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Why It's a Great Song #5: Space Oddity

Today I'll be analysing David Bowie's 1969 timely classic Space Oddity. It was timely of course because of the Moon landings occurring in the same year. But other than that, what is it about this song that makes it stand the test of time and mean that it's managed to graduate the space age into our very own digital age? Dr Fox enters the lab once again...

1) Fading in

Those two chords, Fmaj7 and Em, repeated over and over. Does this represent the repetitive action of humans on Earth going about our regular business like clockwork, whilst Major Tom prepares for his hardy mission ahead?

2) Genius stand-alone lines

Not only is Bowie a story-telling genius (we'll get to that in a mo) but he also knows how to grab us with deftly-crafted one liners such as "planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do", "the papers want to know whose shirt you wear" and "tell my wife I love her very much, she knows". These are the bits we love to sing along to, regardless if we've followed the tale or not.

3) Countdown tension Ten, nine, eight... this is building tension in the most fabulous manner - we all know what will happen at zero, but we can't wait, can we.... and how those strings kick in at launch. Beautiful songwriting.

4) Story-teller

This song is, at its core, a sad tale of a spaceman whose mission goes terribly wrong and ends up stranded in the heavens. It has a beginning, a middle and and end. It has twists and turns, all the fine details we expect from a great story and we are gripped the whole way, wishing Major Tom all the best.

5) Experimental solo

The way that guitar climbs and whines at the end, it could almost be Major Tom's last radio signal travelling through the space-time continuum from his oblivion. The music really fits the mood of the lyric in other parts too - the countdown sequence of course, plus notice the drop in melody on the word "blue". Well done Davy Jones.

6) Harmony

It's a little touch but not to be under-estimated. Notice how high and wailing Bowie's vocal harmonising is. This creates yet more tension (I like that word as you can tell!). Then it matches the melody for the "Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there's something wrong....". This could have been a device used to emphasise the fact that this is a radio broadcast, with the volume doubled.

7) Acoustic at heart

The song can be played easily on guitar for your intermediate player. This makes it a cover favourite and has no doubt added value to the legacy. I've even tried it out myself - it's pretty high vocally - a bit like poor old Tommy in the vertical sense at the end!

8) Expert arrangement

The strings, the harmonies, bare guitar, that solo at the end... this is all expert arranging, nothing is out of place and all is present to serve the message of the song.

9) What does it all mean?

Major Tom's misadventure is a tale of warning to all of us of what happens if we get overly confident in our own mortal abilities. Tommy shouldn't have left the capsule, Dorothy should have stayed in Kansas and you should never, EVER follow the White Rabbit.


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