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SPACE ODDITY

  • A-Side: July 1969

  • US A-Side: July 1969

  • Italian A-Side: January 1970

  • Album: Space Oddity

  • A-Side: September 1975

  • B-Side: February 1980

  • Live: Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture/Santa Monica '72/BBC Sessions 1969-1972 (Sampler)/Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)

  • Compilation: Bowie Rare/Sound + Vision/The Deram Anthology 1966-1968

  • Bonus: Scary Monsters/David Bowie (2005)/Space Oddity (2009)/Re:Call 1

  • Download: February 2006

  • Download: July 2009

  • Video: Love You Till Tuesday/The Video Collection/Best Of Bowie

  • Live Video: Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars/Serious Moonlight

Even after all these years "Space Oddity" remains Bowie's best known, most influential and perhaps most remarkable song. Having been a hit twice over, it also enjoys the distinction of being his biggest-selling single in the UK, knocking "Let's Dance" and "Dancing In The Street" into second and third place.

     The story of Major Tom's fateful trip into space has become part of pop mythology, and Bowie wisely preserved the song's mystique by declining to discuss it at length. "It was about alienation," he once said, adding that he had "a lot of empathy" with Major Tom. Certainly the sudden and painful end of his relationship with Hermione Farthingale is part of the story: she made her final contribution to the Love You Till Tuesday film the day before David recorded his first studio version of the song. The melancholic subtext ("planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do") and the submission to a pre-ordained fate ("I think my spaceship knows which way to go") foster the sense of "Space Oddity" as a song of withdrawal and resignation. The tantalising uncertainty about whether Major Tom's fate is his own making (is his circuit really dead, or is he simply ignoring Ground Control's pleas at the end?) adds a further dimension to his almost Hamlet-like meditation on the consequences of inaction. Bowie's anxiety about the loss of "control" (a word to which he repeatedly returns in songs like "The Man Who Sold The World", "I Am Divine" and "No Control"), sponsors the notion that Ground Control itself is a metaphor for motherhood, a nurturing environment of spiritual comfort and moral certainty, an environment lost to the individual as he lifts off into life. Some have found a drug-fixated subtext in Major Tom's "trip", suggesting that the countdown, "lift-off" and "floating in a most peculiar way" reflects the process of injecting heroin and waiting for the hit. David later claimed to have had "a silly flirtation with smack" in 1968, "but it was only for the mystery and enigma of trying it. I never really enjoyed it at all." Others have suggested that this claim might be a spot of post hoc self-mythologising: "I don't think David and Hermione were even into smoking dope," guitarist John "Hutch" Hutchinson later told Paul Trynka. "They were into white wine. There was a side of the scene with a lot of sitting in basements and getting wasted, but not those two."

     One undisputed source is Stanley Kubrick's epoch-making 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which furnishes Bowie's "odd ditty" with its punning title. An anonymous friend records in Christopher Sandford's biography that 2001 had a "seismic impact" on Bowie at the time of its release. "It was the sense of isolation that I related to," David later explained. "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. It got the song flowing." Speaking in 1969, Bowie aligned Major Tom's ultimate fate with the conclusion of Kubrick's film: "At the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he's at," David told Mary Finnigan. "He's fragmenting...at the end of the song his mind is completely blown - he's everything then." It may be no coincidence that the swirling, dissonant strings at the end of the most familiar recording of "Space Oddity" bear a resemblance to the avant-garde Gyorgy Ligeti pieces featured prominently in Kubrick's movie.

     And. of course, July 1969 was also the month that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. "The publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being," Bowie told Finnigan in the same interview, "and my Major Tom is nothing if not a human being. It came from a feeling of sadness about this aspect of the space thing, it has been dehumanised, so I wrote a song-farce about it, to try and relate science and human emotion. I suppose it's an antidote to space fever, really." It's nigh on impossible for us to recall the extent to which spacemen had suddenly become the darlings of the media, but in 1969 The Observer's Tony Palmer considered "Space Oddity" a welcome breath of cynicism "at a time when we cling pathetically to every moonman's dribbling joke, when we admire unquestioningly the so-called achievement of our helmeted heroes without wondering why they are there at all." Certainly "Space Oddity", with its pressmen who "want to know whose shirts you wear", is one of Bowie's key meditations on the vanity and transience of fame, prefiguring Ziggy Stardust's conflation of the different meanings of "star" and questioning the criteria of celebrity like many other lyrics ("Fame", "It's No Game", "Somebody Up There Likes Me"). As for the name of Bowie's existential spaceman, it may or may not be a coincidence that a set of "Moon Mission" collecting cards issued with Mister Softee ice cream in 1962, when David was fifteen, centred on an astronaut called Captain Tom ("As the acceleration died away Captain Tom felt himself lift up and forward from his seat because up there in orbit there was no gravity"). But perhaps the most delightful theory regarding the character's provenance - as ingenious as it is unlikely - is that Bowie might have christened his hero after a name he saw as a boy on a variety bill posted in Brixton: Tom Major, father of the future Prime Minister.

     Musically, "Space Oddity" demonstrates the new acoustic bent David's compositions had taken since the formation of his multimedia trio Feathers in 1968. The style, arrangement and lyrics owe a debt to the transatlantic folk-rock sounds of the late 1960s, in particular The Bee Gee's 1967 debut hit "New York Mining Disaster 1941", whose chorus ("Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?") is almost too close for words. ""Space Oddity" was a Bee Gees type song," Hutch told the Gillmans. "David knew it, and he said so at the time...the way he sang it, it's a Bee Gees thing."

     The earliest known demo of "Space Oddity" was recorded at Clareville Grove in January 1969 and features some unfamiliar vocal harmonies and a number of rejected early lyrics: in this version there's a breezy American-accented "blast-off!" instead of a softly spoken "lift-off", while "I'm floating in a most peculiar way" is followed by a plaintive "Can I please get back inside now, if I may?". Later we have: "And I think my spaceship knows what I must do / And I think my life on Earth is nearly through / Ground Control to Major Tom, you're off your course, direction's wrong."

     The lyrics had been finalised by February 2nd 1969, when the first full studio version of "Space Oddity" was recorded at Morgan Studios, Willesden, for inclusion in the Love You Till Tuesday film. For this one-off session, produced by Jonathan Weston, David and Hutch were joined by Dave Clague (bass), Tat Meager (drums) and Colin Wood (Hammond organ, Mellotron and flute). Taken at a rattling pace, with a curiously jaunty arrangement and an ocarina solo by David which Hutch later described as "just silly", this recording is markedly inferior to the later, more famous version. It's also notable for the fact that, as on several of the early versions, Hutch sings lead vocal for the "Ground Control" sections while David plays Major Tom, their close vocal harmonies emphasising the Bee Bees connection. It was later released on the Love You Till Tuesday album, while the shorter edit used in the film appears on The Deram Anthology 1966-1968. "Quaint" is probably the kindest description of the accompanying film clip, which features the young David heading for the stars in what looks like a moped helmet, to be accosted and undressed by a dodgy pair of proto-Blake's 7 space sirens.

     At least two further acoustic demos were recorded with Hutch not long afterwards (one was later released on Sound + Vision, and another on the 2009 reissue of Space Oddity), and it was one of these which secured Bowie his contract with Mercury Records. The recording of the song's most famous version began on June 20th 1969, and was completed a few days later, after a hiatus caused by David's succumbing to a bout of conjunctivitis.

     Tony Visconti, who produced the remainder of the album, hated the song, regarding it as "a cheap shot - a gimmick to cash in on the moon landing". It was he who delegated the track to his colleague Gus Dudgeon, later explaining that "David was writing such beautiful songs then, and suddenly he comes up with "Space Oddity" which was just so topical. Men were going to be walking on the moon within weeks, and he comes up with something like that. I told him he would probably have a hit with it, but I didn't want anything to do with it." Visconti would later moderate his view, saying "when I saw the way this song fitted into the scheme of things, I wished I'd dropped my peacenik hippie ideals and recorded this classic track." The chance to produce "Space Oddity" represented a considerable feather in Gus Dudgeon's cap, although many years later he would claim that he had received only his recording fee and was never paid an agreed 2 per cent of royalties on the track. (In June 2002 reports circulated that Gus Dudgeon was intending to sue the relevant record companies for a one-off settlement of £1 million, but the story was swept away a month later by the tragic news that he and his wife Sheila had died in a car accident on the M4 motorway.)

     The five-minute album version of "Space Oddity" was considerably longer than the single edit, but contrary to some reports it's not a re-recording. Several different 7" edits were prepared, varying in length from 3'23" to 4'33". (Further post hoc edits have piled up on latter-day releases, including two different stereo versions both misleadingly labelled the "UK Single Edit" which appear on the 1CD edition of Nothing Has Changed and on a 2015 vinyl single). Among the track's gimmickry was its use of a new musical toy, the Stylophone, whose manufacturers roped Bowie into an advertising campaign that ran "David Bowie plays Stylophone in his greatest hit!" Bowie later revealed that it was Marc Bolan who had introduced him to the Stylophone's electronic warble: "He said, you like this kind of stuff, do something with it. And I put it on "Space Oddity", so it served me well. It was just a little signal responding to electrodes. Sounded atrocious." The Stylophone reappeared on The Man Who Sold The World (most notably on "After All"), and three decades later Bowie bring it out of retirement to great effect on Heathen and Reality.

     The topicality of "Space Oddity" was lost on neither Mercury nor the many broadcasters they lobbied, several of whom adopted the song as an unofficial accompaniment to the momentous events on July 20th 1969. The single was rush-released on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on July 11th - only three weeks after recording - to catch the Apollo 11 landing. BBC television played "Space Oddity" during its coverage of the event, and the song has popped up in documentaries about space exploration ever since. "I'm sure they really weren't listening to the lyric at all," laughed Bowie in 2003. "It wasn't a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed they did. 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!"

     Released in different edits in Britain and America, the single turned out to be a slow burner despite some excellent reviews. "I have a bet on in the office that this is going to be a huge hit," wrote Penny Valentine in Disc & Music Echo, adding that she "listened spellbound throughout...the sound is amazing...It's obviously going to do well in America, which is nice."

     Although Ms Valentine won her bet - eventually - her final prediction was wide of the mark. Six weeks after release the single still hadn't charted, and Kenneth Pitt's half-hearted attempt at chart-rigging ("I don't defend my conduct," he later wrote, "I explain it") was a failure. He had paid £140 to a shady figure called Tony Martin, who promised to get the single into various music weeklies' charts but instead vanished with the money. However, in Britain at least, "Space Oddity" prospered without such assistance. The single finally charted in September, slowly rising to number 5 by early November. In America it flopped completely, despite a brazen letter sent to thousands of American journalists by Mercury's publicity director Ron Oberman, describing it as "one of the greatest recordings I've ever heard. If this already controversial single gets the airplay, it's going to be a huge hit." It didn't, it wasn't, and not even a relaunch in November succeeded in getting the single into the US chart. Kenneth Pitt later raised the intriguing possibility - hinted at by Oberman's mysterious use of the word "controversial" - that the single was clandestinely banned by radio stations and other outlets across the States because of its un-American attitude to the space programme. There are certainly reports of radio stations ignoring repeated requests to play the single, and even one account of an American schoolteacher who stopped pupils listening to it because of the lyrics.

     The number of different versions continued to grow with the mixing of the single in both mono and stereo. The latter was still a comparative novelty in the singles market, and Rick Wakeman later recalled that it was Bowie's own persistence that led to the innovation: "To the best of my knowledge nobody released stereo singles at that time, and they pointed that out to David...and I can remember David saying, "That's why this one will be stereo!" And he just stood his ground...he wasn't being awkward, but he had a vision of how things should be." In the event, the stereo single only appeared in certain territories, including Italy and the Netherlands, while in Britain and America it remained in mono.

     In several countries the single's sleeve was adorned with a photo of David strumming his acoustic guitar. Although 7" picture sleeves were still a comparative rarity in Britain, for many years it was believed that some copies of the UK single had boasted a similar cover. A handful of alleged UK picture sleeves exchanged hands for alarming prices in the 1990s, but these have now been confirmed as fakes. However, there's nothing counterfeit about the ultra-rare Japanese picture-sleeve single, a promo copy of which was sold on the Yahoo! Japan auction site in April 2011 for an astonishing £15,795.

     Still the alternative versions came. With an eye on European markets, Bowie recorded an Italian vocal with words by the Milanese lyricist Mogol (see "Music Is Lethal"). "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" means "Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl", and the rest of the words are equally at variance with the original. "I thought it ridiculous that David should be recording this lyric," writes Kenneth Pitt, "but it was explained to us that "Space Oddity" could not be translated into Italian in a way that the Italians would understand." This version was recorded at Morgan Studios on December 20th 1969, with production and accent coaching by Claudio Fabi. Released in Italy in 1970, it later appeared on Bowie Rare and, in a previously unreleased full-length stereo version, on the 2009 reissue of Space Oddity (like several of that edition's bonus tracks, the stereo version was a mix created in 1987 by Tris Penna). Covers of the Italian version by Equipe 84 and The Computers were released in Italy before David's own recording - indeed, according to Gus Dudgeon, Bowie's version was only recorded at all because his publisher wanted to eclipse the Italian releases. A French translation was also made by Boris Bergman, entitled "Un Homme A Disparu Dans Le Ciel" ("A Man Has Disappeared In The Sky"), and although it seems unlikely that Bowie ever recorded a version of this, a cover by the French singer Gérard Palaprat appeared in 1971.

     Unsurprisingly the success of the "Space Oddity" single led to a rash of public appearances, beginning with a performance on Dutch TV's Doebidoe recorded on August 25th 1969 and shown five days later. On October 2nd Bowie made his first ever appearance on Top Of The Pops, playing his Stylophone against a black background at the express request of Kenneth Pitt, who dreaded David being upstaged by a studio audience "less interested in seeing the artist than itself on the monitor sets." The shots of David were mixed with NASA space footage, while Gus Dudgeon took responsibility for synchronising his prepared backing tapes with the live accompaniment of the BBC Orchestra, an experience he later described as "a nightmare": there was only time for two attempts, and although the second was the better of the two, in Dudgeon's opinion "If we had had the chance of a third take it would have been brilliant." The performance was transmitted on October 9th and repeated the following week, propelling the single to its number 5 peak. Further performances came on Germany's 4-3-2-1 Musik Fur Junge Leute (recorded October 29th, shown November 22nd) and Switzerland's Hits A-Go-Go (November 3rd). On May 10th 1970 David performed "Space Oddity" at the Ivor Novello Awards, receiving a Songwriters' Guild award for the composition. It's perhaps not surprising that as early as December 1969 David responded to an interviewer's question, "Space Oddity - are you bored with it?", with the frank reply, "Oh yes. It's only a pop song after all."

     "Space Oddity" was to be Bowie's only taste of chart success until "Starman" three years later. While it was a useful dry run for the fame and fortune that would one day be his, in its day "Space Oddity" was destined to be nothing more than an example of that most despised of phenomena, the novelty hit. 1969, which began with the Scaffold's "Lily The Pink" and ended with Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" in the number 1 spot, was a year curiously dominated by such confections, and it's worth noting that Zager And Evans's sci-fi hit "In The Year 2525" sat atop the singles chart for the three weeks immediately preceding "Space Oddity"'s top 40 entry. To an extent Tony Visconti's misgivings were justified - "Space Oddity" emerged into a world already tiring of space-age novelties, and only retrospectively did it transcend such associations to become a genuine classic. In 1983 Bowie opined that "it was, unfortunately, a very good song that possibly I wrote a bit too early, because I hadn't anything else substantial at the time."

     "Space Oddity" was included in a BBC radio session recorded on May 22nd 1972, later appearing on the BBC Sessions 1969-1972 sampler and on Bowie At The Beeb. In a sideswipe at Elton John's then number 5 hit, Bowie cheekily interjected "I'm just a rocket man!" between verses. In Backstage Passes Angela Bowie claims David was piqued by the Gus Dudgeon-produced "Rocket Man", considering it an opportunistic rip-off of "Space Oddity" at a time when "Starman" had yet to enter the chart. Intentionally or otherwise, the similarities in Bernie Taupin's lyric certainly extend beyond the basic spaceman theme - there has never been much doubt that "Rocket Man" is a metaphor for drug-taking, and the line "I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife" is remarkably familiar.

     At the end of David's American sojourn in December 1972, on the very day that he sailed for Britain on the QEII, a new video was shot by Mick Rock featuring a guitar-strumming Bowie amid the pseudo-space-age paraphernalia of RCA's New York Studios. "I really hadn't much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song," David later recalled, "but I suppose the record company were re-releasing it again or something like that. Anyway, I know I was disinterested in the proceedings and it shows in my performance. Mick's video is good, though." The clip did indeed support RCA's American reissue in January 1973 (which reached number 15 in the Billboard chart, becoming Bowie's first US hit), but Top Of The Pops later plumped for the 1969 Love You Till Tuesday clip to promote the British re-release in September 1975, which pushed Art Garfunkel's "I Only Have Eyes For You" from pole position in November to give David his first British number 1.

     In 1980 yet another new version, recorded for The "Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?" Show the previous December, was released as the B-side of the "Alabama Song" single (and latterly on 1992's Scary Monsters reissue, in a different mix which notably extends the deafening silence after the line "may God's love be with you" by a full three-and-a-half seconds). The lush arrangements of the Gus Dudgeon-produced original were stripped down to the bare essentials of acoustic guitar, drums and piano, and accordingly the message "Sorry Gus" could be found scratched into the run-out vinyl. The idea for the re-recording had come from the Everett show's director David Mallet. "I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments," David explained. "Having played it with just an acoustic guitar on stage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers." Tony Visconti, who produced this version, later added that the recording "was never meant to be a single. Andy Duncan is on drums and a Bowie lookalike, Zaine Griff, is on bass. I temporarily forget the pianist. David, again, played twelve-string."

     Later in 1980 came Bowie's disinterring of Major Tom in "Ashes To Ashes", which appropriately enough became his second British number 1, and whose famous video revisited visual elements from the Kenny Everett performance of "Space Oddity". Nor was this the only Major Tom revival: "Space Oddity" itself has been subjected to a vast number of live and studio covers by artists including Rick Wakeman, Pentangle (whose drummer Terry Cox had, like Wakeman, contributed to the original single), The Flying Pickets (whose extraordinary 1983 a cappella version was later compiled on David Bowie Songbook), Hank Marvin, Jonathan King, The Barron Knights, Rudy Grant, Cut, Saigon Kick, Steel Train, Def Leppard, Natalie Merchant, Jessica Lee Morgan, Cat Power, Jarvis Cocker, Peter Murphy, David Matthews, and Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. The recording by the Langley Schools Music Project, a 60-voice choir of Canadian children recorded in the late 1970s and reissued on CD in 2002, was one of Bowie's favourite versions: "The backing arrangement is astounding. Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance, you have a piece of art that I couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Columbia's finest export products in me." The revived Langley Schools Music Project formed part of Bowie's 2002 Meltdown programme.

     In 1984 the German vocalist Peter Schilling had a one-hit wonder with his "Space Oddity" sequel "Major Tom (Coming Home)", also included on his album The Different Story (World Of Lust And Crime). The little-known Panic On The Titanic produced a song called "Major Tom", while Def Leppard's "Rocket" (from their 1987 album Hysteria) also resurrected the character. "Ground Control to Major Tom" is among the many pop quotations hilariously shoe-horned into Ben Elton's dialogue in the 2002 Queen stage musical We Will Rock You, while two decades earlier the BBC's comedy classic The Young Ones had featured Neil complaining that "planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do!" as he floated in space. "Space Oddity" was sung by Chandler and Joey in the US sitcom Friends, by Phil Mitchell in Eastenders, by comedian Vic Reeves on Shooting Stars, by Adam Sandler in 2002's Mr Deeds, by Anne Reid in 2003's The Mother, by Marc-André Grondin in 2005's C.R.A.Z.Y., and even by the BBC's intrepid journalist Louis Theroux during his 1998 Weird Weekend in the company of UFO-spotters in the American West. The original single version appeared in the soundtrack of the 2004 film The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers and a 2015 episode of Mad Men, while in 2011 an extract from Bowie's recording featured in a Renault Clio commercial. A vocal by actress Kristen Wiig, mixed into Bowie's original track, appeared in the 2013 film The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

     "Space Oddity" has the honour of being the first Bowie recording ever selected for inclusion on BBC Radio 4's long-running series Desert Island Discs: in March 1975, several months before the reissue that took the song to number 1, it was among the eight favourite records chosen by the boxer John Conteh. It has remained one of the show's most popular Bowie choices, subsequently featuring among the selections of the singer Marti Webb in May 1982, a four-handed panel from the London Philharmonic Orchestra in October 1982, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, astral biologist and discoverer of the Hepatitis B virus Professor Baruch Blumberg in January 2003, and the novelist Beryl Bainbridge in February 2008.

     "Space Oddity" remained a live favourite throughout Bowie's career, featuring in his 1969-1971 sets and on the Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Serious Moonlight and Sound + Vision tours. On October 19th 1973 a fine Pin Ups version, leaning heavily on piano and saxophone, was shot for The 1980 Floor Show, accompanied by NASA footage of rockets taking off. A similarly sax-tinged and notably beautiful version from the Diamond Dogs tour was added to the 2005 reissue of David Live, and in 2006 an audio mix of the Serious Moonlight recording was released as a download to promote the concert's DVD release. In 1997 Bowie closed his fiftieth birthday concert with an acoustic rendition of "Space Oddity", later included on a limited-edition CD-ROM issued with Variety magazine in March 1999. A sumptuous new version orchestrated by Tony Visconti, with string accompaniment by the Scorchio and Kronos Quartets, was the highlight of Bowie's set at the Tibet House Benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in February 2002. A more conventional rendition made a one-off appearance at Denmark's Horsens Festival on the same year's Heathen tour - the last time that David played the song - and in May 2007 Mike Garson performed a new piano composition called "Theme And Variations On Space Oddity" at New York's High Line Festival.

     In July 2009 EMI celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the original single with an innovative download: the "Space Oddity 40th Anniversary EP" included not only the mono and US single edits and the 1979 re-recording, but also eight separate stem tracks which isolated the lead vocal, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, strings, bass and drums, flute and cellos, Mellotron and Stylophone. As well as providing a fascinating insight into the component sounds of a classic recording, the stem tracks were simultaneously released on an accompanying iPhone app which allowed purchasers to create their own home-made remixes.

     Four years later came perhaps the most remarkable performance yet of Bowie's classic, when the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shot a video of himself performing "Space Oddity", with lyrics understandably retooled to remove the song's ominous implications, at the end of his tour of duty aboard the International Space Station. Floating in a most peculiar way, Hadfield sang and played guitar, while the backing track was produced and mixed on planet Earth by Joe Corcoran with a piano arrangement by multi-instrumentalist Emm Gryner, a veteran of Bowie's 1999-2000 tours who declared herself "so proud to be a part of it". The project had the blessing of David himself, who waived his royalties and later intervened to persuade the song's publisher to extend the one-year licence originally granted for Hadfield's video - "Space Oddity" being one of the very few numbers to which Bowie did not own the publishing rights. Uploading the video to YouTube on May 12th 2013, Hadfield tweeted: "With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here's "Space Oddity", recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World." The video made headlines around the globe and became a viral hit, clocking up more than 32 million views on YouTube. Breathtakingly beautiful and extraordinarily moving, it offers a rare opportunity to deploy that overused adjective "awesome" with complete justification.

SPEED OF LIFE

  • Album: Low

  • B-Side: June 1977

  • Live: Stage

Low opens with this superb, spirited instrumental, faintly recalling the chorus melody of "The Jean Genie" and firmly establishing the album's sonic manifesto of distorted snare-drums and buzzing synthesizers, including a descending synth line reused on several later recordings including "Scary Monsters". The rapid fade-up at the beginning makes for a bizarre album-opener, as though the listener has just arrived within earshot of something that's already started. "Speed Of Life" featured on the Stage and Heathen tours, and in 2009 the original recording popped up in an episode of the BBC drama Ashes To Ashes.

SPIRITS IN THE NIGHT (Springsteen)

For the ill-fated Astronettes project in 1973 Bowie produced a lively cover of this number from Bruce Springsteen's debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Shelved until 1995's People From Bad Homes, it's one of the best Astronettes' recordings, boasting a fine Mike Garson piano performance and a confident groove noticeably lacking elsewhere on the album. During the quiet middle section, Bowie can be heard in the background offering a spot of technical advice to singer Geoffrey MacCormack. One can't help but wonder whether Springsteen's lyric "Now Wild Billy was a crazy cat" might have directly influenced an almost identical line in Bowie's contemporaneous composition "Diamond Dogs".

STANDING NEXT TO YOU see SITTING NEXT TO YOU

STAR

  • Album: Ziggy Stardust

  • Live: Stage

For those who buy into the theory that Ziggy Stardust has a narrative concept, the fast and furious "Star" eavesdrops on a fatal moment of hubris as Ziggy ponders how he "could make it all worthwhile as a rock'n'roll star" while scorning those who have sacrificed their lives to loftier ideals - fighting in Belfast or, in the case of (presumably Nye) Bevan, trying "to change the nation". There's even a mention of "Rudi" who "stayed at home to starve" - could this be Freddie Burretti's alter ego "Rudi Valentino", fashioned into star material by Bowie only months earlier and then discarded during the run-up to the realisation of his own ambitions? In this reading "Star" provides a vital narrative bridge between the "awful nice" singer wistfully captured in "Lady Stardust" and the self-regarding megalomania of "Hang On To Yourself", a movement conveyed with a Bolanesque yell of "get it in!" in the instrumental bridge between verse and chorus.

     Beyond the Ziggy concept "Star" operates on a wider scale, encapsulating the fantasies of every adolescent dreamer miming into a hairbrush in a suburban bedroom, and voicing Bowie's own frustration at not having fulfilled his potential: "I could fall asleep at night as a rock'n'roll star / I could fall in love all right as a rock'n'roll star." Set against the romance is the cynical reality: he proposes merely "to play the part" because he "could do with the money". It's a pleasing paradox that in the very act of producing such an ironic twist on every teenager's fantasy - for Ziggy will pay for his stardom - Bowie himself achieves it.

     Like many of the Ziggy songs, "Star" was written well in advance of the album: a demo was recorded as early as May 1971, before even Hunky Dory had entered the studio, and was offered to a little-known Princes Risborough band called Chameleon. The offer was brokered by Bowie's Chrysalis publisher Bob Grace, who admired Chameleon and thought that the band would be an ideal act to cover one of David's songs. It was only after being reminded of the number four months later, at his Aylesbury gig on September 25th, that David apparently said, "Ooh, I must dig that one out." In 2000 Bowie's previously unheard demo of "Star" was auctioned at Christie's by Chameleon's singer Les Payne, fetching £1527. Recorded on an eight-track at the Radio Luxembourg studios where many of David's 1971 compositions took early shape, the piano-led demo is an elaborate affair, featuring hand-claps, multi-tracked vocal harmonies and a ragged snatch of slide guitar, apparently all performed by David himself. The demo also includes a number of lyrical variations: the opening line is "If someone had the sense to hear me / If someone had the time to see", and the second stanza begins "Someone has to build the buildings / And someone has to pull them down", while the refrain is "I could make a big-time noise as a rock'n'roll star". On May 26th-27th 1971 Chameleon duly recorded their own version based on this demo, but the Chameleon track, which rendered the song in a bass-heavy, prog-inflected style not dissimilar to the sound of Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World band, was never released.

     Having repossessed the song in the autumn, David furnished it with its new, tougher lyrics and prepared to take it into Trident Studios. After an initial recording on November 8th 1971 was deemed unsuccessful, the definitive Ziggy Stardust version was taped on November 11th under the working title "Rock'n'Roll Star". Its manic backing vocals were copied, by David's own admission, from The Beatles' "Lovely Rita", while the spoken parting shot "Just watch me now!" was a lift from The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane".

     Although Bowie transplanted "Just watch me now!" into live performances of "Queen Bitch" in 1976, "Star" itself was not performed until 1978, when the live Stage version was released as a 12" promo in the US. "Star" was resurrected for the Serious Moonlight tour, initially as the opening number after a brief intro from "The Jean Genie". The song was later covered live by several artists, notably Billy Bragg, and was among the Bowie tracks featured in the 2009 film Bandslam.

     An entirely unrelated number called "Star", composed by David's sometime girlfriend Amanda Lear, is believed to have been demoed by the pair at around the time of the Diamond Dogs sessions, but this has never seen the light of day.

STARMAN

  • A-Side: April 1972

  • Album: Ziggy Stardust

  • Live: Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)

  • B-Side: April 2012

  • Live Video: Best Of Bowie

On July 5th 1972 David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars appeared on Top Of The Pops to perform "Starman", released ahead of the Ziggy Stardust album from which it came. More than any other individual performance it was this one epochal television spot, transmitted the following day, which catapulted Bowie to stardom. It's deceptively easy to forget that in the summer of 1972 David Bowie was still yesterday's news to the average Top Of The Pops viewer, a one-hit wonder who'd had a novelty single about an astronaut at the end of the previous decade. Three minutes on Top Of The Pops in a rainbow jumpsuit and shocking red hair put paid to that forever. Having made no commercial impact in the two months since its release, "Starman" stormed up the chart, going top ten a fortnight later and spawning everything that was to follow.

     Despite taking its time to chart, "Starman" had won critical praise from the moment of its release on April 28th. "Now this is magnificent - quite superb," wrote John Peel in Disc & Music Echo. "David Bowie is, with Kevin Ayres, the most important, under-acknowledged innovator in contemporary popular music in Britain and if this record is overlooked it will be nothing less than stark tragedy."

     The famous Top Of The Pops performance, which was later included on the Best Of Bowie DVD, and as the B-side of 2012's Record Store Day picture disc, was not in fact the song's first television spot; that honour goes to Granada's Lift-Off With Ayshea, for which The Spiders had recorded a performance on June 15th against a backdrop of coloured stars, its earlier date betrayed by Woody Woodmansey's not-yet-peroxided hair. The show was transmitted six days later on June 21st. For both performances The Spiders were joined by tour pianist Nicky Graham, and David's newly-recorded vocal for Top Of The Pops interpolated a cheeky reference to Marc Bolan's trailblazing hit of the previous year: "Some cat was laying down some get-it-on rock'n'roll".

     "Starman" boasts one of Bowie's most infectious melodies, much enhanced by a cunning Mick Ronson arrangement for violins and guitar which is more in keeping with the gentler sounds of Hunky Dory than the rock attack of its successor. To those familiar only with "Space Oddity", the title and acoustic intro must have initially suggested that this man had only one song in his playbook, but within moment's it's the lyric that catches the attention. In the years since Major Tom left the chart, hippy whimsy has given way to "hazy cosmic jive" as a radio show is interrupted by a message from space. Kevin Cann raises the intriguing possibility that the song might have been influenced by the title of Robert A Heinlein's 1953 novel Starman Jones, while Chris O'Leary proposes David Rome's 1965 short story There's A Starman In Ward 7. However, like "Space Oddity", the subtext is all: this is less a science-fiction story than a self-aggrandising announcement that there's a new star in town. Bowie exploits "Starman" not just as a comeback hit, but as the vessel by which he reveals himself as a reconstructed icon. The chorus is at once messianic and arrogant: "Let all the children boogie" conflates Christ's "Suffer little children to come unto me" with Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake". As in "Moonage Daydream", Bowie saturates the lyric with slangy Americanisms ("boogie", "Hey, that's far out", "Don't tell your poppa", "Some cat was layin' down some rock'n'roll"), which vie with an intensely British sensibility to create a bizarre and beautiful hybrid.

     According to Bowie, "Starman" could be interpreted "at the immediate level of "There's a Starman in the sky saying Boogie Children", but the theme is that the idea of things in the sky is really quite human and real, and we should be a bit happier about the prospect of meeting people." This reading closely aligns the song with the much later "Looking  For Satellites".

     As the final Ziggy Stardust track to be written and recorded (it was completed on February 4th 1972), "Starman" was immediately championed by RCA's Dennis Katz, who insisted it be released as a single and added to the album at the eleventh hour. A master tape dated February 9th duly notes the substitution of "Starman" in place of "Round And Round". It's extraordinary to consider that one of Bowie's definitive songs replaced a Chuck Berry cover almost as an afterthought. A demo tape, featuring Bowie playing the song to Mick Ronson for the first time, was later given by Ronson to a friend who sold it online in 2013, but this is not in circulation.

     During an interview for Rolling Stone in November 1973, Bowie launched into a disquisition on the song's place in his planned Ziggy Stardust stage production: "The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I've made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage...Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes "Starman", which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village." Bowie's affinity with home-grown science-fiction permeates much of his work, and he always enjoyed this Quatermass-style juxtaposition of the fantastic with the banal, of the mystical with the homely, of black holes with Greenwich Village. Remarkably, this account of "black-hole jumping" and of Ziggy's ultimate fate ("When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world") is identical to the storyline of the BBC's tenth anniversary Doctor Who special The Three Doctors, a high-profile reunion of the show's lead actors which had been broadcast a few months earlier, while Bowie was in London recording Aladdin Sane.

     Part of the song's innocent appeal - not to mention its commercial success - lies in the blatancy of its sources. It's within a whisker of being a cross-breed of T Rex's "Hot Love" and "Telegram Sam", the latter released in the month "Starman" was recorded. The "la la la" chorus is straight out of "Hot Love" and the cry of "let all the children boogie" is pure Bolan. The Morse-code tattoo on piano and guitar before each chorus is lifted from The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" via Blue Mink's "Melting Pot", while the chorus melody itself is swiped from Judy Garland's signature tune "Over The Rainbow", tapping into a ready-made signifier of yearning and stardom with built-in gay undertones. During his Rainbow Theatre shows in August 1972 Bowie explicitly acknowledged the link, altering the melody to sing "There's a Starman, over the rainbow". And as David knew better than most, you can't keep a good tune down: twenty years later the same octave-leap melody was rifled by Suede for the chorus of their Bowie-worshipping debut hit "The Drowners". Suede also made capital use of Bowie's favoured "la la la" play-out, typified by "Starman" and "Time", in numbers like "The Power" and "Beautiful Ones".

     The original UK and US releases of Ziggy Stardust featured slightly different mixes of "Starman": on the American album, the "Morse code" bridge was noticeably lower in the mix, and it was this version which later turned up on ChangesTwoBowie and all subsequent compilations until the "Loud" mix finally made a comeback (and its digital debut) on Nothing Has Changed and Re:Call 1. The North American single (released in both mono and stereo in the US, and stereo in Canada) also featured a marginally different edit, with some of the opening bars removed, while the German single was even shorter, fading after 3'58". The Spanish release was entitled "El Hombre Estrella". A lively new recording, again interpolating the "Get It On" reference, was included in a BBC session recorded on May 22nd 1972 and can now be heard on Bowie At The Beeb. An instrumental mix of the studio backing, possibly prepared for one of the television appearances, was auctioned at Sotheby's in 1990 and now appears on bootlegs.

     "Starman" was occasionally played on the Ziggy Stardust tour but was never a great live success for The Spiders; it reappeared for a few Sound + Vision dates before being put on ice until 2000, when its triumphant concert revival included a performance on Channel 4's TFI Friday on June 23rd. It later made the occasional appearance on the Heathen and A Reality tours. Bowie's second hit has been covered by numerous artists including Seu Jorge, 10,000 Maniacs, Dar Williams, Paul Young with the SOS Band, Golden Smog, The Cybernauts, Killan Mansfield, and notably Culture Club: a live favourite of the band during the early 1980s, the song was recorded in the studio for their 1999 comeback album Don't Mind If I Do. In October 2001, Boy George even dressed as Bowie to perform "Starman" on the ITV celebrity special Popstars In Their Eyes. In 1985, comedy duo The Krankies performed a version on their television show The Krankies Electronik Komik which remains unforgettable for several reasons, none of then good, while John C Reilly offered a decidedly left-field interpretation in the 2008 comedy Walk Hard. And who can forget the late Dustin Gee singing "Starman" in full Ziggy regalia on the pisspoor early 1980s ITV impressions show Go For It? Not me, try as I might. "Starman" featured in Kevin Elyot's 1995 Olivier Award-winning play My Night With Reg, and to confirm its absorption into the end-of-millennium zeitgeist, it was given a plaintive rendition by Brian Murphy in 1999's brilliantly Beckettian BBC sitcom Mrs Merton and Malcolm. The previous year, Bowie's original recording was among the selections made by the sculptor Antony Gormley on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. "Starman" later cropped up as an appropriate background number following the crash-landing of an extraterrestrial spaceship in Aliens Of London, a 2005 episode of our old favourite Doctor Who, and the following year it featured prominently in Random Shoes, an episode of the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Also in 2006, "Starman" was among the Bowie tracks showcased in the BBC's crime drama Life On Mars, and two years later it appeared in ABC's American version of the same series, in an episode aptly entitled Let All The Children Boogie. By now an established soundtrack staple for any project with an extra-terrestrial flavour, "Starman" cropped up again during a Close Encounters spoof in a 2011 episode of Channel 4's Shameless, in Ridley Scott's 2015 film The Martian, and in a sci-fi-styled 2016 Audi commercial. During a medley of pop classics played at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics on July 27th 2012, "Starman" was accompanied by dancers wearing Aladdin Sane masks and stunt performers taking to the air in jet-packs.

THE STARS (ARE OUT TONIGHT)

  • A_Side: February 2013

  • Album: The Next Day

  • Video: The Next Day Extra

We have been here before. As long ago as 1966, before he had any first-hand knowledge of stardom, Bowie was musing on its fickle nature: "Maid Of Bond Street" sets the superficial allure of celebrity against the hollowness it brings. By the time he wrote the withering, self-pitying diatribe "Fame", David knew from experience that being a "Star" was nowhere near as "inviting" or "exciting" as he had imagined it might be just a couple of years earlier.

     Let's ponder that word. From "The Prettiest Star" to "Blackstar", via "Starman", "Star", "Ziggy Stardust", "Lady Stardust", "Shining Star" and "New Killer Star", it crops up time and again in Bowie's song titles. It turns up in countess other lyrics too, from "Space Oddity" ("the stars look very different today") to "I'm Afraid Of Americans" ("Johnny looks up at the stars"), via "Cracked Actor" ("the cleanest star they ever had"), "Shadow Man" ("look to the stars") and "All The Young Dudes" ("ripping off the stars from his face"), to name a few. With its multiple definitions and its ready-made punning potential, it's a word that clearly fascinated David. Indeed, it's just about possible, if you screw up your eyes tight enough, to read "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" as a song not about celebrities, but about the stars in the sky. Rolling Stone's critic certainly thought so, devoting the first paragraph of the magazine's review of The Next Day to a rave account of "one of the greatest songs the man has ever written", a song the reviewer considered to be "about two lovers looking at the night sky, where they see the whole universe buzzing with activity...They feel the stardust in their hearts blaze to life. And they suddenly feel like they're part of the cosmos, if only because they're together."

     If nothing else, this is proof that Bowie's songs are always open to more than one reading. For most of us it seems likely that "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" does not find Bowie casting his eyes heavenwards, but rather offering a savage update on that long-lost maid of Bond Street, the "lonely girl" who "sees the pictures of herself, every magazine on every shelf". As early as 1971, the year he recorded "Star", Bowie was articulating his fascination with the distancing effect of fame: "I believe in fantasy and star images," he told the Cheltenham Chronicle that year. "I am very aware of these kinds of people and feel they are very important figures in our society. People like to focus on somebody who they might consider not quite the same as them. Whether it's true or not is immaterial." This is the theme to which he returns in "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)", a theme previously raised during the scripted link that followed dancer Melissa Hurley's arrival on stage in the undercover guise of an audience member on the Glass Spider tour: "We can't have rock stars cross-breeding with normal people!" This is Bowie pursuing the notion that celebrities have become a race apart, a different species from mere mortals like you and me, although we coexist in a state of vampiric co-dependency: "They watch us from behind their shades, Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad...soaking up our primitive world, stars are never sleeping, dead ones and the living." The implication is clear: they envy us as much as we envy them, and each side feeds on the other. "Their jealousy's spinning down, the stars must stick together / We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever."

     It might seem disingenuous of David Bowie, one of the most famous men in the world, to be singing about stars as if he doesn't belong to that category himself, but we must remember that his songs are rarely to be taken as confessionals, and here, as so often, he is surely adopting a character. In any case, by the time he recorded The Next Day it had been many years since David Bowie had lived the life of the common-or-garden superstar. He had long ago eschewed the world of press junkets, limousines and bodyguards, priding himself on his ability to ride the New York subway anonymous and unmolested: "All you have to do is wear a hat and carry a Greek newspaper," he once said. "Nobody will look twice at you." Appearing on Parkinson in 2003, Bowie spoke about his rejection of the lifestyle that so many celebrities seem to regard as ordained and inevitable: "It's just a personal choice, I guess, but I kind of opted out of it, you know? I'm not a secretive person, but I live a quite private life - you know, my wife and I. We just find that we're happiest in a place where we can remain and live our life on a day-to-day basis, very anonymously, and we actually find that in New York. It's just very easy for us, and it's a way of living that we like." In 2014, Iman would tell The Guardian about a family trip to London: "We went this summer. And no-one knew we were there! We flew in on the jet to Luton and every day we went and did different things and the press never knew. It's absurd this idea that celebrities can't be anonymous. We even went on the London Eye."

     "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" was tracked on May 9th 2011, and Bowie's lead vocal recorded on October 26th the same year. Two weeks ahead of The Next Day's release, the track was issued as the album's second single, accompanied by a monochrome image of a steel bust of Egon Schiele created by sculptor Al Farrow, and a spectacular six-minute video directed by Floria Sigismondi, whose credits since her work on "Little Wonder" and "Dead Man Walking" had included the 2010 feature film The Runaways, and a string of rock videos for clients as diverse as Katy Perry, The Cure, Christina Aguilera and Sigur Rós. Sigismondi's video for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" cuts to the quick of the song, using it as the soundtrack for a miniature horror movie complete with pre-credits for Bowie and his co-star, Tilda Swinton. The film begins with shots of the duo as a contentedly unremarkable couple somewhere in small-town America: ominously underscored by the instrumental "Plan", we first see Swinton peering suspiciously from her window at the neighbours, a rock band whose androgynous lead singer (Norwegian model Iselin Steiro, star of a Bowie-themed shoot for Paris Vogue three years earlier) bears more than a passing resemblance to David himself, a vision of dowdy middle-age in raincoat and cardigan, entering the local grocery store and picking up a celebrity gossip magazine called Pantheon Weekly. Its shock-horror headlines include "Woman Goes To Oscars Without Makeup!" (accompanied by a shot of the extraterrestrial Bowie from The Man Who Fell To Earth), and "Celebrity Couple's Twisted Antics" (accompanied by a shot of two androgynous stars, played by models Andreja Pejic and Saskia de Brauw). "Well, it's more exciting than anything we've got around here," muses Bowie, looking at the magazine cover. "Oh, I wouldn't say that," admonishes Swinton, arriving in the store to greet David with a kiss, "we have a nice life." Bowie ponders this, and repeats it. As the pair push their trolley into the store, the camera shifts to the next aisle, revealing the "Celebrity Couple" from the magazine cover, head to foot in designer clothes, their body movements grotesquely speeded-up in Sigismondi's trademark "Little Wonder" style, clandestinely spying on the "normal people" through the shelves. As the song itself begins, the "celebrities" board a limousine and follow the husband and wife home, where the rock band next door disturbs the peace while Bowie and Swinton are besieged and assailed by the vampiric stars: one of them attacks Bowie, succubus-like, as he sleeps in his bed, while in another scene Swinton thrashes in her bed while her celebrity doppelganger writhes beneath it; gradually Swinton begins to imitate the celebrities, primping her hair, dancing on their puppet-strings and becoming more like them, eventually teaming up with them to assault a terrified Bowie. By the final frame, roles have been reversed: Bowie and Swinton are now the nervy, twitchy, staring-eyed "stars" in designer clothing, while the celebrities who pursued them have feasted on their normality and are now sitting on the sofa in comfy pullovers and cardigans, watching TV. Included on The Next Day Extra, it's one of the most unsettling and bewitchingly strange of all Bowie's videos.

STATESIDE (H.Sales/Bowie)

  • Album: Tin Machine II

  • B-Side: August 1991

  • B-Side: October 1991

  • Live: Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby

  • Live Video: Oy Vey, Baby - Tin Machine Live At The Docks

The ominous opening drum-roll of "Stateside" heralds Tin Machine's darkest hour. Although the blues had occupied a crucial place in Bowie's musical palette since his earliest days as a performer, he had never been so crass as to attempt a full-blown "I woke up this morning" job. Never, that is, until this, and there has seldom been a more incongruous or less welcome intrusion onto a Bowie album.

     The lion's share of the responsibility - but by no means all - can be placed at the door of drummer Hunt Sales, who unusually precedes Bowie in the songwriting credit and howls on about "going Stateside with my convictions" for a few hours until David wrests control of the lyric, apparently attempting to redress the balance with some clunking anti-American irony ("Marilyn inflatables, home on the range, where the livin' is easy on a horse with no name / Kennedy convertibles, home on the range, where the sufferin' comes easy on a blond with no brain"). Lennon and McCartney's pass-the-parcel approach might have made a classic out of "A Day In The Life", but the same cannot be said of "Stateside". Having taken one look at this undignified monstrosity, Bowie should have elected to stuff democracy. Instead, he capitulated to Mr Sales and in doing so compromised the album. It's not as if "Stateside" is particularly badly performed, but the superannuated blues setting and crass apple-pie sentiment (even allowing for the attempted irony injection, with its reference to America's 1971 hit "A Horse With No Name") represents an abdication of everything Bowie's music had hitherto achieved.

     After the album take had already appeared on single formats of "You Belong In Rock N'Roll", Tin Machine's BBC version, recorded on August 13th 1991, surfaced as a B-side on the "Baby Universal" CD. The album cut later featured in the soundtrack of the 1992 film Dr Giggles. "Stateside" was performed on the It's My Life tour (veterans will recall the spectacle of Mr Sales climbing down from his drumkit and attempting to whip the crowd into a pre-song frenzy by waving his drumsticks at them and repeatedly yelling "Y'all ready to go stateside?"), from which an alarming eight-minute live version found its way onto Oy Vey, Baby. In 2008, a further four alternative versions from the studio sessions were leaked online. Jointly, they're a close contender with Tonight's "God Only Knows" as the very worst items in Bowie's recorded legacy.