David Bowie’s career was not exactly skyrocketing in early 1969. He’d already been through several bands that failed to make a dent in the British charts or the London clubs, and his 1967 debut album David Bowie was a risky pop effort that missed the mark. The song “Rubber Band,” for example, used a tuba as lead instrument, and electric guitar was entirely absent – just as Eric Clapton and Cream and Jimi Hendrix were riding to superstardom on the cutting edge of six-string rock, and The Who’s Pete Townshend was cranking his amps to 11. To make matters worse, Bowie’s greatest recognition to date was via the commercial he made for the Lyons Maid ice cream brand, later countered by a rejection from the makers of Kit Kat candy bars.
Nonetheless, his prowess as a hit songwriter for other artists, including Billy Fury and the single-named Oscar, gave Bowie’s handlers hope. And when his second full-length disc Space Oddity – initially also titled David Bowie in Europe – was released on November 4, 1969, those hopes were validated. The album’s title track was a major hit, and the disc’s eclectic character foreshadowed many of the places he’d take his music during the chameleonic first decade of his career, as well as his knack for tapping into trends for his compositions.
“Space Oddity” quickly became a staple of FM radio, which was then at the creative height of its programming. Much speculation has been devoted to the song’s origin. It’s been rumored to have been inspired by Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” and by Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the U.S. Apollo lunar landing program. More likely, it was the latter, which allowed the Earthbound to listen to plenty of the conversation between the astronauts and “ground control.”
The song was a work of high art that incorporated the exploratory sonics of the times and reached #5 on the U.K. pop charts. Bowie played Stylophone – a miniature stylus-operated synthesizer – on the track and a pre-Yes Rick Wakeman performed on both Mellotron and piano. Mick Wayne played the tune’s signature electric lead guitar lines, since Gibson Les Paul Custom legend Mick Ronson wouldn’t join Bowie’s group to become the first of his long line of fully realized guitar foils until February 5 of the next year.
Wayne made several other killer contributions to the Space Oddity album. He played a ripping track on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” in counterpoint to Bowie’s Dylanesque vocal-and-harmonica performance. In fact, “Space Oddity” was the album’s oddity as well. The expansive sound was in contrast to the trendy folk-rock that dominated the disc in tunes like “Letter to Hermione,” an ode to Bowie’s ex-girlfriend, and “An Occasional Dream.” However, Bowie’s outsider perspective was already in place. “God Knows I’m Good” was written from the point of view of a shoplifter. And “Cygnet Committee” tells the story of a leader whose efforts to elevate his followers provide them with the means to turn on him. It was Bowie’s take on what he saw as the false brotherhood of the hippie culture.
It took nearly three more years for “Space Oddity” to make its mark on the American pop charts, when the album was reissued in the States in 1972. New performances were added to the U.S. version of the LP, which became notable for Bowie’s first recording with Ronson – the Buddhist-grounded late addition “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which also featured a 50-member orchestra.
Ronson’s debut in Bowie’s band – then called the Hype – was a live broadcast on famed British DJ John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. When they played on stage at the Roundhouse on February 22 they dressed in superhero costumes, and outlandish costuming would be an important part of Bowie’s oeuvre through 1974’s Diamond Dogs, with a dip back for 1980’s edgy Scary Monsters tour and videos.
Ronson’s muscular riffs would become the cornerstone of the first albums made by what was initially billed as “Bowie’s electric band,” and he and Bowie handled most of the arrangements for The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Hunky Dory, Alladin Sane and Pin Ups. During that period Ronson also helped Bowie produce and arrange All the Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople and Lou Reed’s Transformer, playing piano on “Perfect Day.”
Bowie has had a string of guitar foils following Ronson who served similar duty as sonic mad scientists or musical anchors. The key players include Earl Slick (Diamond Dogs, Station to Station), Carlos Alamar (Young Americans, Station To Station, Low), Robert Fripp (“Heroes”, Scary Monsters), Adrian Belew (Lodger), Stevie Ray Vaughan (Let’s Dance), Peter Frampton (Never Let Me Down) and Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine, Outside, Earthling). Bowie and Ronson also reunited for one track, a cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free,” on 1993’s Black Tie White Noise shortly before his death by cancer at age 46.