January 2, 2014

David Bowie - Space Oddity (1969/2009)


David Bowie (aka David Jones) had been struggling for years to achieve some semblance of commercial and artistic success as a musician, a journey that included stints as a blues-singer for mod-rock groups such as The King Bees and The Mannish Boys, a campy dance-hall dandy with a taste for Anthony Newley, and a Dylan-esque folksinger. While all of these musical incarnations failed miserably, it was, strangely enough, Bowie's participation in an avante-garde mime troupe that put him on the pathway to the kind of success he so badly craved. In 1968, now a solo mime artist, Bowie opened a show for Marc Bolan's Tyrannosaurus Rex, and in the process, ended up crossing paths with Bolan's producer Tony Visconti. Visconti's account of their initial meeting: "I met David about a month after Marc [Bolan] and I remember the weather. It was a nice day, I was in David Platz’s office at 68 Oxford Street and he played me Bowie’s first Deram album, saying, 'What do you think of this kid?' I said, 'he’s all over the map.' You know that album, 'Uncle Arthur,' 'Mr Gravedigger' and so on, crazy songs, 'Laughing Gnome'? I said, 'he’s great but so unfocused.' And he said, 'Come and meet him, he’s in the next room.' David was about 19 at the time, very nervous sitting there. He knew he was going to meet me, it had all been set up, and David Platz left us after five minutes. We got on very well, we shared a love of Andy Warhol, underground music, a group called The Fugs, which few British people were aware of. He was obviously in love with American music and I loved him, he was a singer songwriter, had this great English accent and now we were going to work together. So we took a long walk down Oxford Street, on this nice day, we continued to talk the whole day and about three hours later ended up on King’s Road near a film theatre where Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water was playing. We’d been talking about foreign films and Truffaut, specifically black and white and scratchy films, so we went in there and we said goodbye at about 7 in the evening. We’d struck up a great friendship."

To say this was a fortuitous encounter would be a vast understatement because Visconti proved to be instrumental in shaping the careers of both Bolan and Bowie, as well as helping to foster the birth of the glam-rock movement that would make them both superstars by 1972. At the time of their meeting in 1968, Bowie had managed to record an album for Deram the previous year, but it had failed to chart. As Visconti noted when he first heard the LP, David Bowie is an unfocused pastiche of an album, touching on dancehall numbers, show tunes, British invasion and even novelty songs. What was conspicuously absent was any significant reference to rock music, a much better forum for Bowie's growing avant-garde inclinations. This and the inconsistent songwriting all but sealed its fate with the public. As a result, his days at the label were numbered, and he was unceremoniously dropped in early 1968. However, just before his exit from Deram, Bowie had composed and recorded "Space Oddity," a song destined to eventually bring him his first taste of commercial success, and he had collaborated on a song with Visconti, "Let Me Sleep Beside You," which is arguably his first successful attempt at writing a rock song and a harbinger of what was to come next. Bowie had written a good deal of new material by the time he entered the studio again in 1969, this time on the dime of Mercury Records, to record his second album, now with Visconti as his producer. Among the songs to be recorded was a new version of "Space Oddity," which was obviously influenced by the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the impending Apollo 11 moon landing. Bowie had originally written and recorded the song for a promotional film for Deram called Love You Till Tuesday, which ended up staying in the can until 1984.

Reportedly, Mercury's willingness to fund the recording sessions for Bowie's second album was contingent on re-recording "Space Oddity" and releasing it as a lead single in time to capitalize on the upcoming moon landing, which was to happen roughly a month later. Visconti hated this idea as well as the song and had no interest in producing it, which is why his assistant, Gus Dudgeon, who would later become Elton John's producer, was pressed into service. Visconti: I turned it down. I thought it was a novelty song. I respected him for the folk rock songs he gave me, with great depth in the lyrics, a real underground writer. But then he hands me this Space Oddity song, which was topical to the point of novelty. To this day I regret not doing it, it’s a great song, people remember it more than Young Americans or Let’s Dance. I offered it to Gus Dudgeon in the next office, he said, 'You don’t want to record this? You’re crazy!' And he did a great job. Then David came back to me. His record company would not let him make the album unless he recorded Space Oddity. ‘Now that we’ve got that out of the way,’ these were his exact words, ‘let’s get on with the album.’ It took a long time for that record to chart. He never did write a follow-up to Space Oddity. His next single was The Prettiest Star, which I got Marc Bolan to play on. But really nothing happened until he conceived of Ziggy Stardust a couple of years later." The Dudgeon-produced version of "Space Oddity" is a dark, lush, and dramatic epic that quickly transcended the initial impression by critics that it was little more than a novelty song. Central to the song's success are the haunting "space" effects provided by a mellotron and a pocket electronic organ called a stylophone, Bowie's now-iconic vocal performance, and the distinctive prog-folk arrangement. The song also featured a compelling narrative. Bowie discussing the lyrics in 1980: "Here we have the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, and once he gets there he's not quite sure why he's there. And that's where I left him." Not only was "Space Oddity" Bowie's first hit (top five in the U.K.), but it also, in many ways, provided the blueprint for his Ziggy Stardust persona and his ongoing thematic preoccupation with social outcasts and aliens. Originally titled David Bowie in the U.K. (inviting confusion with his identically-titled Deram debut), Man of Words / Man of Music in the U.S. and renamed Space Oddity for its re-issue in 1972, Bowie's second album is an edgy dystopian artistic breakthrough, which, though suffering a bit from a lack of stylistic cohesion, offers several glimpses of the genius he would demonstrate in his work throughout the 1970s.

The approach to recording the album was a bit haphazard, but proved to be a valuable learning experience for all involved; as Visconti recalls, "Well, Bowie and I finished the Space Oddity album and we looked at each other and realized it wasn't a rock album - we wanted to make a rock album. We respected the rock groups around at the time like Cream and such like, but we didn't have it in us! We needed someone to be [that] important element, and that somebody we were introduced to was Mick Ronson [....]  So we got Mick down [from Hull], actually while we were in the last stages of finishing the Space Oddity album, and Mick actually played a little bit of guitar, and he clapped, on 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud.' So he's on that album!  But then we started jamming with him, and we got him to play on a John Peel show, doing a little bit of guitar for us. John Peel knew Mick from some work he did with a folk singer - I forget the name - and so he was known to John Peel, who totally approved of Mick [playing] with us. So we got down to the nitty gritty part of putting the band together, and Mick turned to me and he said, 'You have to listen to Jack Bruce' [bass,vocals, Cream]. He had advice like that for every one of us. He wasn't outspoken - he was very shy and all that, but if you asked him a direct question he would give you a direct answer. So he said, 'you have to listen to Jack Bruce,' and he made me get a short scale EB3 Bass, the one that Jack Bruce played. I was already a guitarist/ bassist, and it was basically Jack Bruce that played lead bass - it was like a second guitar to Eric Clapton. I was bending strings and slapping it - getting distortion - and we have Mick to thank for that. If it wasn't for Mick… ? Who knows? There might have been no Ziggy Stardust. And I hate to say things like that because nobody really knows, but he was so important."


In addition to the title track, Space Oddity features several gems, including "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed," a proto-Glam kiss-off (both stylistically and lyrically) to what Bowie took to be the "lock-step" mentality hiding beneath the surface of various late-sixties counter-cultural ideologies. At the outset, the song sounds as though it might be an idealistic ballad, as Bowie strums his acoustic 12-string and, with a heavily reverbed voice, sings to a pretty girl in a window. However, when the bass and drums join the mix, things turn dark, as the song transforms into a snarling indictment of class from the perspective of a social outcast. The album concludes with another epic, "Memory of a Free Festival," which, in effect, closes the door on the last traces of the hippie-influenced utopianism that had preoccupied much of Bowie's earlier work. While the song recounts, in beautifully idealized terms, his first appearance at Glastonbury Festival, it maintains a funereal tone until the cathartic fade/chorus of "The sun machine is coming down / And we're gonna have a party" brings the song to a powerfully ironic conclusion. Upon its release, Space Oddity garnered a number of ecstatic reviews, but, in the eyes of Mercury, the album failed to deliver on the promise of its lead single, as the tracks recorded with Visconti are far from accessible and often quite gloomy in tone. As a result, they failed to properly promote the album, so Bowie's commercial fortunes once again took a tumble.  It was to be on the next album, The Man Who Sold the World, that Bowie, Visconti and Ronson would craft the sound that helped change the face of rock music in the 1970s.


Space Oddity (1969/2009)  40th Anniversary Edition

Disc I- Space Oddity
1. Space Oddity
3. Letter to Hermione
5. Janine
8. God Knows I'm Good

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Disc II- Bonus Material
 1. Space Oddity (Demo)
 2. An Occasional Dream (Demo)
 3. Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud (Single B-Side)
 4. Let Me Sleep Beside You (BBC Radio Session D.L.T. Show) 
 5. Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (BBC Radio Session D.L.T. Show) 
 6. Janine (BBC Radio Session D.L.T. Show) 
 7. London, Bye, Ta-Ta (Stereo Version) 
 8. The Prettiest Star (Stereo Version) 
 9. Conversation Piece (Stereo Version)
10. Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1) (Single A-Side) 
11. Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2) (Single B-Side)
12. Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud (Alternate Album Mix) 
13. Memory of a Free Festival (Alternate Album Mix) 
14. London, Bye, Ta-Ta (Alternate Stereo Mix) 
15. Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola (Full Length Stereo Version) 


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Space Oddity (2009) 40th Anniversary iTunes EP
 1. Space Oddity (Mono Single Edit) 
 2. Space Oddity (US Mono Single Edit) 
 3. Space Oddity (US Stereo Single Edit) 
 4. Space Oddity (1979 Re-Record) 
 5. Space Oddity (Bass and Drums) 
 6. Space Oddity (Strings) 
 7. Space Oddity (Acoustic Guitar) 
 8. Space Oddity (Mellotron) 
 9. Space Oddity (Backing Vocal, Flute and Cellos) 
10. Space Oddity (Stylophone and Guitar) 
11. Space Oddity (Lead Vocal) 
12. Space Oddity (Main Backing Vocal Including Countdown)


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9 comments:

  1. Space Oddity 40th Anniversary

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    ReplyDelete
  2. I bought Ziggy one night because of an article I had read from some absure free music newsletter I stumbled across. This newsletter had a lenghty article, with b&w pics, about this artist David Bowie. I became a Bowie fan right up till Diamond Dogs. I still hate that album!

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    Replies
    1. awww, what's wrong with Diamond Dogs? ;)

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    2. Aladdin Sane was an album that came out at that teenage period of my life, confused, unsure etc. Wore the grooves down on that one. Then Diamond Dogs....I mean Rebel Rebel really? I still can't listen to it. Low was good, as was Heros. So I guess there was just a period there where David went off the deep end. Drugs perhaps?

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    3. you don't like "Rebel, Rebel" ?!? :)

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    4. Yep totally unlistenable. Sorry. lol!

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    5. haha, well, let's agree to disagree on that one

      hot tramps are pretty cool ;)

      Delete
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