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.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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.
Major Tom made a few reappearances throughout David Bowie’s career: in the 1980 art rock single Ashes to Ashes, he was “a guy that’s been in such an early song,” who, according to “a rumor from Ground Control,” turned into a junkie “strung out in heaven’s high.” Near the end of the music video for the song Slow Burn on Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen, an astronaut standing with both hands in his pockets appears in the studio with Bowie himself, in a manner much like his other persona. The skull of a dead astronaut, possibly Major Tom’s, is depicted in the music video of Bowie’s 2015 song Blackstar on the album of the same name. As the album was released in 2016 two days prior to the artist’s death according to a plan painstakingly designed by Bowie himself, and the skull in the video was eventually retrieved as a relic for cult worship, the skull, which foreshadows Major Tom’s final fate, becomes an obvious reference typical of Bowie’s clever tricks of self-allusion. Three years after Bowie’s passing, one wonders how Major Tom is doing beyond our earthly world.
(Chang Ho-ming, Taipei Times)
「湯姆少校」數度在鮑伊的音樂生涯中再現：在一九八○年的藝術搖滾金曲《Ashes to Ashes》中，「湯姆少校」是「那首好久以前歌曲裡面的那個傢伙」，現在據「地面控制中心傳出的謠言」指出，已經變成一個「神智恍惚、飄飄欲仙的毒蟲」。二○○二年專輯《異教徒》收錄歌曲《Slow Burn》的音樂影片在接近結尾時，也出現一名雙手插在口袋的太空人，站在錄音室裡的鮑伊身旁，就好似他的另一個人格。在二○一五年披露的歌曲《Blackstar》音樂影片中，則出現一個死亡太空人的頭顱，很可能就是「湯姆少校」的頭骨。在鮑伊的精心策劃下，這張專輯在二○一六年他過世的前兩天發行，而影片中的頭骨既預示「湯姆少校」最後的命運，被人尋回後又成為異端宗教膜拜的聖物，很明顯地就是典型的大衛鮑伊，在作品中巧妙地玩弄自我指涉。在鮑伊離世三年後，大家都想知道，不知道「湯姆少校」在塵世之外過得好不好。
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