After his debut album flopped, David Bowie spent a couple of years regrouping. He sang Velvet Underground covers and rip-offs with a rock band called the Riot Squad; he started a folk trio called Feathers with his then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale. And, inspired in part by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wrote a five-minute mini-musical about an astronaut floating off into space.
“Space Oddity” was recorded in June 1969, and it was released a month later to cash in on the imminent moon landing. A few months after that, the song became a hit, and a second album – titled, like his debut, David Bowie – was recorded to showcase it. “I didn’t like the idea of capitalizing on the man on the moon,” producer Tony Visconti said years later. “I thought it was a cheap shot.”
The rest of Space Oddity, mostly backed up by members of a band called Junior’s Eyes, is Bowie in full-on hippie-folkie mode: waving farewell to Farthingale (“Letter to Hermione” and “An Occasional Dream”); waxing messianic about an outdoor concert he’d played the same weekend as Woodstock (“Memory of a Free Festival”); noticing that girls would like him better if he got a haircut (“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”). “There were never any rehearsals involved,” drummer John Cambridge noted. “No fussing around. You had to get it right more or less the first time.”
Retitled Man of Words/Man of Music for its American edition, the album sold poorly at first. Rereleased as Space Oddity after Ziggy Stardust made Bowie famous, it went Top 20. “Sonically, it was a terrible record for me,” Visconti later confessed. “I knew nothing then.”
The album was quickly followed by two more unsuccessful singles: “The Prettiest Star,” featuring guitar by T. Rex’s Marc Bolan (and re-recorded three years later for Aladdin Sane), and a toughened-up new take on “Memory of a Free Festival,” which debuted guitarist Mick Ronson, who’d soon be Bowie’s main musical foil. “His guitar playing completely captivated us,” Visconti recalled. “I expected this man to become a guitar hero.”