David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and the Apollo 11 Moon Landing Turn 50 This Month: Celebrate Two Giant Leaps That Took Place 9 Days Apart

One might call the explo­sion of “space rock” in the late 60s anoth­er kind of escapism, a turn from the heav­i­ness on plan­et Earth when the Age of Aquar­ius start­ed to get seri­ous­ly dark. Assas­si­na­tions, riots, ille­gal wars, blunt state repres­sion, coun­ter­cul­ture frag­men­ta­tion, vio­lence every­where, it seemed. Hal­lu­cino­gens played their part in guid­ing the music’s direc­tion, but who could blame bands and fans of bands like the Grate­ful Dead, Pink Floyd, Hawk­wind, or Hen­drix for turn­ing their gaze sky­wards and con­tem­plat­ing the stars?

One might also make the case that so-called “space rock”—psych-rock that direct­ly or indi­rect­ly ref­er­enced out­er space, space trav­el, and sci-fi themes, while sound­ing itself like the music of the spheres on acid—in fact, turned square­ly toward the most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-advanced, ambi­tious proxy bat­tle of the entire Cold War. The very earth­ly space race made a fit­ting sub­ject for rock opera—a per­fect stage set for imag­i­na­tive songs about alien­ation, iso­la­tion, and tech­no­log­i­cal inhu­man­i­ty.

All of these themes come togeth­er in a celes­tial har­mo­ny in David Bowie’s 1969 sin­gle, “Space Odd­i­ty,” released on July 11th 1969 and inspired by Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, both cul­tur­al arti­facts that antic­i­pat­ed the dra­ma of the Apol­lo 11 moon land­ing. The excite­ment Kubrick’s film and Bowie’s song helped gen­er­ate is odd, how­ev­er, con­sid­er­ing that both nar­ra­tives end with their pro­tag­o­nists lost in out­er space for­ev­er.

This didn’t stop the BBC from using “Space Odd­i­ty” to sound­track their Apol­lo cov­er­age, “despite its chill­ing con­clu­sion,” writes Jason Heller, author of Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Explod­ed. The song’s sce­nario “couldn’t have been fur­ther from the typ­i­cal cheer­lead­ing of the astro­nauts that was being con­duct­ed by the media. No one was more sur­prised than Bowie,” who com­ment­ed:

I’m sure they real­ly weren’t lis­ten­ing to the lyrics at all. It wasn’t a pleas­ant thing to jux­ta­pose against a moon land­ing…. Obvi­ous­ly, some BBC offi­cial said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets strand­ed in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the pro­duc­er that.

“Of course,” says Bowie, ”I was over­joyed that they did” run with the song. It had been his label’s intent to gar­ner this kind of expo­sure when they rushed the record’s release to “cap­i­tal­ize on the Apol­lo craze.” “Space Odd­i­ty” made it to num­ber five on the UK charts. But if Bowie was mak­ing any com­ment on the moon mis­sion, at first it seems he did so only indi­rect­ly, inspired more by cin­e­ma than cur­rent events. He found 2001 “amaz­ing,” he com­ment­ed, adding, “I was out of my gourd any­way, I was very stoned when I went to see it, sev­er­al times, and it was real­ly a rev­e­la­tion to me.”

The song, he says, came out of that enhanced view­ing expe­ri­ence. Heller writes of sev­er­al more of Bowie’s lit­er­ary sci-fi influ­ences, but not of a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the Apol­lo pro­gram. Yet Bowie, who record­ed the first “Space Odd­i­ty” demo in Jan­u­ary of 1969, did say he want­ed the song “to be the first anthem of the Moon.” The lyrics also “came from a feel­ing of sad­ness,” he said, about the space pro­gram’s direc­tion. “It has been dehu­man­ized,” he said. “Space Odd­i­ty” rep­re­sent­ed a delib­er­ate “anti­dote to space fever,” which is maybe why the song did­n’t catch on in the U.S. until the ‘70s.

This was not a song about plant­i­ng a flag of con­quest. Jour­nal­ist Chris O’Leary remem­bers Bowie mak­ing even more point­ed com­men­tary, con­sid­er­ing “the fate of Major Tom to be the tech­no­crat­ic Amer­i­can mind com­ing face-to-face with the unknown and blank­ing out.” The song her­ald­ed not only a piv­otal sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ment but a cul­tur­al break: “It was prob­a­bly not hyper­bole to assert that the Age of Aquar­ius end­ed when man walked on the Moon,” writes soci­ol­o­gist Philip Ennis. Or as Camille Paglia inter­pret­ed events in Bowie’s song, “we sense that the ‘60s coun­ter­cul­ture has trans­mut­ed into a hope­less­ness about polit­i­cal reform.”

This may seem like a lot of inter­pre­ta­tion to lay on what Bowie him­self called a “song-farce,” but when we’re talk­ing about Bowie’s song­writ­ing, even throw­away lines seem filled with por­tent. And when it comes to that supreme­ly ambiva­lent cou­plet “Plan­et Earth is blue / And there’s noth­ing I can do,” we find our­selves legit­i­mate­ly ask­ing along with Heller, is this “anthem or requiem? Cel­e­bra­tion or decon­struc­tion?” It has been all these things—the “defin­ing song of the Space Age,” sung by astro­nauts them­selves while float­ing in the tin can of the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, and soon to be broad­cast at the Kennedy Cen­ter in a new video cel­e­brat­ing the 50th anniver­sary of the Apol­lo 11 moon land­ing.

The video at the NASA event on July 20th will com­mem­o­rate the event with “footage of David Bowie per­form­ing Space Odd­i­ty at his 50th birth­day con­cert at Madi­son Square Gar­den in 1997.” At the top of the post, see a lat­er video for the song (the first film Bowie made, in 1969, would not emerge until 1984); fur­ther up, see an excel­lent live per­for­mance as Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars; and just above, see a young, fresh, bell-bot­tomed, pre-glam Bowie play “Space Odd­i­ty” live on TV in 1969.

As we remem­ber the 50th anniver­sary of the moon land­ing this month, we also cel­e­brate the release of “Space Odd­i­ty” just nine days ear­li­er, the song that first launched Bowie’s career as a space­far­ing rock star. He couldn’t have pre­dict­ed the suc­cess of the Apol­lo 11 mis­sion, but now it seems we can­not prop­er­ly remem­ber it with­out also reflect­ing on his pre­scient pop critique—an attempt, he said, “to relate sci­ence and emo­tion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Astro­naut Chris Had­field Sings David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty” On Board the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion

How “Space Odd­i­ty” Launched David Bowie to Star­dom: Watch the Orig­i­nal Music Video From 1969

NASA Dig­i­tizes 20,000 Hours of Audio from the His­toric Apol­lo 11 Mis­sion: Stream Them Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • david klein says:

    i sug­gest to josh jones that he look into the sf nov­el Beyond Apol­lo by Bar­ry Malzberg for a con­tin­u­a­tion of the theme pre­sent­ed by bowie in space odd­i­ty. it won awards in the field of sf and is way more dis­turb­ing than any­thing else writ­ten about the space pro­gram. at least, from the things i have read from around that time peri­od.

  • Petteri says:

    Yes, the orig­i­nal video is miss­ing here. I love it, with Bowie float­ing weight­less in a space­ship etc. Won­der if the com­pa­ny still don’t want it to be shown for free…

  • Gary Carlson says:

    “LOOK AT THE MOON AND EVERY DAY YOU WILL SEE US ALIENS LOOKING BACK AT YOU!” The Moon is the key to the what the aliens are doing on Earth and the future of humans!

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