When David Bowie released his self-titled debut album in 1967, he was greeted with mild praise. Though the songs on David Bowie are pleasantly distracting, none of them contain any hint of the sonic innovation nor narrative depth that would inform his later work. That would begin to change on this day in 1969, when Bowie released the single "Space Oddity," a track that borrowed elements of folk rock, science fiction and psychedelia in a brilliantly dreamy stew that became Bowie's first big breakout hit.
The summer of 1969 was a thrilling time in history, as the space race was at its peak. June 11 would have only been a month away from the launch of Apollo 11, the NASA craft that would allow the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon. Fascinated by the depths of space exploration (and especially the psychological implications therein), Bowie constructed a narrative about an astronaut named Major Tom, who is jettisoned into outer space, becomes a celebrity ("the papers want to know whose shirts you wear") and gets overwhelmed by the loneliness and remoteness of the experience. It's a rich tune that is infused with both wonder and sadness, and it puts the limits of exploration in perspective. It's as though Bowie is asking, "Once you've touched the edge of the universe, what is left to explore?"
The subject matter of "Space Oddity" was so appropriate that the BBC ended up using it as the official theme song for their moon landing coverage, which only made the track a bigger hit. It later appeared on Bowie's 1969 album Man of Words/Man of Music (which was renamed Space Oddity when it was re-released in 1972). Bowie would later revisit the Major Tom character in the songs "Ashes to Ashes" (from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)) and "Hallo Spaceboy" (from 1995's Outside). The original remains a stirring keepsake of the era and a telling preview of the envelope-pushing artist that Bowie would evolve into in the 1970s.