Monday, July 31, 2017


A new feature here, in which I take two related songs and put them head to head. Please let me know if you have any ideas for song pairs for future Smackdowns!

"Space Oddity" / David Bowie
"Rocket Man" / Elton John

Well, I'll grant you, this could be an unfair contest. As you, my faithful readers, probably already know, I'm a longtime Bowie fan, and this was the song that started me on that road.

Whereas, in the entire 10 years and 1000+ posts of this blog, I have never yet written about Elton John.

But this is not a foregone conclusion, I promise you. I don't NOT like Elton John; I own an album or two of his, and I find that I know vast swaths of the lyrics to his songs. I acknowledge his enormous talent. And once I began thinking of "Rocket Man," I've found that it has an incredible earworm power. Once I start thinking about "Rocket Man," I cannot remember how "Space Oddity" goes.

So bring on the Smackdown. Let's start with the statistics. "Space Oddity" came first, released in July 1969, cleverly (or cynically) coinciding with the Apollo 11 moonwalk launch; it anchored Bowie's second album, David Bowie (which in the US was soon retitled Space Oddity, for obvious cashing-in reasons). "Rocket Man" popped up 3 years later, in April 1972, and was the major hit off Elton's 4th studio album, Honky Chateau. "Rocket Man" hit #2 on the UK charts and #15 on the US Billboard rankings, whereas "Space Oddity" reached #1 on the UK charts and #6 in the US, but only when it was re-released in 1975. So did "Space Oddity" tee up the public for "Rocket Man," or vice versa?

Now let's go to the videotape:

Daffy, isn't it?

Now here's Elton's production. Or rather, here's a lovely video that was created years later, inspired by Elton's song. Hopefully this levels the playing field a bit.

A point of order here: When we talk about "Rocket Man," let's distinguish between the music, which is Elton all the way, and the lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. My private theory is that Bernie Taupin's genius accounts for at least 60% of Elton John's success. And the poignancy of this song is mostly lyrics-driven. In "Space Oddity," Bowie doesn't mention his wife until the third verse ("Tell my wife I love her very much"), and even then Ground Control cuts him off precipitately ("She knows!"). But Taupin leads off with the wife, the job, the routine nature of astronauting: "She packed my bags last night, pre-flight / Zero hour, nine a.m. / And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then / I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife / It's lonely out in space / On such a timeless flight."
He later mentions wistfully "Mars ain't no place to raise your kids . . . In fact it's cold as hell," and, while he's "burning up my fuse up here alone" (a masturbation reference?), his main concern is that he's not worthy of the hero title ("I'm not the man they think I am at home"). I hear here shades of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which is way more about the isolation of fame than it is about The Wizard of Oz. Taupin admits he was influenced by the Bowie song (how could he not have been?), but also by a Ray Bradbury story ("The Rocket Man," in the collection Illustrated Man) and by the experience of watching a shooting star. 
For his part, Elton translates this into a song packed with octave-jump vocals and melodic lines that swoop up and down in parabolas of flight. Yes, his verses stick to Bowie's example, all minor keys and monotones and chromatics, but the choruses soar, with earworm hooks galore. 
Bowie, however, hangs onto the creepy, ominous tone for most of his song. Singing as Ground Control, he reaches into his dark low end of his range; he doubles his own vocals, and lays over a chillingly whispered countdown. His Major Tom is more sci-fi ("Take your protein pills and put your helmet on"), even if he's a product of media hype -- "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear". (Echoes of the Stones' "Satisfaction" -- "but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke / The same cigarettes as me".)  Bowie said he wrote this song to test out a new studio toy, the Stylophone keyboard (those spacenik synths in the background); the title puns on the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a little jab at the U.K.'s nonexistent space program. So far, it's an arty, satirical song, hardly the star-maker Bowie needed at this point in his career.  
But then he becomes Major Tom -- he leaves the capsule and everything goes haywire. He's "floating in a most peculiar way" -- I dig his singsongy delivery there -- he's helplessly "sitting in a tin can,"  and his circuit goes dead. (Oh, and I forgot to mention -- there's a line of thought that Bowie's song was about taking heroin.) Now the melody turns lyrical, switching to major key, and Bowie's lovely upper tenor sings wistfully about how "the stars look very different today." The magic of space travel (or, if you prefer, drug use) breaks through the glass.
And now there's dramatic tension. Ground Control is in panic mode, urgently repeating "Can you hear me Major Tom?" while the good major ruefully notes that "Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do...." It's terrifying, it's existential, and yet it's strangely liberating. What was that poster tagline from the movie Alien? "In space, no one can hear you scream..."  
I vote for Bowie. But I'd love to hear from you. Which of these songs takes the prize in your opinion? 


jerry said...

clash- Lost in the Supermarket, Springsteen- Queen of the Supermarket.
Dylan- Black Diamond Bay, GP-Impenetrable

NickS said...

Very cool idea, and surprisingly tough to think of good song pairings. For example I spent much of the day trying to think of a good song to pair with "4th of July" but here are a couple of thoughts:

LA Plays Itself
"4th of July" -- Dave Alvin (or X)
"Empty-Hearted Town" -- Warren Zevon

Obsessed With The Movies
"I'm In Love With A German Film Star" -- The Passions
"The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" -- Spoon

Cheeky Religious(?) Songs
"Jesus The Missing Years" -- John Prine
"Jesus Was Way Cool" -- King Missile

Cool, or lack thereof
"Through Being Cool" -- Devo
"King And Queen Of America" -- Eurythmics
(this might only make sense to me; but I've always heard those as two sides of the same coin. Having said that, I just watched the video for "King And Queen Of America" and was surprised at how much it looks like a Devo video -- it definitely supports my feeling that the song is more than slightly tongue in cheek )

Tales Of Brave Ulysses
"Home At Last" -- Steely Dan
"Calypso" -- Suzanne Vega
(I had originally thought about pairing the Steely Dan song with the Cream song but I think they're just too different tonally. The Suzanne Vega is also definitely a contrast but perhaps a more interesting one).

Phil Bentley said...

'Waterloo Sunset' The Kinks
'Watch the Moon Come Down' GP & the Rumour

One definitely about London, the other possibly.

Holly A Hughes said...

Great ideas all! Let me go put on my headpohones....