Since David Bowie is my unequivocal favorite recording artist, I was excited to have received a promo copy of the 40th Anniversary pressing of Bowie’s Space Oddity record (It was officially released in the U.S. yesterday). But I’d be remiss not to note my disappointment. The sound quality was nothing new to me, as the only other vinyl version I have of this record is the long out of print Rykodisc reissue from about 20 years back. Both are digitally sourced. It doesn’t matter much the remasters might differ, as digital recordings lack the warmth of the original analog tapes, the ideal source for vinyl.
Some of the apparent faults of digitally sourced vinyl can easily be heard on the first side of this record. The jam at the end of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” especially where the horn comes in, pierces the ears. Following that track is “Letter to Hermione,” which has some unfortunate, distracting amplified sibilance throughout (which actually sounds less annoying on the Ryko release). Then, during “Cygnet Committee,” I thought I was hearing things, but after checking back three times, when Bowie first sings, “Because of you I need to rest/Because it’s you that sets the test,” I could hear distant voices and/or music. It reminds me of what a re-used cassette might sound like when you copy over music that was already there, and you can hear the ghost of that music below the new music you recorded on top. I wonder if this audio “ghost” may have been chit-chat in the studio that the microphones might have picked up…*
The reissue packaging is OK. EMI has done better with their “From the Capitol Vaults” series: The jackets are sturdy and painstakingly reproduce the quality of the original release (Space Oddity was not first issued in a flimsy high-gloss sleeve, though this vinyl reissue for the first time returns it to its original self-titled glory on LP). The package also includes a giant poster that reproduces a poster promoting a concert featuring Bowie during the record’s original release, which reeks of its digital source, an unfortunate visual reflection of the quality of the audio (you can see some of that psoter in the image of the record above). Personally, the Ziggy Stardust era image on the back cover of the original RCA reissue (seen left) would have made a way cooler poster, when the album was first re-titled Space Oddity (thanks to Epiclectic’s cool Flickr photostream featuring original album art for the image!).**
But the joy of this record is having another close listen to the songs. I first heard it when I was a young teenager in the 80s, having only been familiar with “Space Oddity” as a single collected on one of Bowie’s greatest hits (a cassette of either Fame and Fashion or Changesonebowie). What stood out to me then was how different some of the songs sounded in comparison to the trippy quality of the title track.*** This was Bowie in his short-lived hippie persona, which would later suffer a violent end with his 1970 follow-up, the pre-heavy metal tinge of The Man Who Sold the World.
What still strikes me is how sad some of these songs sound: the passionate delivery of the social critique that is “Cygnet Committee,” the lovelorn longing in “Letter to Hermione,” the pathos of “God Knows I’m Good,” the over-the-top melodrama of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” Even “Memory of a Free Festival” has this mournful nostalgic quality, a beautiful moment that has died, similar to another cut on this same album, “An Occasional Dream,” except that the former recreates a shared experience with like-minded bohemian souls, while the other portrays a more private experience with a soul mate.
This album truly was Bowie with soul bared naked at the time (I believe he was 22 or 23 at the time). He wasn’t hiding behind some over-the-top persona, nor was he the self-conscious fame-seeking pop artist of prior failed attempts for notoriety as a soulful mod rocker and pop crooner. He also was yet to begin the more abstract cut-up lyric writing technique he took from famed beat writer William S. Burroughs–that would first occur on 1974’s Diamond Dogs.
For me, the strongest bits of the album include the otherworldly finale “Memory of a Free Festival” with its refrain of “Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re going to have a party” (noise poppers Mercury Rev would later record an appropriately strong version of this song). The jam that ends “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” was a revelation for Bowie at the time, since all his earlier songs were mostly compact pop numbers. Which leads me to the epic grandeur of “Cygnet Committee,” a song that grows from delicate sing-song to its soaring, pounding finale over the course of nine and a half minutes, his longest song to that date.
Though probably his strongest work at the time, Space Oddity was never the strongest album of his career. It really shows a newfound sophistication for him both lyrically and musically since his prior work, where his biggest inspiration was the cheesy pop of Anthony Newley, which sometimes resulted in some embarrassingly zany moments that shall remain unmentioned out of respect. He would later temper these naïve self-conscious themes with deeper existential musings in much stronger songs like “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars” or the more surreal “Bewlay Brothers,” all from 1971’s Hunky Dory.
Finally, a 2-CD version has also been reissued at the same time as this vinyl version, which collects some songs never officially available to the public.
*After checking, yes, this audio “ghost” is also on the Ryko LP version, and, yes again, I checked the Ryko CD, 1999 Virgin CD reissue and the Japanese mini LP CD—it’s on them all. I guess I never heard it before because I never had the system I now have (more on that in another post). I’m only left to wonder if it’s on the original RCA CD or LP (it probably would not have come out on the cassette due to the inherent hiss of the tape).
**Before the album had been simply titled David Bowie, just like his first full-length in 1967 on Deram Records, adding to some confusion. To top it off, when it was first issued by Mercury in the U.S. the artwork was changed somewhat and the shameless (unapproved by Bowie) title Man of Words/Man of Music was added on. It became Space Oddity in 1972, when RCA bought the rights to Bowie’s back catalog and reissued it during the Ziggy Stardust craze that again saw the cover art altered to feature Bowie’s Ziggy persona on the covers). Ahhh, the marketing strategies of early music labels, how fun.
***It’s important to note that, per the liner notes on the inner sleeve by Kevin Cann, that “Space Oddity” was produced by Gus Dudgeon, and not Tony Visconti, who recorded the rest of the album (and continued to work with Bowie here and there on some of Bowie’s greatest records, down to his last release, Reality). Cann notes how Visconti had an aversion for the song and refused to record it for Bowie, so Bowie, asking Visconti’s permission, went to an outside producer to record it anyway. It would famously become his hit single thanks to the timing of its release with the first Apollo moon landing, though it was actually inspired by the grim future vision of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It would turn out that none of the other songs, as strong as some still are, ever had single quality, to the frustration of the label and Bowie. Fame would elude him until his other interstellar ride as Ziggy Stardust, three long years later.