Music

David Bowie: Space Oddity (40th Anniversary Edition)

Apart from its title track, Space Oddity owes far more to the artists who were Bowie's contemporaries and influences at the time than any sort of celestial inspiration.


David Bowie

Space Oddity (40th Anniversary Edition)

Contributors: Tony Visconti, John Hutchinson, Gus Dudgeon
Label: EMI
US Release Date: 2009-11-17
UK Release Date: 2009-10-12
Artist Website
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The truly odd thing about Space Oddity -- not the first Bowie album, but the first one that mattered -- is just how grounded it actually is. Even continuing to call the album Space Oddity, when that was neither its original title, nor does it ever appear on this double-disc reissue as anything other than a song name, seems awkward. The only valid reason to continue calling it Space Oddity, a name given to it years after its release for the simple fact that the song "Space Oddity" was such a tremendous success and would be recognizable to the average consumer, is to differentiate it from Bowie's first self-titled album. Otherwise, it makes more sense as, simply, "David Bowie".

This much becomes especially clear once you hear the rest of the album, a collection of songs that owes far more to the artists who were Bowie's contemporaries and influences at the time than any sort of celestial inspiration. Despite what we would eventually come to know of Bowie, whose ever-shifting personae would become legendary, who had a tendency for seeming something other than human, Space Oddity shows few hints of anything truly larger than life, save for, perhaps, the title track.

And yet, there's even a problem with that title track. The liners relate with no small amount of humor the tale of Tony Visconti, Bowie's on-again-off-again collaborator and producer who worked on the majority of Space Oddity, and who also refused to have anything to do with the title track. "I'm not doing that, it's terrible" are Visconti's words (as related by Bowie in a quote in the liners), and when you hear the rest of the album, you start to see that despite the immense success of the song, he may have had a point. When you put "Space Oddity" next to a screed on misdirected authority like "Cygnet Committee" or an ode to lost love like "Letter to Hermione", it sounds a bit precious and far too literal. While it wasn't a response to the moon landing, it was very much inspired by Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sounds, at its root, like too literal a reflection of the common anxiety over space travel. Even the space-shuttle-as-tin-can metaphor seems trite in retrospect.

Gus Dudgeon's willingness to give in to the epic aspirations of Bowie and his song combined with Bowie's own confident vocal performance pushed the song far beyond its frame, and the application of hindsight makes the song feel like a career-defining performance. That it's a glossy superficiality seems a moot point.

And so, the rest of the album -- because there is a rest of the album -- is not half bad, even if it's not up to the level of Bowie's best. The song with the unfortunate task of following "Space Oddity", in particular, is fantastic. "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" goes from strummy folk singing to chaotic, harmonica-driven rock 'n roll almost without notice, and even the most casual Bob Dylan fan might raise their eyebrow at the similarity in styles between the song and the artist that certainly helped to inspire it. "Cygnet Committee" is the epic that the album should have been remembered for, a seemingly ordinary (if tuneful) song taken to another level by a bitter coda detailing the betrayal and loneliness that power can inspire. "Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud", with all its orchestral pomp and soaring refrains, likely had far more autobiographical intent than "Space Oddity" despite what the future would come to accept. Even the final track, for all of the accusations of "Hey Jude" copycatting thrown its way, is a great way to go out, all love, happiness, and enough good vibes to make you want to flip the record and start all over again.

Where Space Oddity fails is in a place that Bowie didn't really learn to write until much later in his career: the arena of personal relationships. "Letter to Hermione" and "An Occasional Dream", for all their good intentions, are little more than glorified high school poetry, with "I know you're with him but you should be with me" sentiments and enough sap to fossilize a bear. As nice as it is that these quiet, reflective moments break up some of the more boisterous and emphatic ones, it would be years before Bowie could turn lovelorn insecurity into art.

The second disc of this 2009 reissue does what any such second disc should: it amplifies the listener's appreciation of the first. The alternate takes, BBC performances, and single-only tracks to be found on the second disc provide looks at the way the album could have turned out, and they're a surprisingly interesting bunch.

The first voice we hear on the second disc isn't even Bowie's, as a matter of fact -- it's that of John Hutchinson, his writing and playing partner for the demos that would become Space Oddity. In the demo of the song that would make him famous, Hutchinson and Bowie play the parts of Ground Control and Major Tom respectively, and the two-man acoustic treatment (with some primitive electronic tinkery thrown in for good measure) is quite jarring when you're familiar with the original, though it's just as surprising how little of the song's structure changed from demo to final recording.

While interesting, though, the demos are hardly as vital as alternate takes like the single version of "Memory of a Free Festival", which adds guitars and drums to great effect, somehow making it even more dramatic even as it is also more conventional. An unorchestrated version of "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" is just as interesting -- as a B-side to the "Space Oddity" single, it was a perfect counterpoint to the drama of the A-side, though the orchestral take certainly fits better on the album. As far as the rare tracks, it's nice to have "London Bye Ta-Ta" and BBC take of "Let Me Sleep Beside You" in the context of Space Oddity, but the real treasure here is "Conversation Piece", widely available for the first time since the Ryko version of Space Oddity, which contains some of the most aching, pained lyrics Bowie's ever written, appropriately hidden under a mid-tempo lite-country shell.

Space Oddity is often derided as one of the weaker Bowie albums, especially given the notoriety of its title track, but that designation is as much a function of expectation as it is an objective measure of quality; the song "Space Oddity" sets up certain parameters for what to expect from the album, and then the rest of the disc mostly shoots those down. Despite such incongruity, Space Oddity remains a landmark in the Bowie canon, especially as it offers a glimpse at a man transitioning into the artist we've come to know; its reissue treatment reinforces this transition and development, and instantly becomes the version of Space Oddity to buy, for Bowie newcomers and diehards alike.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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