—and Ken Scott, who’d recently departed from Abbey Road and went on to produce Bowie’s Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
The album was recorded on Trident’s Ampex AG-440, the only 8-track machine in England at the time, between June and July of 1969. Trident’s purchase and ownership of England’s first 8-track was consistent with studio co-owner’s Barry and Norman Sheffield’s reputation for always being ahead of the curve with recording technology, something they considered a key element of Trident’s success.
According to Howard Massey’s book The Great British Recording Studios, the Sheffield brothers already had great trust in Ampex after Trident’s positive experiences with Ampex’s AG-440 four-track and an earlier Ampex stereo tape recorder. They were so enamored with the 8-track that they ordered one before Ampex had completed the machine.
But it wasn’t just Trident Studios’ use of cutting edge technology that set them apart. A 2015 MusicTech interview with Tony Visconti highlights the dream team of talent employed by the studio who helped them achieve the incredible sound on revolutionary records like “Space Oddity”. “I worked with great engineers at the time, like Ken Scott, Malcolm Toft, Eddy Offord and Martin Rushent,” Visconti said. “Those engineers were masters of British EQ, laying it on during the tracking sessions, something American engineers didn’t do at the time. They preferred recording flat and EQ’ing in the mix only. But this is why I wanted to live in London, to learn the British techniques of making records. They sounded so much better than American records in that period.”
“Space Oddity” exemplifies the attention to detail, technical savvy, and keen musician’s ear mentioned by Visconti that would later make Trident Studios famous. Featuring the talents of renowned bassist Herbie Flowers, Yes member Rick Wakeman on Mellotron, Bowie on the child-friendly Stylophone pocket electronic organ, and the deft engineering skills of Trident co-owner Barry Sheffield, the song became Bowie’s breakthrough single and stood as a signifier of Bowie’s potential in the years to come.
While “Space Oddity” certainly owes much of its power to the unique acoustics, a talented engineer and producer, and the top of the line technology that Trident prided itself on having, producer Gus Dudgeon also credited pre-planning and demoing as being a central part of the process. “Bowie and I sat down and planned the record—every detail of it. I’ve still got the original demo at home,” he told Sound International magazine in May of 1978.
Dudgeon remembered the demos as being far from glamorous in quality, but also felt they were critical in making the song that millions of people know and love today. “If we hadn’t made that demo we wouldn’t have done that record the way it came out,” he told Sound International.
In addition to demoing “Space Oddity” before they hit Trident Studios, Bowie and Dudgeon mapped out the song on paper so they had a plan of action when it came time to record. “Our planning consisted of writing the lyrics out, then leaving a gap of about four lines underneath in which we’d write things–maybe I’d draw a line that meant a Stylophone swoop or a Mellotron part,” Dudgeon told Sound International. “It looked just like a kid’s map, covered in little drawings and stars.”
By the time Bowie and Dudgeon were ready to bring the demo recording and their blueprint for “Space Oddity” to Trident on June 20th, 1969, the actual recording of the song came together rather quickly. “When we hit the studio we knew exactly what we wanted—no other sound would do. And it proved to be a very quick session with everything happening very fast,” Dudgeon told Sound International.
Yes member Rick Wakemen also remembered the “Space Oddity” session happening at lightning speed. “It was the days of fun,” he recalled in an interview with the BBC. “David had just bought one of those Stylophone things on the street corner for about 50p or 10 bob as it was then. He threw that on there. We did the whole thing in about 3 hours.”
Wakeman’s role in the making of “Space Oddity” came about after Dudgeon heard someone play the Mellotron on another record. Dudgeon mentioned his interest in featuring the keyboard on “Space Oddity” to Tony Visconti, who referenced Wakeman as one of the best players in London. After receiving a call from the folks at Trident, Wakeman wowed the others in the studio with his execution and talent. “He messed it up the first take, and the next take was the master. It was ridiculous, two takes,” Dudgeon told BBC.
Once the brief recording session for “Space Oddity” was complete, Dudgeon recalled their being little time to refine or tinker with the original master. “I remember mixing it and some bloke coming in and whipping it off to the factory straight away—that’s how things were on that date,” he told Sound International.
As the first single to emerge from David Bowie, “Space Oddity” was markedly different than the rest of the album. Detailing the story of a make believe astronaut named Major Tom who ends up lost in space, Bowie’s first hit was released five days prior to the Apollo 11 launch on July 11, 1969. The BBC refused to play it until the safe return of the crew—most likely because of the fictional Major Tom losing contact with ground control at the end of the song—and the refusal to play the song contributed to its initial slow performance on the charts. Despite an inauspicious beginning, “Space Oddity” gradually climbed to number 5 in the UK.
David Bowie the album, however, would not share the same resounding success as the single it spawned. Released in November of 1969 on the Phillips label in the UK and Mercury in the US, the album is a significant change in direction from Bowie’s 1967 debut. As the 50-year-anniversary of the release date approaches, the record now provides us with a valuable time capsule of an artist who is still developing his identity as a musician. As such, some critics were rather dismissive of the album at first, with famed music journalist Robert Christgau referring to both Bowie’s first and second album as “overwrought excursions”.
Even some of the Trident staff who worked on the record weren’t completely won over by David Bowie. Despite relieving himself of production duties on his least favorite track, Tony Visconti later expressed tepid feelings towards the project, largely for what he saw as his own inadequacies as a producer during his early years. “I loved the arrangements and the performances, but sonically it was a terrible record for me. I knew nothing then,” he said in David Buckley’s book Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story.
Critics like Christgau may have found the album “overwrought”, but several prominent publications at the time seemed to grasp that Bowie demonstrated a star quality on the album that could set him apart from the rest of the pack. NME wrote in October of 1969 that Bowie had a “highly individual singing style” while an October 1969 Melody Maker review suggested that “his current success [the single] could mean the start of a whole new career for an extremely talented and likeable person.”
And Nancy Erlich, who reviewed the album for The New York Times over a year after the initial UK release, wrote “It is over a year old and not easy to find in record stores, but it is well worth special ordering or sending to England for or borrowing from a friend. It is worth any three records now on the charts.”
Interestingly, while David Bowie spawned a top five single in “Space Oddity”, the album itself didn’t chart. It wasn’t until its 1972 re-release following Bowie’s success with Ziggy Stardust that a broader audience started viewing the album as an important work in the Bowie catalog, helping it perform well on both the US and UK charts. Initial commercial disappointment aside, David Bowie gives us a glimpse into the mind of a young Bowie and the ideas that would help shape his remarkable career.
In his book David Bowie: The Music and The Changes, noted Bowie biographer David Buckley cites the line, “But if you took an axe to me /You’d kill another man not me at all,” as it seems to foretell the fascination with his alter egos Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. According to Buckley, the subsequent “demoralizing” tour to support “Space Oddity” and the rest of David Bowie would also play an instrumental role in Bowie’s use of alter egos. As Buckley writes in his book, Bowie ‘“resolved that the next time he took to the stage it would be in character to create a barrier between his ‘real’ self and the audience.”
Despite Bowie placing an imaginary barrier between him and his audience, his decision to distance himself from his fans while performing couldn’t diminish to power of “Space Oddity”. Reaching an emotional tenor not often found in popular music during the song’s climax, Bowie’s early work still sounds remarkably poignant and fresh. A testament to the enduring power of a single song, “Space Oddity” remains one of the most recognizable tracks from Bowie’s incredible discography.
Bowie, Gus Dudgeon, Tony Visconti, and the rest of the talented engineers and producers at Trident Studios demonstrated that sometimes less is more with the achievement of of “Space Oddity” and the rest of the David Bowie album. With 8 tracks of sound, their imaginations, and a willingness to take risks, the combined efforts of all involved parties produced a song—and an album—that will continue to stand the test of time well beyond another 50 years.
Now, thanks to Russell Sheffield and Trident Studios mainstay Malcolm Toft’s new Trackd app, today’s musicians can use a simple but powerful 8-track interface to harness their own creativity. The app provides artists with everything they need to start making great music without overwhelming them. Sure, Trackd won’t give you the once in a lifetime creativity, talent, and vision that David Bowie had—but it can help you access a modernized version of the basic but powerful setup he used to make some of his best work.
The simplicity and portability of Trackd make it incredibly easy to capture the spark of an idea. Much like Bowie and Gus Dudgeon mapped out their plan for “Space Oddity” with paper and pen, musicians now can map out drafts and demos of songs by simply recording into their phones. In addition to helping artists capture creative lightning in a bottle, Track was developed to further nurture the collaborative spirit often needed to make a great record. With easy file sharing capability and a “track chat” feature, you can seamlessly create your own musical magic with someone who lives in another town, city, or country. The possibilities for working with other artists are endless.
Almost 50 years ago, David Bowie and company showed us what remarkable feats of artistic expression could be achieved with a mere 8 tracks of sound. His song traveled around the world and beyond, making its way to a cover version recorded on the International Space Station. Now you can carry a portable 8-track studio around in your pocket and record music anywhere in the world.
What will you make with that kind of creative control and power?