David Bowie Tribute: Space Oddity

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All of us at KCRW have been in mourning this week over the loss of one of pop music’s brightest stars, David Bowie. What was most shocking about his passing was the fact that we were in the midst of celebrating his work with the release of his new album, Blackstar, which, even prior to his death, was well on its way to being his most acclaimed record in many years. Instead, it felt like the power went out five minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day – something was cruelly and prematurely taken away from us right when we wanted it most.

Over the next few weeks, in an effort to keep the deserved celebration of Bowie’s masterful career alive, members of the KCRW Music staff and other special guests will be taking a look at each of his albums released over his 50-plus year career and offering a personal reflection on them. Given the incredible variety of sounds and genres represented throughout his discography, the diversity of perspectives is bound to demonstrate just how dynamic and relevant of an artist David Bowie truly was.

We begin with the first “true” album in Bowie’s discography, his self-titled 1969 record, which would be reissued a few years later as Space Oddity, named for the ground-breaking single from the record. An earlier release featured some of his vaudevillian songwriting experiments (such as the notorious single, “The Laughing Gnome”), but Space Oddity is a startlingly mature and sophisticated collection of songs (Bowie was only 22 at the time of the record’s release).

Of course we all know the title cut, which has gone on to become one of the most iconic story-songs of all time, with its tale of ill-fated astronaut Major Tom. Released on the eve of the first manned lunar landing, it seemed to capture the spirit of the momentous occasion despite its ambiguous ending… not to mention the fact that the song was written the year before, more as Bowie’s response to Kubrick’s landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, than any impending real-world exploration! But the song’s power is undeniable, from its slow-fade intro to its kaleidoscopic finale, and has proved to be one of his most covered tunes.

What strikes me most about that song, and the rest of the tracks from the album, is the ease with which Bowie had begun to mix the catchiness of mid-60s pop music with more heady styles, including the post-Summer of Love sounds of folk-rock and the adventurous structures of progressive rock. It is thus not surprising to learn that his band included the likes of drummer Terry Cox (of the classic UK folk-rock band Pentangle) and keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman (soon to be a member of Yes).

Although the album doesn’t contain any other song that can match “Space Oddity,” there are still memorable tracks throughout, including the epic “Cygnet Committee” and the album’s rousing closer, “Memory of a Free Festival,” which, a la Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” or Eric Burdon & the Animals’ “Monterey,” documents an actual festival Bowie’s art community friends put on that summer. References to Venusians and Sun Machines coming down hint at musical alien encounters to come, but for the time being, Bowie was content to close out the 60s and his first major chart success with a gentle party.