Bowie’s second LP was a quantum leap from his first, although perhaps not the best introduction to the uninitiated. At times his voice is still unsure of itself, the songwriting, with the exception of “Space Oddity”, occasionally uncomfortable, awkward even, as if Bowie couldn’t quite decide as to which genre suited him best. However there are glimpses to be had of his later Seventies output, such as “Cygnet Committee”, with its stream of consciousness lyrics essaying youth culture over a musical arrangement straight out of the newly emerging progressive rock movement. On the country-rock tinged “Janine”, he provides a strong clue as to his glorious future, with lines such as “But if you took an axe to me/You’d kill another man, not me at all”, which is an extremely thespian thing to say, and revealing in more ways than one. Because Bowie’s ability to detach his true self from his spectators would soon become an all important advent in the years ahead.
The Yardbirds inspired “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” could be an early rehearsal for the Spiders, with its crunchy guitars and Burroughs inspired cut and paste imagery. “Letter to Hermione” is a sweet atmospheric ode to his first love, as is “An Occasional Dream”, with Bowie reflecting all dreamy eyed on his relationship with Hermione Farthingale, who was a part of his mime troop for a time. He reveals his gift for social observation on the wondrously poetic “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (even if the orchestration gets in the way), while the all acoustic “God Knows I’m Good” is what Bob Dylan might have sounded like if he had of been born in England.
“Memory of a Free Festival” is obviously Bowie’s attempt at writing a popular anthem for the counter-culture, including moments of ‘mind-bending’ studio effects and a chorus right out of the Lennon/McCartney catalogue, a la “Hey Jude”, “All You Need Is Love” etc.
But it’s the album’s opening track, “Space Oddity”, which most people remember, a tune producer Tony Visconti purportedly wanted nothing to do with, interpreting it as David’s way of cashing in on the recent Apollo Moon landing (a decision he would later regret), resulting in the session being produced by Gus Dudgeon instead. Concerned with an astronaut by the name of Major Tom, the song is an eccentric mini-epic, and a subtle metaphor for drug-taking (the countdown sequence describes the initial injection of heroin before final “lift off”). The song was Bowie’s first commercial breakthrough, reaching number 5 in the UK, however such success was short lived, and following a brief solo tour, he retreated once more into relative obscurity, gathering his thoughts, while planning his next venture.
What he really needed was a concept, or reinvention if you like, and thanks to his friend Marc Bolan (one of glam-rock’s earliest pioneers), he found one. Combining rock ‘n’ roll with costume, Bowie had at last discovered his niche, adopting a stage persona as a way of shielding himself from his audience, a sort of Olivier of popular music if you like. Thus the seeds of Ziggy Stardust were sown, and the rest, as they say, is history.