The first of the records in the series illustrates our interpretation of the story of Space Oddity. It is a story with two characters: Ground Control and the doomed astronaut, Major Tom.
Written in 1968 – the year of the Apollo 8 Moon mission – and released just before Apollo 11 put humans on the Moon for the first time, the song’s title alludes to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, also released the same year. Space Oddity was originally going to be a duet but in the recorded version Bowie took on both roles, adopting different voices for each character – a nasal whine for Ground Control, a more natural singing tone for his alter ego, Major Tom.
What happens in the song? First, Ground Control barks orders at Major Tom as he is blasted off into the cosmos. Once in orbit, he’s a celebrity: ‘The papers want to know whose shirt you wear’. But Major Tom sings back to Ground Control in more fatalistic terms: ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’. At some point, the signal goes dead. We leave Major Tom floating round his tin can, far above the Moon.
READING THE RECORD
Major Tom’s trajectory away from Earth – past 100,000 miles and into the depths of space – appears as a spiral emanating out from the centre label of the record. Here, Major Tom literally spirals out of control (or, drawing on the psychedelic resonances of the song, into the abyss; a spiral motif appears in the middle of this and all the other records in the series).
Only the black portions of the record encode information. White sections of the spiral show the parts where Bowie sings (the vocal introduction, verses, choruses and vocal bridge) and shaded sections show the instrumental passages. The position of the white sections shows which character we believe is singing at that point in the song – Ground Control is stationed on Earth, next to the centre label, while Major Tom is on the spiral, moving further and further away. Lines emanating from the white sections show the transmissions – the points where the two characters repeatedly call each other over the radio system: ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, ‘This is Major Tom to Ground Control’.
The initial shaded portions of the spiral, showing instrumental sections (liftoff and first guitar solo), follow the position of both characters. After the vocal bridge, when we realise the two characters can no longer communicate with one another (‘Can you hear me Major Tom?), the shaded sections relating to the second break, second guitar solo and outro follow Major Tom only. That is, the music acts as a bridge or connection between the two characters until the point where the line of communication is broken, and they no longer inhabit the same emotional universe.
In this way, the conversational nature of the song, the relative location of the two characters and their ability to communicate is embedded in the design of the record.
WHO SINGS 'SHE KNOWS'?
Some critics have attributed the words ‘she knows’ in the line ‘Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows’ to Ground Control. In the excellent Bowie book Rebel Rebel, Chris O’Leary describes them as ‘schlocky hand-wringing’ from Ground Control. In O’Leary’s interpretation, the signal is still getting through at this point and Ground Control can still hear Major Tom. Presumably his wife knows she loves him, if only because she’s just heard his words broadcasted over the TV network. It’s true that for the words ‘she knows’, Bowie reverts to the more nasal tone associated with Ground Control.
Here, however, we attribute the words ‘she knows’ to Major Tom. It’s as though the astronaut knows the signal isn’t getting through and he can’t be heard (the next line is ‘Ground Control to Major Tom / Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong’), so is consoling himself with the thought that his wife knows he loves her already. But the revelation he can’t be heard hits him hard and there’s bitterness in Bowie’s voice as he cries out the words ‘she knows’.