Illustrious music careers usually tread down a few rutted jarring roads before they find their groove and their eventual voice. Most acts often discount these early paths by referring to them as "baby pictures", however, it's only when one peeps to the past that you distinguish early glimpses of the genius that ultimately bloomed later in at proves to be their genesis story. Until recently, the only proper David Bowie studio album I didn't own was Space Oddity. I always viewed it as a patchy record, one best known for the first brilliant single of Bowie's career, "Space Oddity". However, with time and significant care, the recent 40th Anniversary two-disc reissue puts a spin on the record one couldn't have previously imagined. It's a rare illustration where the bonus disc helps enrich the regular album by revealing glints of greatness.
It's well documented that Bowie went through many guises, labels and acts before walking down the path as a solo artist. His first "official" record after several failed groups and singles was released in 1967 under the title of David Bowie through a division (Deram) of Decca Records. Now, to add to this confusion, Space Oddity as we know it today wasn't christened as an album title until its 1972 re-issue. In the UK it was originally entitled David Bowie (confusing, right?) and in the US was given the most unfortunate title of Man of Words/Man of Music. Despite the success of "Space Oddity", the album didn't make much of an impact, until it was reissued in 1972 in the wake of Ziggy Stardust mania. Only then did it become known for more than its lead single. Space Oddity was produced by Tony Visconti, who had already worked with Bowie on his 1967 self-titled debut. He would go on to work with Bowie on a dozen different albums spanning more than thirty years. His finesse in the studio lifts the songs to another level and this was where the fruitful relationship was born. The only song Visconti didn't work on was amazingly, "Space Oddity". Visconti didn't feel it had anything else to do with the rest of the album and it doesn't. The remaining nine songs are a varied group of psychedelic folk-rock ballads showing shades of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Since then it's the starting point for Bowie's career however, I don't think the album has ever received its due, until now. Some may wonder if an album like Space Oddity warrants a special release with a whole disc of extras. After sitting with this new release and listening to it, I can say without question this is an exceptional release that not only augments the original album but makes it superior in every possible way. Art often is misunderstood and the great artists of our time often need to be discussed and debated before their brilliance is brought to light; David Bowie is no different. I would never just hand someone a stack of David Bowie records and expect them to "get him" with a few initial listens. I probably would have to hand over a few books as well. One of the highlights of this extraordinary reissue is the extensive booklet and liner notes included within. A history of the record is given with first person accounts, recording dates and a chronological sequence from when Bowie saw Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to the album's final mix and release. All of these extra bits of information flesh out the story make the songs thrive and in the end, you walk away with an overpoweringly distinctive view of the original album. The 40th Anniversary edition proves that Space Oddity was more than a mishmash of songs with one great single, but rather as a crucial and rousing collection of songs. The albums that followed Space Oddity were The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory and then finally The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and from there it was one legendary release after another for three decades. However, to fully grasp and comprehend the genius of David Bowie, Space Oddity is ground zero.
"Space Oddity" was released just in time for the first moon landing that summer and when the album appeared in stores that November, the steam had run out and it vanished without notice until it was re-released in 1972 as Bowie's star began to rise. As a result, many of these songs (especially found on the second disc) never received their due. "Janine" is a perfectly poised pop number (and the live cut from the BBC on the bonus disc exceeds the original). "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed", presumably written about a ex-girlfriend who didn't think Bowie was graceful enough for her, it features a brash guitar riff and some sensational harmonica fills that fuel the lyrical rage forward. On this latest remaster, it includes "Don't Sit Down" at the end of the track, rather than as a separate track on the 1990 Ryko reissue and again on the 1999 remaster. It doesn't appear on the sleeve, but make no mistake; this tongue-in-cheek jam is included here. "Letter To Hermione" has shades of Simon & Garfunkel as Bowie strums an acoustic pleading with and trying to win back a former love. Disillusionment is on full display on the nearly ten minute "Cygnet Committee". The reaching and elating vocal towards the end is one of Bowie's greatest amidst an arrangement that is notable for its complexity and proving that "Space Oddity" wasn't the only moment of brilliance. Musically it doesn't shift tempo so much as follow the lead of Bowie's disenchantment with reality. This very easily could have been an anthem in a different time and space. Bowie would execute some of the same feelings of striving for a better life with "All the Young Dudes" a few years later, but "Cygnet Committee" is a treasure deserving further exploration. The sing-a-long anthem "Memory of A Free Festival" closes the album. The seven-minute track builds slowly before an all encompassing exorcism of voices encompass the song much like "Hey Jude". The second disc includes three further versions, all of which prove to be essential. Two are cut down for a single release (which feature the first time Mick Ronson would appear on a Bowie recording) and there is an alternate mix that runs over nine-minutes. For another artist, "Memory of A Free Festival" would be a lifelong finale for their concerts, but in Bowie's it's merely a remarkable footnote. There is a sense of straightforward romanticism on the record, that wouldn't be as obvious on future records as it took a back seat to self discovery.
The second disc is more than mere filler and ultimately proves to be an indispensable companion piece to the regular album. Some of it has been released before on the 1990 Ryko edition, the 1989 Sounds + Vision box set and on the Bowie At the Beeb live album from his BBC sessions. However, placed together with rehearsals, stereo mixes, rare B-sides, alternate mixes and even a foreign language version of "Space Oddity" with Italian lyrics that don't resemble the original in any way, it is one of those rare bonus discs that helps bring the main album into clearer focus. The acoustic "Space Oddity" demo is madly mesmerizing to see how well Bowie had imagined the song with just an acoustic guitar and nominal instrumentation. A live cut of "Janine" is more persuasive with a dynamic performance whereas "Let Me Sleep Beside You" is another earnest love song that based on this performance it should have made the final cut of Space Oddity, it provides a perfect bridge between his earlier work and his more experimental fare which came to fruition on Space Oddity.
"Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" has three versions spread out across the two discs. The album version finds a sweeping orchestra giving it a grandiose aspect (something producer Tony Visconti considered his greatest accomplishment on the record). But the rare B-side (previously issued on the Sound + Vision box set), reveals the songs true colors. I take preference in the acoustic driven B-side that allows the story come to life. The alternate album mix is exhilarating as well with a more embellished orchestra higher in the mix towards the midsections and ending of the song. "London, Bye, Ta-Ta" is here on two separate stereo mixes. Considered a follow-up single in the early 1970's, the song remained shelved until the 1990's but putting it here, you can sense the direction Bowie was heading towards with each composition he continued to write and record. "The Prettiest Star" was chosen in early 1970 as the follow-up single to "Space Oddity". Written with Bowie's first wife in mind (Angela), the song has an earthy nostalgic feel with an ever so simplistic guitar riff, played by Marc Bolan. The song was later re-recorded for 1973's Aladdin Sane, but there is unabashed romanticism in this crude sounding cut and it serves as a appendix to the Space Oddity story. This song alone warrants purchasing this edition.
The 40th Anniversary reissue of Space Oddity covers all of the bases with everything one could imagine in terms of extras. But what most people don't realize is that the whole package elevates the legacy of Space Oddity as more than a cutout bin record with one great song, but the new special edition will provide this record not just another life, but another chance to be studied. One can only hope every act would give as much attention and care to all of their records. We've given access into Bowie's bedroom and mind as he slowly transformed and began his wild, eccentric and musical journey that lasts to this day. The bonus material forces the listener to look back and not just reawaken these songs, but illustrate that like the first steps on the moon in 1969, Bowie's first steps into greatness were equally captivating and historically important to the world of music.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
David Bowie - Space Oddity 40th Anniversary Special Edition