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(Analyzing Bowie: Space Oddity (album

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In his 1967 debut album, Bowie broke away from his Mod R&B beginnings to develop a style of an all-around entertainer, writing theatrical pop songs through which he commented on the human condition as it revealed itself in mid-sixties London. The music combined soft rock with music-hall orchestration, and created interesting sound pieces. Lyrically, his style incorporated techniques that were a-typical of rock'n'roll: songs built as a dialogue, songs in which the narrator is revealed as unreliable, songs in which he adopts a character which is slowly revealed as shady or stupid, songs in which he switches back and forth from the role of the narrator to a voice of one of the characters, and other techniques which compel the listener to listen carefully in order to get the real story. Every track is like a little theatre play, offering several angles and open to interpretations. It was good enough to impress the mime Lindsay Kemp, who took Bowie into his troupe and taught him valuable lessons in theatre and comedy art. So Bowie was developing in a certain direction, and doing quite well. The problem was, the world around him was going another way.

Because 1967 was the year the Hippies took over rock music, and they regarded it as the language of a new counterculture which is at odds with the old world and attempts to create a new utopian world. Rock was not supposed to be part of the pop world and produce three minute records, but to make "deep" music in which the electric guitar is the language of the human soul. Rock musicians were now supposed to deal with the eternal and the spiritual, to write personal songs that reveal their soul, to be the voice of a new kind of consciousness. Bowie's little ditties about everyday life scenes, delivered with theatrical irony and music-hall settings, were unacceptable. Bowie himself was moving towards that state of mind as he started living in a sort of a Hippie commune, and so he had to rethink his musical direction.

Still, you could see the traces of the former direction. The "Arts Lab" that Bowie was running had the do-it-yourself attitude of the counterculture, but its intent was to bring together different forms of art, maintaining the all-around spirit of his previous stage. He adopted the folkie style of singing personal songs while strumming an acoustic guitar, but at the same time he continued to do mime and develop his theatrical side. On the spiritual side, Bowie was still enamored with Tibetan Buddhism, but began sampling other mystical approaches. Meanwhile, he became disillusioned with the Hippie dream, seeing it for the charade it was. By 1969, he was ready to bring it all together into his second album.

The album cover already hints at what's inside. On the front, Bowie's head, in a Hippie afro, is placed against a dotted background inspired by Victor Vasarely, a pop-art painter whose art was based on the dazzling effect of optical illusions. It already shows Bowie's penchant for creating shocking and alluring album covers, and it suggests that Bowie is still a pop-artist, even as he pretends to be a Hippie.

Turn the album over, and you find a painting by Bowie's childhood friend George Underwood, which complicates things even further. When you look at the bottom part, it looks like a brain that is cracked to reveal the fluid within, but when you move upwards the brain tissue and fluid turn into land and rivers, part of a landscape. On this landscape, we recognize figures out of the album: there's the smoldering volcano from 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud; there's the old lady from 'God Knows I'm Good'; there's the face of his former girlfriend Hermione, the inspiration for at least two tracks, floating in a cloud; there's the astronauts from 'Space Oddity' and the Venusian from 'Memory of a Free Festival; and the table in the middle is probably inspired by 'Cygnet Committee'. And we recognize some more characters relevant to Bowie's art, like Buddha and Pierrot. So the painting can be seen either as a landscape that contains Bowie's world, or as a depiction of Bowie's brain and the images it produces. However, if we follow the river to the bottom-right corner, we find that the water change to dots similar to those on the front cover, which suggests that this is a comic-book painting, a product of pop culture. And if we look even harder, we find a tiny painter reclining to draw the lines of the brain, which suggests that this entire landscape is merely a painting done by someone else. What the cover tells us is that there are several perspectives from which we can perceive this album and understand it.

The music makes the same point. Gus Dudgeon, who was the technician on the previous albums, features here as the producer of the title track, but his carefully planned compositional style is elsewhere discarded in favor of the more adventurous and freaky style of Tony Visconti, who produced the other nine tracks. Every track has a different orchestration, some minimal and intimate, some chaotic and wild, and others orchestral and grand. You sense that young Visconti is cutting his teeth on this material, experimenting with sound, developing the skills that would turn him into one of the greatest producers rock has ever known. Other people who would play a part in Bowie's career make their debut as well: Rick Wakeman, Herbie Flowers, Benny Marshall, Ken Scott, and according to some testimonies even Mick Ronson. Each of them does his part to turn every track into a different experience.

So, what are the different perspectives to view this album? The first is the personal perspective. Bowie joins the ranks of the singer/songwriters and their confessional style. The most personal is of course the painfully revealing 'Letter to Hermione', while 'An Occasional Dream' and 'Memory of a Free Festival' take an autobiographical tale and turn it into a parable. In these tracks, Bowie is the speaker, and he confides in us. But 'Janine' and 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed' already warn us to be careful. He still speaks in first person, but it is unclear if he is speaking for himself or assuming a character, and he is addressing a female counterpart who tries to figure him out, telling her that it's not as easy as she thinks. The Hippies believed that the soul is a singular, pure entity, and revealing it would show us for what we are, but these records question this belief. The identity of the individual is shown as complicated, full of masks and ever-changing, something you can't really get a handle of. The confessional style, then, is not sufficient to penetrate the depths of the human condition. Another approach is required.

The new approach that Bowie presents in this album is taken from his mentor Lindsay Kemp. Kemp's belief was that the artist should be like Pierrot, the sad clown who always fails, and present a mirror-image of the fallible side of humanity. Thus, he affects humanity to look at itself and try to transcend its fallible sides. The record that introduces this attitude is 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed', in which Bowie describes the relationship formed between the protagonist, a Hippie freak, and a young high-society woman who is fascinated by his clownish ways. She thinks he is harmless, but through her contact with him she is changed and can no longer look at herself the same way. Bowie does here what he will do in several records over the next couple of years: redefining the Hippie position, trying to steer the counterculture in a different direction than the course it has taken. He is adopting the Hippie style, but rather than wishing to "drop out" of society he remains in it, and uses the freaky Hippie look to play Pierrot.

The Pierrot perspective features in the drama-records. In 'God Knows I'm Good' the narrator is a witness on the scene, and describes a woman who tries and fails to steal food at a local store. Through the story, we get a glimpse of the heartless nature of capitalistic society, and the troubled relationship between Man and God. In 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecolud' Bowie switches between the voice of an omniscient narrator and the boy, and shows how the boy tries and fails to teach his village to form a better relationship with nature. Through the story, we come face to face with the violence of both nature and society, and realize that the relationship between Man and nature is not as simple as those Hippies advocating a "return to nature" believe. In 'Space Oddity' he employs the dialogue technique, through which he tells the story of a failed space-mission which is also an allegory for an LSD trip gone bad. Through the story, we realize the futility in the hopes the sixties put on the space race and the psychedelic experience. In 'Memory of a Free Festival' he tells an autobiographic tale of a Hippie Love-in that failed to reach the utopian love it aspired to, and through the story we get the sense that the fundamental beliefs of the Hippies are wrong. In 'An Occasional Dream' he is the protagonist and the drama centers around his failed love affair with Hermione, and we see that true love is not eternal like we are led to believe. And in 'Cygnet Committee' he continuously switches voices and characters, to tell the story of a revolution which fails to live up to its ideals. The record exposes the absurdity of revolutionary thought in general and of the revolutionary spirit of the sixties in particular. Through these tragic stories of failure, Bowie plays the Pierrot who compels us to take a look at our maxims and beliefs and realize their groundlessness.

And it is all told from a pop perspective. While the Hippies strayed away from pop, and saw any music that wasn't rock as a "sellout" to the capitalist system, Bowie offers a variety show in which every number dismantles rock in a different way. This is also in line with the Pierrot concept: in order to really have an effect, you have to remain within the world of entertainment, within pop. While Hippie rock aspired to make albums that would make us "sit down and listen", Bowie throws in a track that says 'Don't Sit Down'. The album is very heavy and serious, but the silliness and wild laughter of 'Don't Sit Down' remind us that it is all a show.

So the album should be regarded mainly as an attack, a critique of the beliefs of both mainstream culture and the counterculture. Even when he's being personal, there is a degree of irony in Bowie's approach, criticizing himself and his community. It's the Bowie knife again, cutting through everything in an attempt to get to an answer that lies beyond. And here, for the first time, we can feel that he is actually getting at something, as through his attacks we already witness the budding of the insights that would inform Bowie's art throughout the seventies: the realization that every joy is temporary ('Space Oddity', 'An Occasional Dream', 'Memory of a Free Festival'), the impermanence of the self ('Janine'), the importance of the alien to our lives ('Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed', 'Memory of a Free Festival'), the death of God ('God Known I'm Good'), the need to find a way to live in the moment ('An Occasional Dream'), the realization that dictatorship springs from human nature ('Cygnet Committee'), and the need to escape society and find your own place ('Space Oddity', 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed', 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud'). It's all in here already, if you only care to look.

There is an ongoing debate on whether Space Oddity is Bowie's first masterpiece album, or does that honor belong to its successor. For one thing, this album doesn't seem as cohesive as Bowie's seventies albums, but sounds more like a collection of disparate tracks. Secondly, there doesn't seem to be one concept behind the album. And thirdly, unlike his seventies albums which were all hugely influential, this album isn't known to have been much of an influence on anyone.

Before I started analyzing its music, I also thought less of this album than the ones that followed. For me, every Bowie album from 1970 to 1980 is a masterpiece, a groundbreaking creation in which the persona, the music and the cover all fit together perfectly and almost every track is complete in itself and essential to the whole. Space Oddity seemed to be lacking in these traits. But I've changed my mind once I dove into it, and I believe I have shown that it is just as cohesive and powerful as the subsequent albums and already presents an artist with a unique vision of the world. And it may not have been very influential on other artists, but we've seen how important it was in the development of Bowie himself as an artist, and that is enough.

There is no question in my mind anymore. This album is another Bowie masterpiece. As for the question whether it is the first masterpiece, well, that remains open. There was, after all, an album that preceded it…

Space Oddity
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed
Don't Sit Down
Letter to Hermione
Cygnet Committee
Janine
An Occasional Dream
Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud
God Knows I'm Good
Memory of a Free Festival

The Victor Vasarely painting that inspired the cover is probably this one, titled Ceti Lum.

The album was originally titled David Bowie. In the US, however, it was packaged as Man of Words, Man of Music, which was probably meant to sell Bowie as a singer-songwriter. The simpler album cover is also more in line with the genre.

In 1972, when Bowie broke big with Ziggy Stardust, the album was repackaged and retitled Space Oddity, the name by which it would henceforth be known. The cover now had a picture of Ziggy, the space oddity, and the album helped giving him his spacey credentials.

Today, Space Oddity is regarded as the first "genuine" Bowie album.

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