Mellotron Mondays: Space Out With David Bowie

First released in 1979, “Space Oddity” was David Bowie’s first number 1 hit in the UK and the United States, and became one of the emblematic songs of his career. The main character, Major Tom, was revisited several times over the years, most notably in “Ashes to Ashes” on Scary Monsters.

There are three versions of “Space Oddity,” with Rick Wakeman of Yes playing mellotron on the most well-known Mercury Records version used in the above video. (That’s also Wakeman playing all the keyboards on Hunky Dory the following year.)

The song opens on a serious note with a drum beating out a military tattoo, and the Mellotron is used to good effect to transition the listener to outer space, kind of in the same way everything turned to color when Dorothy arrived on Oz. At the end, we hear a loud cacophony of the mellotron mixed with the stylophone, a weird little circuit board “instrument” that Bowie enjoyed pulling out at appropriate moments. I saw him do a solo on one when he was in LA for his final tour in 2004.The video shows the sound board when Ground Control is referenced, perhaps a hint that Major Tom was a musician freeing himself from overly controlling studio demands? Just kidding; it’s about drugs.

To hear what a difference a good producer and mellotron player can make, check out the 1969 original. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it just doesn’t lift off like the familiar one does. Note the use of the wind instrument, ocarina, which is replaced by mellotron on the later version.

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