Now that I’m on this Space Odyssey vibe, I’m going to roll with it for a spell. See where it takes me…
Thinking about the film brings up recollections of listening to David Bowie’s haunting and trippy “Space Oddity”, one of the first pieces of music that had an emotional effect on me. It’s a haunting song, especially for someone like me with an active imagination, is prone to introspection, and enamored of sci-fi epics. (OK, maybe it really was about getting zonked on heroin; that interpretation would have been completely lost on me at the time.)
“Space Oddity” is so much a product of its time, obviously inspired by Kubrick’s masterpiece, but also derived from present day (for 1969) anxieties about space exploration. It’s a tale about a solitary astronaut blasting off into the Void and leaving everything behind forever. Beautifully constructed around a major-7ths and minor chords, the narration shifts between two distinct voices: “Ground Control” and the astronaut, “Major Tom”. The first, as the name implies, is grounded in science, achievement and celebrity, things that matter on Earth:
This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now its time to leave the capsule if you dare
Next we hear from Tom as he acclimates to the strange orbital environment, followed by an inner monologue about isolation and helplessness. Then the song goes instrumental, marked by freer chord-play and soaring mellotron notes, before the story resumes with the mission failing and Tom forever adrift in space, lost to all.
For such a visually evocative song, it’s a pity that the music video is so underwhelming—just Bowie in his Ziggy-era plumage sitting on a stool, strumming on a guitar, with a couple of shots of an oscillator display. You know, to make it look “techie”. Weak.
There was an earlier cut that was apparently part of an experimental film that Bowie made but never released. This version isn’t nearly as musically interesting or mature. It’s campy, Beatles-esque, poppy. But has a far more intriguing video, with a low-budget, late-60s aesthetic of all things spacy: white backgrounds and uniforms, distorted views, official-looking labels, goofy helmets. And I like in the concluding shots the addition of space sirens leading Tom to a xeno-sexual nirvana. Sweet.
(Props to MadRatStudio for the image of the mixed-media art.)