It may seem odd to contemplate, but rock titan David Bowie’s rise to fame was a long, frustrating, stop-and-start affair until he burst onto the international scene as Ziggy Stardust (though he had some success with his two prior albums, the excellent The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory). This is partly due to poor management, and partly due to Bowie’s own difficulty in finding a style that fit his ambitions. His first hit, “Space Oddity,” from his second, 1969, album of the same name, promised great things. (That record, originally called, like his first, just David Bowie, was renamed after the song did the Seventies equivalent of viral.) Most people who grew up with Bowie would tell you the song is a watershed moment in their discovery of pop music’s potential. I recall discovering Bowie at a young age through “Space Oddity,” and being given the album on cassette as a birthday present. Like many people, I was a little flummoxed by the record. None of it resembles the single, which isn’t necessarily a bad quality in general, but in this case, it’s hard to know what to make of that strange collection of sometimes comic, Beatles-esque pop fragments (“Don’t Sit Down”), sometimes cool progressive rock (“Janine”), and sometimes almost medieval, Judy Collins-like hippy folk (“Memory of a Free Festival,” "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud"). I grew to love it, but the album's eclecticism didn't win many over.
Still, nearly everyone knows and loves the album version of “Space Oddity.” But like a great deal of Bowie’s early work, the song exists in an earlier, more tentative version. Initially recorded shortly after his first album, 1967’s David Bowie—which Bowie biographer David Buckley called “the vinyl equivalent of the madwoman in the attic”—the song ended up on an abortive promotional film commissioned by Bowie’s producer, Kenneth Pitt. Called Love You Till Tuesday, after the single from the first album, the film finished shooting in 1969, but didn’t see the light of day until 1984, long after Bowie hit it big. The film version of “Space Oddity” (first video) differs significantly in sound and vision from the one right above. For one thing, Bowie, who wore a wig for the extent of filming because he’d shorn off his hair to audition for a role, looks decidedly less, well, like a rock star. As "Ground Control," his Janis Joplin glasses clash oddly with an arty t-shirt and what looks like a child’s baseball cap perched atop his wig, both emblazoned with "GC." He stands cross-armed and awkward, lip synching between space sequences. Of the latter, "Major Tom" parts, one YouTube commenter quips, “We have no budget, no props, only baking foil and cornflake packets.... Oh well make the video anyway.” Sums things up pretty well.
Even more so than those who bought Space Oddity after hearing its namesake single, anyone who heard this early version, then went and bought Bowie’s first album would have been thoroughly perplexed. ‘67’s David Bowie is a very strange, though sometimes very intriguing, record, largely influenced by the musical comedy of popular English entertainer Anthony Newley. Watch the film’s title track (and opening sequence), “Love You Till Tuesday” below, with Bowie, in wig and frilly Austin Powers suit, doing some weird Tom Jones thing that just really doesn't work.
Had Bowie followed this trajectory, instead of finding his voice in the spacerock of his first big single, it’s pretty likely no one would have heard from him again. Lucky for us, the young pop star was nothing if not persistent. And lucky for us, he still is. The 66-year-old Bowie just released his first single in a decade, the contemplative "Where Are We Now?" with an album, The Next Day, coming in March.
Josh Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness