David Bowie's first hit single, from fall 1969, has long been associated with the first ever Apollo moon landing, with which its release coincided. In fact, it is hard to think of a song less appropriate to such a venture, as Major Tom switches off all communications with earth and prepares to spend eternity floating around in his tin can. Nevertheless, the BBC employed the song as the theme music to its coverage of the event, and Bowie swiftly found himself with a Top Five U.K. smash -- albeit one which it would take him three years to follow-up.
"Space Oddity" was originally written and recorded for a 30-minute promotional film highlighting Bowie as a songwriter, performer, and all-round artiste in 1968 -- discussing its origins, Bowie has credited both Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and "a silly flirtation with smack," and both influences have been discerned by watchful students. This original recording of the song remained unreleased until 1984 brought the Love You Till Tuesday soundtrack release.
Bowie returned to the song in 1969, recording it with producer Gus Dudgeon after his first choice, Tony Visconti, turned it down; "Space Oddity"'s U.K. success also saw him record two foreign language versions, "Ragazza Solo, Ragazza Sola," for the Italian market (the title translates, oddly, as "lonely boy, lonely girl"), and the more appropriate, but hideously wordy, "Un Homme a Disparu Dans le Ciel" -- "a man has disappeared in the sky." English-language versions were released elsewhere around the world, with varying degrees of success, while reissues in the U.S. in 1972 and Britain in 1975 brought further chart honors. Indeed, the latter re-release gave Bowie his first ever homeland chart-topper.
"Space Oddity" remains one of the most popular songs in Bowie's entire canon. All but ever-present in his live show throughout the 1970s and 1980s (a number of live versions are available on both disc and video), he re-recorded the song for a B-side in 1980 (the performance figures among the bonus tracks to Rykodisc's reissue of the Scary Monsters album), before issuing a sequel, "Ashes to Ashes," later in the year. Fittingly, it became his second U.K. number one. A third part of the story, Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)," appeared without any Bowie involvement in 1984, but remains a favorite with many fans -- the German punk band Raubertochter cut a tremendous cover of that song in 2001.