Sat, Jul 20, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Bilingual Music: David Bowie’s Space Oddity
雙語音樂: 大衛鮑伊的《太空怪談》

The cover art for David Bowie’s second studio album Space Oddity released under the title of David Bowie by Philips in the UK.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing in human history. Five days prior to the launch of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, David Bowie, a British folk singer who later became one of the most legendary music icons of all time, released the seven-inch single Space Oddity, a song that both echoed and ran contrary to the “space fever” at the time, and in which Bowie’s quasi-autobiographical character “Major Tom” made his first appearance.

Conceived after watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the song bears an apparent allusion to the epic sci-fi classic, not only in its title but also at the beginning of the song. A barely audible deep bass tone echoes the first few bars of Richard Strauss’ tone poem, named after Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same title Also sprach Zarathustra, which features prominently in the film’s majestic opening sequence.

Throughout his life, Bowie never denied the connection between his Space Oddity and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie, space voyagers — or call them astronauts, if you want — are threatened and betrayed by their spaceship’s computer “HAL,” which was built with a human personality that turns from being an amiable companion to a gruesome killer. “I related to the sense of isolation,” Bowie said of the movie, and this sense of isolation eventually became the backbone of his song.

Another possible origin of inspiration was the less celebrated BBC-TV drama titled Beach Head, as the episode “Out of the Unknown” was aired on January 28, 1969, which precisely corresponds with the gestation period of Space Oddity. The episode offered a bleak portrayal of a space pilot, Commandant Tom Decker, landing on Planet 0243/B with his spaceship, but the plot showed not so much the extraterrestrial world as the protagonist’s ennui, which anticipates the alienation that haunts Bowie’s Major Tom.

The rush of recording Space Oddity and the release date hints at the record label’s attempt to capitalize on the Apollo craze, as evidenced by Tony Visconti, who later became Bowie’s regular and longtime producer, regarding it as a “cheap shot” at the impending space mission. Bowie himself was rather ambivalent: on one occasion, he was reported as saying “I want it to be the first anthem of the Moon” and “play it as they hoist the flag,” while saying “I suppose it’s an antidote to space fever, really.” On another occasion, Bowie said dismissively of Space Oddity that “It’s only a pop song, after all.”

An antidote to the space fever, indeed. While Space Oddity was miraculously chosen by the BBC to be broadcast during its Apollo coverage, the chilling conclusion of the song and the bleak portrayal of life in space almost went unnoticed. As “the papers want to know whose shirts you wear,” life in space was just as hollow as it was on Earth. Bowie’s musical partners further intensified the single’s eerie atmosphere: John Hutchinson’s design of a floating F major 7 chord that opens the song effectively portrays the astronaut’s state of being adrift in space; while Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangement casts an unsettling shadow that fittingly evokes the unnerving modernist music written in fin-de-siecle Vienna. Bowie’s use of a Stylophone, a miniature analog stylus-operated keyboard, adds a futuristic touch to the song.

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