Ground Control To Major Tom: David Bowie's 'Space Oddity,' Explained

Music | May 15, 2019

Left: Cover art for 'Space Oddity,' the 1972 re-titled re-release of David Bowie's eponymous 1969 album. Right: a still from '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968). Source: Discogs.com; IMDB

"Ground control to Major Tom..."

David Bowie's 1969 single "Space Oddity" has a more memorable opening line than its actual title (which appears nowhere in the lyrics), and it offers fairly harrowing science-fiction -- for Major Tom, the mission does not end well. Major Tom is one of many characters Bowie created (others being Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and the Blind Prophet), although Tom doesn't seem to have been an alter ego -- well, not until a decade later, when Tom returned in "Ashes To Ashes." The question of "Who is Major Tom?" may not be answerable, but there's a lot to learn about his origins -- in effect, "Why is Major Tom?"

Released as a 7-inch single on July 11, 1969, a mere five days before the Apollo 11 launch date, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” told the story of Major Tom, an astronaut who finds himself floating through space and questioning his role in human existence. Even though the song got off to a slow start, the track reached #5 in the UK and -- three years later -- #15 in the US.

While pretty much every fan of David Bowie is aware that the song is called “Space Oddity,” the song is in many ways bigger than Bowie, and there are still a few people out there who know it as “Major Tom.” The song has inspired copycats, strange rumors, and most of all, a fascination with this fictional character. 

"Ground control to Major Tom…”

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From the opening moments of “Space Oddity,” Bowie introduces the audience to Major Tom through his instructions from Ground Control. By the second verse, Tom has made it to space and he’s describing his time in space as he floats “in a tin can far above the world.” Listeners were fascinated by the idea of Major Tom, even going so far as to ask if he was a real person.

As far we can tell there was a never a Major Tom who went to space, but Bowie paints such a realistic portrait that it’s hard to believe he only exists in our imagination. Major Tom is married, he feels the stress of a job, and he’s not concerned with answering a question about who made the shirt he wears. This last phrase, by the way, might not be a request for a clothing endorsement, as it sounds to Americans. Asking to know "whose shirt you wear" may be a slangy British way of inquiring which football (soccer) team Tom supports.

The Song Was Inspired by "Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey"

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There are numerous fan theories about where Bowie got the idea for a song about a homesick, doomed astronaut. There’s a belief that the singer was making fun of the British space program, and many listeners assumed that he was just trying to make a quick buck off the moon landing, but according to Bowie he just had his mind blown by 2001: A Space Odyssey. He told author Bill Demain:

It was written because of going to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I found amazing. 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.

Parallels Between The Movie And The Song

'2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968). Source: IMDB

The connection to 2001: A Space Odyssey works on many levels, and it's fair to say that the song couldn't have existed without the film. The title of the song is clearly taken from the movie -- "space oddity" being one consonant sound off from "space odyssey." Both the film and the song are about space travel, but "Space Oddity" is ultimately about floating and powerlessness that a human could experience in space, especially if, as happens in the song, the equipment or spaceship malfunctions. In 2001, we see a similar moment when HAL severs Frank Poole's oxygen tube, sending the doomed astronaut hurling into space. 

In both works, the humans are completely dependent upon technology; if it fails, they'll die up there. And that's exactly what does happen. The deranged computer HAL kills not only Poole but also crew members who are in suspended animation. Major Tom's ship fails (somehow, it's not explained) and he's left alone in space with no way of getting home. "Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do," he laments, summing up his powerlessness and impending demise in a childlike couplet.

Tony Visconti Didn’t Care For The Song

David Bowie as an alien in 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' (1976). Source: IMDB

If you’re a Bowie obsessive then you’ve seen Tony Visconti’s name connected to the singer throughout his career. He produced for Bowie on and off throughout his career, including the full stop on the singer’s career, “Blackstar,” and the “Space Oddity” LP. However, Visconti didn’t want anything to do with the “Space Oddity” single. He felt that there wasn’t enough Bowie in it. He explained:

I could hear so many commercial lifts from other people’s sounds like, ‘Here I am sitting in a tin can,’ where the harmonies sound exactly like Simon and Garfunkel. The opening melody itself was in the style of John Lennon, and I said, ‘David, there’s hardly any of you in this song.’

“Space Oddity” Was Worked Out Long Before It Was Recorded

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The sound of “Space Oddity” is overwhelming. What begins with simple acoustic quickly builds into a dense collage of sound that features everything from a Mellotron to a saxophone and a Stylophone, which is basically a children’s instrument but makes a sound from another planet. To get the opaque textures of the song, Bowie and producer Gus Dudgeon worked out the song on paper and in demo form prior to hitting the studio.

In 1978 Dudgeon told Sound International magazine

Bowie and I sat down and planned the record—every detail of it. I’ve still got the original demo at home. If we hadn’t made that demo we wouldn’t have done that record the way it came out. Our planning consisted of writing the lyrics out, then leaving a gap of about four lines underneath in which we’d write things–maybe I’d draw a line that meant a Stylophone swoop or a Mellotron part… It looked just like a kid’s map, covered in little drawings and stars.

According to pianist Rick Wakeman, who played on the track as a session musician (and would join the prog-rock group Yes two years later), once Bowie and his session players hit the studio the whole song was recorded in about three hours. 

The Single Was Released To Capitalize On The Apollo 11 Mission

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Even if Bowie wasn’t thinking about the first manned mission to the Moon while writing “Space Oddity,” his record company was definitely thinking about it when they were releasing the single. The release strategy may have been to capitalize off the lunar mission, but it didn’t work out the way the label wanted.

The BBC didn’t even play the single until the astronauts returned safely from Space because they thought the whole affair was in bad form. Even though the single got off to a slow start, it eventually caught on with fans and became Bowie’s calling card for the next few years. 

Major Tom Was The Through Line In Bowie’s Career

Source: (youtube.com)

It all comes back to Major Tom. The astronaut who found himself meandering aimlessly through space came back to the airwaves in “Ashes to Ashes,” David Bowie’s self-referential 1980 single. The track touches on the singer’s time in Berlin, his intense drug use throughout the ‘70s, and it gives credence to the idea that Bowie himself is Major Tom.

The character reappears in a remix of the song “Hallo Spaceboy” from Outside (Bowie’s very avant-garde ‘90s industrial album), and there’s a reference to him in the music video for “Blackstar” when a deceased astronaut’s skull is used in an occult ritual. In spite of the seemingly disparate pieces of Bowie’s career, Major Tom was always the connective tissue. 

Tags: 2001: A Space Odyssey | David Bowie | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | Space Oddity

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.