Space Oddity (David Bowie)
Composer : David Bowie
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Released as a single in 1969 Space Oddity was David Bowie’s first popular hit. The fact that the title was used as a generic for the broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing (the first world broadcast in history) is certainly not unrelated to this. Its title refers to Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” released in 1968. The song tells the story of an astronaut, “Major Tom”, in the form of a dialogue with the ground control . Everything goes well until his spacewalk where a technical problem will condemn him to wander in space. Then the connection is cut, so we will never know what will happen to “Major Tom”.
The theme of space will return several times in Bowie’s work during this period (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars / Life on Mars …). In the funny reference Bowie will teach us ten years later in the title Ashes To Ashes that Major Tom was a junkie ” We all knows Major Tom’s a junkie “.
Note the presence of Rick Wakeman (future keyboardist of Yes) in the song on the electric harpsichord and the Mellotron. The latter being very present in the ” space ” passage.
For the Stick version I chose to make two versions. A first one where the right hand plays the melody in single note and the left hand puts the bass and harmonies, following the concept often used in these scores: fundamental on the 1st and 3rd beats and characteristic note of the chord on the 2nd and 4th beats. And a second more elaborate version where on the same bass line the right hand will play the melody in chord following the concept of “multi-voice”. The three fingers are not systematically played together but after having tapped the chord one finger may be moved to play the melody while the two others remain in place or move as well if the harmony changes, or one remains in place while two move… all combinations are possible. Imagine that each finger represents an independent voice.
The song starts with an intro on two chords. This is one of the magical sides of Pop harmony. As it is usually built around very simple chords (most often triads) when a richer chord arrives it brings a very strong color. This is the case here with F maj 7 (played by David on a 12-string guitar in the original version). Note the note common to both chords: the high E that stays in place. With two chords and a few bars the mood of the song is set. This is one of Bowie’s strengths: at the same time very simple and very sophisticated.
The verse continues. Note in the “multi-voice” version how the fingers organize themselves according to the melody and the chords. Whenever possible the fingers stay in place to make the chord sound and maintain a very legato sound. This is not “at the table” writing but a very empirical way of working. Fingers that can stay in place otherwise they move. All this in order to always have “playable” parts.
At measure 17 first part “space” with a chord I noted C13#11. It is one of the specificities of the Stick to be able to break down very complex chords into two very simple blocks.
Here C13#11 = triad of C7 (C/E/ Bb) in the left hand and triad of D major (D/ F#/A) in the right hand. If we put it together we end up with: third, minor seventh, ninth, eleventh sharp and thirteenth. This is one of the richest chords composed of the addition of two very simple chords. All the chords with extension or alteration can be built this way. I will make a pedagogical description of it in free access on the site.
Letter B a second part of the verse with some harmonic alterations (E7 bar 20) and a very original chordal cut-out bar 22, appearance of F minor on two beats. All these harmonic surprises Rick Wakeman talks about them very well in a documentary released after Bowie’s death. As he was not formatted by any school and as a good autodidact he could go in harmonic paths where a confirmed musician would never have had the idea to go because not obeying any logic. But the result is there “it sounds”. He analyses the chord grid of “Life on Mars” and shows us on certain passages where a “normal” musician would have been and where Bowie went. It’s fascinating.
At letter C (bar 25) return of the intro grid for a kind of chorus where Bowie sings this wonderful 7th major (E on F maj7) then bar 33 an instrumental bridge with a series of chords with a very particular setting and a small chorus of four bars and the return of “space” chords.
Then on the last verse a nice little diminished chord (bar 48) and when the liaison with Major Tom is interrupted “Can you hear me Major Tom” and the tension rises he sings the same melodic motif on three different chords (bars 50/51/52) where obviously each note takes a different color on each chord. This adds tension which relaxes when he continues with the chorus with always his 7th major to the melody on F maj7. It’s magical.
That’s it, we’ve come to the end of our journey, poor Major Tom is going to wander in space. This song, Bowie’s first hit I remind you, contains treasures of melodic and harmonic creativity under the guise of a simple pop song. This will be his trademark until the end, whatever the musical aesthetic he will adopt according to the periods of his career.