I sat there rather stunned when I learned that David Bowie had passed on Sunday, January 10th, at the age of only 69. I felt a deep sadness at his loss, but I also marveled at the stunning breadth and depth of his output since he came onto the rock scene in the late 1960’s. Gifted. Glamorous. A musical chameleon. Bisexual. Experimental. A trendsetter. A fashionista. There are endless ways to describe David Bowie because he has had endless incarnations through the years, both in his personal as well as his musical aesthetic. With the terrible news of his death, I knew I wanted to write a piece on Bowie, but I didn’t know where to begin. An overview of his life? The Berlin albums? Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars? How much ground could I cover in one post? So I’ve decided to go back to the beginning – of both my relationship to David Bowie’s music, and to the song that, through the years, has come to be known as perhaps his ultimate signature song.
David Bowie knew from an early age that he wanted to be a pop star. The decision was easy. Getting there was the hard part. After making his way through quite a few bands in the 1960s, he finally went it alone as a solo act and released his first album on the first of June in 1967. But a funny thing happened on the way to pop stardom. The first single “Rubber Band” flopped. The second single “Love You Till Tuesday” flopped too. The third single “The Laughing Gnome” flopped. And the album itself? You guessed it. That flopped too. Another record released on June the 1st of 1967 was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. That one didn’t flop, but it didn’t help David Bowie any. This all was enough to make Bowie take a break from music. He had other professional artistic interests; acting, mime. He focused on Buddhist Meditation and considered retreating to a monastery. He found love with a woman named Hermione, and then lost love. It was rough goings for David Bowie the pop star that wasn’t.
Bowie had a sophisticated, broad, and in general rather exquisite taste in music. The Velvet Underground remained favorites bringing him a dose of New York cool, and Pink Floyd was a love. In 1968, he was drawn to another New York City artist. This time it wasn’t a proto-punk post-beatnik artsy intellectual unit like the Underground. Rather, it was two guys and an acoustic guitar, and some rather beautiful voices. Simon & Garfunkel, if you hadn’t guessed. Perhaps partially inspired by the deep sadness he felt from the loss of his love Hermione, he was drawn to the album Bookends. The harmonies. The shimmering acoustic strums. All of it. Combined with his other tastes, such as the more psychedelic, experimental work of Syd Barrett and company, musical ideas began to take shape within Bowie’s head. All this combined with not insignificant amounts of hash and wine, and possibly a little heroin too. He began writing songs with two part harmonies. Thankfully Bowie hadn’t given up on music entirely and suddenly songs began pouring forth.
One of these songs happened to be about a spaceman.
Bowie didn’t really think the song was anything special at first, just a trifle, just a novelty. But there were currents in the air. Streams of dreams and wonder. This was the dawning of the age of real life space travel, a phenomenon which served as the inspiration and creation of awe for the entire world. There was a space craze in society. There was also a rather important film. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick was also a source of intellectual wonder. It captivated audiences and critics. It captivated Bowie’s imagination. It also gave him a title.
Through connections at Mercury Records, Bowie was able to record a demo of the song at their studios, behind their backs. When Bowie played it live, he found that his audience was enthralled by the number. Mercy Records was impressed by the potential of the captivating single and gave Bowie a record deal – though it was only for one album.
The time had come to re-record the song for professional release as a single by Mercury Records. Bowie was disappointed to find that his friend and collaborator Tony Visconti would decline to produce the song, thinking that it was a mere novelty and not the serious music he wanted Bowie to produce. Instead, Gus Dudgeon jumped at the chance to produce the song – Dudgeon would later find much success producing a string of albums for British piano man Elton John.
The recording of the song was elaborate. The session musicians included Mick Wayne on guitar, Herbie Flowers on bass, Terry Cox on drums, Rick Wakeman of future Yes fame on Mellotron, Visconti on woodwinds, and Paul Buckmaster handling the string arrangements. The recording took place on June 20, 1969 in London’s Trident studio.
The results were glorious. The song is a multi-sectioned epic, something of a magnum opus for Bowie. Ostensibly it is the story of an astronaut who ultimately gets lost in space. But on a deeper level, the song is about the daring of humanity’s spirit, the boldness with which we explore and travel, and how easy it is for us to lose our way. It’s an existential investigation into what happens when the human spirit oversteps its bounds, gets lost in the void of meaning. It is about humanity’s power to conquer, and its powerlessness in the face of nature, destiny, and metaphysical questioning.
The song, with its juxtaposition of gently strummed acoustic guitar, massive drum hits, and a cosmological orchestra, reached #5 on the UK singles charts, and a new pop star was born. David Bowie would, like Major Tom, go on to explore the frontiers and farthest horizons, of music and image though, not space. His passing is an immeasurable loss.
“Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.“