50 years ago today — July 16, 1969 — Apollo 11 was launched and human beings first stepped on the moon.  Let’s celebrate that occasion with the most famous song about space travel: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, a song that exploits our fear and wonder of the final frontier. 

In lesser hands, this track could’ve been nothing more than a goofy, one-joke song for the Dr. Demento crowd, but the clever songwriting, brilliant production and a vocal performance that captures Bowie’s innate other-worldly, alienated style makes this track so much more than a novelty song.

“Space Oddity” (David Bowie) Copyright 1969 Onward Music Limited


Take your protein pills and put your helmet on– it’s time for the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. On July 16, 1969–50 years ago today– NASA launched Apollo 11 and humans set foot on the moon for the first time. For the 50-year anniversary of one of the greatest achievements of our species, let’s listen to the most famous song about space travel, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.

My name is Brad Page, and what I try to do on each episode of this podcast is to get inside of a great song, to listen closely and uncover the elements that make a song work. We don’t get into music theory here, so you don’t have to be a musician to enjoy this podcast. We’re focusing on the performances, the arrangement, and the production choices that make a song great.

“Space Oddity” was released on July 11, 1969, five days before the launch of Apollo 11. The story of an astronaut marooned in space was always a common science fiction trope, explored in countless Sci-Fi novels, short stories, and films. “2001 A Space Odyssey” was obviously a major influence on this song. Clearly the source for the song title, “Space Oddity”.

Left alone, Major Tom drifting in space, the song is a meditation on alienation and isolation. Though Bowie is credited as the sole songwriter on this track, he was working with a musical partner named John Hutchinson at the time, and you can detect some of Hutchinson’s influence in the composition of this track. In fact, when the song was first recorded in February of 1969, it was a duet between Bowie and Hutchinson, with Hutchinson portraying the ground control parts, while Bowie played the role of Major Tom in space. Here’s a sample of that original version.

That’s Hutchinson on the lead vocal, with Bowie providing the harmony.

By April of ‘69, Hutchinson had left, and Bowie was back to being a solo act. He signed a record deal with Phillips Mercury Records in June, and the song was re-recorded as the version we know today. Bowie had been working with producer Tony Visconti, who would eventually produce many of Bowie’s classic albums. He was producing this album for Bowie, but Visconti declined to work on the song “Space Oddity” because he thought it was a lame novelty song. So, a producer named Gus Dudgeon was brought in to produce just this one song, and he did a brilliant job.  By the way, Visconti would eventually regret that decision.

Dudgeon mapped out the song on paper. Since he couldn’t read music, he used color-coded sections to indicate where certain instruments or the string section would come in. Paul Buckmaster created the actual string arrangement, translating Dudgeon’s color-coded pages into actual string charts for the orchestral musicians.

Bowie plays acoustic guitar on the track, along with Herbie Flowers on bass, Mick Wayne on electric guitar, Terry Cox on drums, and Rick Wakeman on Mellotron. Wakeman would go on to become one of rock’s greatest keyboard players with Yes, but at this time he was relatively unknown.

The song begins with Bowie’s acoustic guitar, I believe it’s a twelve-string, slowly fading in, primarily in the right channel. The bass will slide down from a high note. Then we get some militaristic snare drums and harmonics played by the electric guitar. Bowie also plays an instrument called the Stylophone on this track. Invented in 1967, the stylophone is a tiny keyboard that you play with a stylus. It was primarily sold as a children’s toy. And it sounds like this.

Let’s remove the bass, drums and guitar so you can hear the stylophone more clearly.

They’ve added a harmony vocal along with that lead vocal. And now we’re going to hear a voice in the background doing the countdown as we approach liftoff.

Notice how the lead vocal shifted to the right channel.

Now we’ve reached liftoff, and we get the sense of taking flight as the instruments climb in pitch. I’m sure this section was inspired by the middle of “A Day In The Life” by The Beatles.

Let’s listen to what some of the individual tracks are doing in this section. Check out the guitar part. I bet he’s using a bottleneck slide here to get that sound. This is also the first point in the song where the string section comes in. So let’s hear what they’re playing in this party.

Pure Bowie. The line about Major Tom making the grade and the papers all wanting to know whose shirts he wears. Bowie was always keenly aware of the power of advertising and the influence of media. As we play that part back, notice how the string section has been replaced by the Mellotron, which is emulating the sound of a string section. In essence, we’ve replaced a real human orchestra with an artificial reproduction. As we move further into space, we leave humanity behind.

I also want to listen to the bass guitar part behind the second verse. Because Herbie Flowers is doing some great stuff on the bass here. At this point in the second verse, the perspective changes from ground control to Major Tom. And we begin to see things from his point of view.

I always like how he says the word “peculiar” there.

This is the bridge, and it shifts to a different feel here. These chord changes, in conjunction with the arrangement, really give you the feeling of floating freely, untethered. It’s almost disorienting in a way.

Let’s have a closer listen to some of these parts. Here’s the vocals with the strings. And this time it’s the Mellotron. That’s replaced by the orchestra as soon as we hit the first chord of the bridge.

Now let’s hear what the bass and drums are doing during the bridge. That is some pretty cool stuff. As we come out of the bridge, there’s a break for an acoustic guitar part. Which leads into the guitar solo.

Hand claps. That’s Mick Ronson on the guitar solo. The guitar solo ends in dramatic fashion. And we’re into the third verse.

That’s my favorite line in the whole song. I think it’s the most human moment in the song.

You can really hear the stylophone there, too. I really like those little guitar touches there, those chords. Let’s see if we can listen to those. And there’s the stylophone. Sounds like it’s tapping out Morse code. Okay, let’s go back and listen to that in context.

This time there’s a seamless transition between the verse and the bridge.

The acoustic guitar break returns one last time before the final long fade. The solo is kind of buried in the mix, so let’s just listen to that for a bite.

Major Tom drifts off into the void, and the song follows him.

David Bowie – “Space Oddity”

 “Space Oddity” peaked at number 5 on the British charts, making it his first top ten hit. But it wasn’t a hit in America until 1972. Major Tom was also Bowie’s first successful mythic character, years before Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke.

David Bowie, always contradictory, even about his own work, said he wanted “Space Oddity” to be the first anthem on the moon. But in the same interview, he also said the song was an antidote to “space fever”.

I was five years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. “Space fever” was a real thing. Everyone was caught up in the excitement. It was like the complete opposite of September 11. The country, the whole world really, was united by hope and what we could do together. For that brief time, it seemed like anything was possible.

Thanks again for sharing your time and listening to the podcast. Please join me again soon. There’s another “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast right around the corner. In the meantime, you can email me at Or find the podcast on Facebook– just search for the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast.

And please, it really helps the podcast if you leave a review on iTunes, Facebook, or wherever you listen to the show. So thanks.

Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of man’s first journey to the moon with David Bowie and “Space Oddity”.

To listen to the song again, complete and uninterrupted, stream it, download it, or buy it and support the music you love.



2001: A Space Odyssey

David Bowie

Tony Visconti

Gus Dudgeon

Paul Buckmaster

Rick Wakeman



Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’

Yes (Band)

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3 comments on “David Bowie – “Space Oddity”

  1. Charlie Apr 15, 2022

    Brad! You’re amazing!
    Thanks for this impressive X-ray of Starman. I’m always surprised with the details that only you can find out.
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    You’re the best!