An awful lot has been written about David Bowie and his fascination with space, extraterrestrials and travelling across the universe. Much of this writing concentrates on the negative. There are those who interpret Bowie’s lyrics as only pointing out loneliness, desolation and frustration as being the lot of a space traveller.
It is true to say it was Bowie’s early career that focused on other worldly. The vast body of work he amassed over his lifetime came from his constant reinvention of himself and his personas.
I intend to highlight the genius’s life-long obsession with the subject matter that celebrates a positive predisposition towards the characterisation of Ziggy, Major Tom and a ‘Life on Mars’ during his early phase. This article will examine David Bowie’s lyrics to interpret what a positive visionary this great man was.
- Space Oddity (1969)
- Life On Mars (1971)
- Starman (1972)
- Ashes to Ashes (1980)
Space Oddity, written and recorded by David Bowie, was released as a single in July ’69. Some say he capitalised on burgeoning interest in space flight around that time. It was only 5 days after its release that the American Nasa team landed on the Moon.
Bowie’s fascination with space inspired Space Oddity following his initial viewing of a Stanley Kubrick film – 2001: A Space Odyssey, the year before. The premise of the song details the launch into space of Major Tom. Major Tom is a fictional astronaut brought to life by the imagination of Bowie.
In the song as in real life, all astronauts who become the centre of any emergency tend to remain extremely calm despite being in such a hazardous environment where anything can go wrong, and in all cases, they seem content to enjoy the view and go with it.
Bowie’s admitted early drug use, and the fact that he was stoned when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, points not only towards similarities between the film and the song, it suggests that to escape our planet and the Earthly problems we endure are reflected through a certain universal and deep psychological appeal to escape.
Space Oddity was Bowie’s first single to hit the charts in the Uited Kingdom. It entered the top five in the British charts on its first release and received awards for its originality.
Space Oddity found a renewed popularity when it was re-recorded and released by a Canadian astronaut named Chris Hadfield. The song was performed on the International Space Station in 2013 renewing what the song means to those who wish to expand our horizons.
Life On Mars
The 1971 a masterpiece that reached Number three in the British charts, and stayed there for thirteen weeks, the Bowie classic Life on Mars, sums up much of Bowie’s song-writing style.
Whereas much criticism has been levelled at David Bowie for producing a Salvador Dali type canvas of overlapping strange images with little or no meaning to this song, the Daily Telegraph UK newspaper rated Life on Mars” as number 1 in Bowie’s “100 Greatest Songs of All Time” list.
The Daily Telegraph described the song as:-
“Gloriously strange sci-fi anthem. A stirring, yearning melody combines with vivid, poetic imagery to accomplish a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience, and then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion. The magic and mystery of music and lyrics. It is something to behold”.
Much of Bowie’s canon of work juxtaposes seemingly unrelated/overlapping images and thoughts with great, great melodies. It is always up to you to create the underlying meaning.
Life On Mars is simply a classic tune that invites you to indulge in the endless possibilities and glorious achievements bound up in his proposition.
Lyrically, Starman can be seen to be bringing a message of hope to believers by a ‘Starman’.
Of course, another extremely successful single, reaching number 10 in the British charts, Ziggy Stardust was cemented in the consciousness of a generation. Ziggy became the messenger of Bowie’s alter ego.
Because of Bowie’s song-writing and encouragement of listeners to create their own meaning, some have interpreted the song as the second coming of Christ, and even of outlining the plot for the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Musically the song is a gentle, pop rock, anthem, prominently featuring an acoustic guitar with a string arrangement by Mick Ronson. There have been connotations alluded to from The Wizard of Oz and a glam rock influence, plus even more outlandish scenarios.
Whatever your take on the song, there is no doubting the underlying positivity that draws you into the piece and creates wonder and expectation.
Ashes To Ashes
1980 possibly reached the culmination of the Bowie space-fascination phase. Bowie’s second number one in the British charts, Ashes To Ashes, came full circle to revisit Major Tom.
Apeing the slightly art rock/new wave genre that was in vogue at the time, the song began to incorporate the use of very expensive video and stunning imagery to put accross its message. The message was his usual ‘the listener creaes the meaning’. This time, however, the style of the song was rooted in Bowie’s childhood and the nursery rhyme rhythms he had learned.:-
“I’ve never done good things
I’ve never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue”
In 1980, David Bowie found himself at the beginning of a new transformation. He first launched himself to stardom in 1969 with the hit Space Oddity, Bowie spent a decade reinventing himself through Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, then Aladdin Sane. From sci-fi glam to stark experimentalism, as Bowie reached the end of the 1970s he reverted to a single persona, one known simply as David Bowie. And that persona produced Ashes To Ashes.
Ashes To Ashes was the embodiment of everything that had previously existed before. David Bowie insisted you made your own mind up. I believe he was an optimist. So am I.
If you enjoyed this article please leave a comment below. Share on facebook and twitter.