Space Oddity

Originally Performed ByDavid Bowie
Original AlbumDavid Bowie (1969)
Phish Debut2016-06-24
Last Played2022-07-19
Current Gap71
HistorianDavid Steinberg (zzyzx)
Last Update2016-08-28


David Bowie’s second album—released variously under titles of David Bowie, Man of Words/Man of Music, and finally Space Oddity, after the song became Bowie’s first US hit—is written from the perspective of someone unsure of his sanity. “Cygnet Committee” starts out as a love song and ends up as an outer space dystopia where “love machines” land on distant planets and indiscriminately murder people. “Memory of a Free Festival” is about a festival that Bowie threw, but ends up having Venusians landing a spaceship on the field so they can hang out too. It reaches the point in “Janine” where he sings, “You’d like to know me well / But I have things inside my head that even I can’t face.”

David Bowie, “Space Oddity”

In “Space Oddity,” the fascination with outer space isn’t disguised. The song is about an astronaut having a flight that was destined to make him rich and popular, only for an unspecified disaster to strike during a spacewalk. Was it just a radio problem, or did his cord to his spacesuit get severed, leaving him floating aimlessly in space? Bowie was more about the questions than answers. The mystery was enough to inspire other songs, both by Bowie and Peter SchillingMajor Tom (Coming Home).”

One last quirk for this song: due to a problem with some speaker wire, I once accidentally listened to this track with only the left speaker enabled. A lot of the music is only in one channel. Listening to it that way exposes some interesting harmony vocals; it’s another way how David Bowie managed to turn normalcy into weirdness.

Phish, “Space Oddity” — 7/19/16, San Francisco, CA. Video by LazyLightning55a.

When covering a Bowie song from this era, perhaps it’s best to do it in a way that warps what we would expect, both in terms of timing and performance. Rather than perform this at the Mexico shows right after Bowie’s January 2016 death, they waited nearly six months to pay tribute. The 6/24/16 Wrigley Field encore saw them walk out to a cappella microphones, but instead of the expected “Grind,” they started singing a melody line. The crowd was confused until Trey sang, “Ground control to Major Tom.” The crowd reaction must have made passersby think the Cubs just hit a walk off homerun.

Phish’s arrangement of the song was barbershop quartet style. Trey took the lead for the ‘Ground Control’ lyrics as the rest of the band either scat sang the instrumental parts or harmonized. Fish took the lead for ‘Major Tom’s’ lines. Between keeping the claps from the David Bowie arrangement and singing the jam (akin to their barbershop performances of “Free Bird”), this was a fairly complex arrangement.
With that amount of work, it makes sense that this wasn’t a one-time oddity, as the song was featured throughout Phish’s summer ‘16 tour, including on 8/26/16 at the Lockin’ Festival.

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